Spending cuts, competition, changes in taste affect fine-dining restaurants

Spending cuts, competition, changes in taste affect fine-dining restaurants

URBANA — Fine-dining restaurants are finding it more difficult to succeed as competition increases, tastes change and clients cut back on spending, observers of the local restaurant scene say.

Kennedy's at Stone Creek closed last month after 21 years in business, 10 of them in Urbana's Stone Creek subdivision. Jim Gould closed just before Christmas after six years at Neil and Main streets in downtown Champaign.

Peter Tomaras, a consultant to hotels and restaurants, said high-end retail held up fairly well nationally during the recession, but it was a tougher slog locally.

"This community has a limited market for the highest-end retail, whether it's food or something else," he said. "It's always been a challenge."

Kennedy's owner Luke Kennedy — a restaurant chef and manager for 35 years — said his business got hit hard in 2008 when major clients such as the University of Illinois and Carle cut back on entertaining.

Tomaras said Kennedy had a tough balancing act, operating a fine-dining establishment as well as hosting corporate events.

"Certainly with Kennedy's, they had a lot of corporate parties over the years, and when several businesses no longer did their 'no-limits' Christmas parties, that was tough," Tomaras said.

Fine dining requires that personal attention be given to every plate that goes out, Tomaras said, and when a restaurant becomes diversified and has to cater to a clubhouse, as Kennedy's did, "that can be very distracting to the primary mission of fine dining."

"It's a lot to handle," Tomaras said.

Allen Strong, who operates Silvercreek and the Courier Cafe in Urbana, said fine-dining establishments have been tested by the recession, but so have mid-market restaurants.

He noted that both Cheddars and Chevy's Fresh-Mex bowed out of the local market last year.

Strong said "the curse of Silvercreek is that people thought we were fancier and finer-dining than we wanted it to be."

"We never considered ourselves fine dining," he said, adding that he simply intended Silvercreek as "a nice place where people are comfortable."

But the restaurant came to be a place where people commemorated special moments in their life, he said.

"That's a great compliment, but you've got to put (people) in seats Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday," he said.

Strong said when Silvercreek opened, there was "a triangle of three" special-occasion restaurants — Timpone's, Kennedy's and Silvercreek.

But many others have entered the arena since then, including Cafe Luna, Bacaro and Radio Maria, he said.

"There are a lot more entrants into that genre," he said. "The last 15 years, culinary schools have been churning out grads at an amazing rate."

Plus, TV channels such as Food Network "have raised the culinary IQ of Champaign-Urbana remarkably, not only for higher-quality foods, but also for foods that are healthier, interesting and trendy," he said.

Tomaras said restaurateurs are "facing steadily upward-creeping food prices, and labor doesn't get cheaper."

"There's a lot of competition for the best labor — both back-of-the-house and front-of-the-house — and new minimum-wage laws," he said. "Labor and food are the big costs for people."

Strong said labor is his largest cost and one that's hard to control.

"It's such a difficult business. It's a game of inches," he said.

Utility bills — especially water bills — have shot up, and food costs are constantly creeping up, he said.

"You have to re-evaluate every aspect of the business and find ways to streamline and eliminate waste," he said.

Strong said he had a record December, and this may be his best January yet. "I'm sort of shocked. I don't want to jinx it," he said.

But Strong said his business was affected by the 2008 recession right away.

"One of the things we felt immediately was corporate. There were not nearly as many corporate dinners or functions, but they're starting to come back," he said.

The slashes in spending were particularly noticeable in the pharmaceutical industry, Strong said. Pharmaceutical representatives often hosted dinners and banquets to do product introductions, "but those functions got cut back hugely," he said.

Plus, restaurant owners are having to adjust to changes in taste.

"Our entire culture has gone to a much more casual take on that," Strong said.

"There's much less of the country-club mentality than there used to be. The newer generations are not as interested in that. ... They're not as interested in the experience of feeling like they need to be dressed up."

Tomaras said he thinks fine-dining restaurants were hurt not only by middle-class patrons who had to cut back on special occasions, but also by wealthier customers who simply ate out less often.

Many high-end customers belong to country clubs and have to eat so many meals at the clubs, he said.

"If they cut back (eating out) to two times a week instead of three, the (meal they cut) is not going to be at the country club, it's going to be at a restaurant," he said.


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Lostinspace wrote on February 05, 2012 at 5:02 pm

"This community has a limited market for the highest-end retail, whether it's food or something else," he said. "It's always been a challenge."

There are plenty of people making pretty good money; the challenge comes from the fact that they are cheap.  I would love the spend money locally rather than on line, but I understand the merchants who are forced to go low-end to survive.  Very frustrating.

parkmymeterelsewhere wrote on February 05, 2012 at 6:02 pm

The contents of this article completely misses the reality of the entire local  climate.

CULater wrote on February 05, 2012 at 7:02 pm

The fact is at home we can make better tasting food for less. Final answer. 

Reykjavik wrote on February 05, 2012 at 10:02 pm

To me, Jim Goulds felt like a fancy chain restaurant.  

As another person noted, Lamplighter/Kennedys was magical, if incongruous, when it was in the mall - you felt like it was mafia-run and the food was wonderful.  On the golf resort, the magic was lost for me and the food seemed more routine.

Silver Creek, Timpones, Luna, Radio Maria, Bacaro's, Ko-Fusion are unusual places where the presence and influence of the owner/manager is tangible - look at the woodwork in Silver Creek, the eclectic menus of Radio Maria, the Swiss-influence at Luna's brunch, Ray stalking around Timpone's, the dragon lady at Ko-Fusion, the weirdness of Bacaro. These are distinctly nonchain-like experiences.  No TV's. They are often located resurrected buildings that exude craftsmanship and/or devotion to the community. 

Our new gem is Black Dog.  The question is whether they can resist the temptation to expand, which will lead to decline in character.


kiel wrote on February 06, 2012 at 6:02 am

That's true! (In response to the comment that we can make better food at home for less $. Stupid comment interface...)

kiel wrote on February 06, 2012 at 7:02 am

"'One of the things we felt immediately was corporate. There were not nearly as many corporate dinners or functions, but they're starting to come back,' he said."

This is a critical observation. As funding for the U was slashed, hiring stopped and speakers stopped being invited -- and dinners out with these people stopped. This is an example of "trickle-down economics," which has been shown again and again to have negative effects, rather than positive effects, on communities. 


ddf1972 wrote on February 06, 2012 at 9:02 am

There are plenty of folks, locals and visitors alike, who will spend money on inventive cuisine that is well done at an appropriate price point (not just cheap).  The CU market has far more dining choices, both chain and non-chain, than it did 20 years ago, and some closures are inevitable.  My biggest peeve is lack of good service, perhaps due to the transient nature of much of the waitstaff in town.

I personally think Kennedy's offered a less than compelling product, though it sounds like there may have been other issues at work as well.

CUFood wrote on February 06, 2012 at 3:02 pm

I agree..it is hard to run a fine dining restaurant in this community.

As pointed out we do have a variety of good restaurants in town.

There are new ones coming to town too...for example

Aroma Curry House a great low key Indian restaurant in SouthWest Champaign just opened up....The

food is great for value prices. Jim Gould is going to be replaced by

another restaurant too. Few good ones also opened up in Downtown area.

We all have to support these businesses otherwise we will be left

with eating feed corn as a out of home option!!

texasdoug wrote on February 06, 2012 at 4:02 pm

There has never been anything "high end" in retail or restaurants in Champaign-Urbana.  People are too WalMart oriented.  You have to move to a big city with a good economy for "high end".

sluskiier wrote on March 29, 2012 at 1:03 pm

Bacaro isn't high end?  Cafe Luna?

Even places like Destihl, Radio Maria, and Ko-Fusion aren't considered "fine dining," but they're a far, far stretch from catering to the Walmart types.  These places rival restaurants you'll find in a big city, hands down.