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Charlotte restaurants getting hit by the recession

The Crepe Cellar, a new restaurant that is currently benefitting from the recession. hspace=4
The Crepe Cellar, a new restaurant that is currently benefitting from the recession. hspace=4

When the recession really began to hit Charlotte late last summer, a lot of people re-examined the way they spend money. Many of us have decided to eat out less, especially at fancy restaurants. Restaurants have reacted by offering all kinds of deals, things like three courses for $30, or half-priced wine on certain nights. And chefs are searching high and low for ways to make good food cheap. But some restaurants have closed, and others are struggling just to hold on. As a professor at Johnson and Wales University, Tricia Childress helps prepare future chefs for a career in the restaurant industry. But these days, their prospects for getting a job in Charlotte are not very good. "Well one restaurateur told me it's a dog eat dog world and he was wearing Milkbone underwear" Childress' ties to local restaurants are also personal. Her husband owns local restaurants, and she's the food critic for Creative Loafing magazine. No one keeps a running total of how many restaurants in the area the economy has sunk, but Childress estimates it to be in the dozens just since last fall. "What's really sad for me," she says, "is that I usually get press releases when they open, but no one calls to tell me when they close. And I'll be driving by and rubbernecking and going the place is closed, it's for lease." By last September, it was clear the national economy was suffering and the slowdown was headed for Charlotte. As the news got worse, people started spending less. Tom Sasser owns five Charlotte restaurants. He says it's the worst business has been since he got started in restaurants 22 years ago. "Restaurateurs who are making a decent living are now just trying to keep their business open." Sasser sits on the patio of his Mimosa Grille, next to the Wachovia Atrium uptown. It's lunchtime and a dressed-up crowd of bankers moves by quickly. More than any other group, the financial crowd has helped strengthen the Charlotte restaurant scene over the last two decades. But Sasser says when the once free-wheeling banks cut back on expense accounts, restaurants felt it right away. "When those folks are told that they cannot buy each other lunch or buy a client lunch, it immediately affects everybody," Sasser says. "And I think we can pinpoint the day they were told that. ( Laughs.) I believe it was in the second week of September. Maybe a Tuesday." But even in the downturn, some are seeing opportunity. A worker sands down wooden table tops at The Crepe Cellar, located in NoDa. Paul Manley just opened the small pub and eatery where a once popular restaurant called Addie's Jamaican Cuisine used to be. Manley says he's doing it on the cheap. "These booths here are from GW Finns when they went out of business downtown," he says. "We went and talked to the owner and bought those from him. This is a really high end stool. It would be a $250 stool. We bought them $50 apiece." Manley says the recession has actually helped him get his restaurant open for about half of what it would have cost a few years ago. Less overhead means a better chance The Crepe Cellar can stay open, if business happens to start slowly. Another silver lining Manley thinks, is an abundant work force. The Crepe Cellar had 200 applicants for just 15 positions. "There's a lot of very good, very qualified, very talented people who are not working right now. It was tough to make the decisions because there's so many good people out there looking for work." But while restaurant owners like Manley try and focus on the positive, Childress - the food critic - can't help but see a lot of negative. "I think this is a new paradigm," she says. "I don't think that we can compare this to anything. Charlotte already, before September 2008, had overbuilt restaurants. There were too many restaurants for not enough people." Childress says there is a necessary weeding out taking place right now. But she feels the economy is also taking down some restaurants that give Charlotte its own flavor.