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Despite Economy, Consumers Still Find Means to Dine Out

Despite Economy, Consumers Still Find Means to Dine Out

Andy Smith | The Providence Journal, R.I.

PROVIDENCE – Mediterraneo restaurant on Atwells Avenue was full, with a large private party upstairs. Not far away, Siena Restaurant was also bustling on a raw and rainy Thursday night. Pane e Vino also did well. Looking to this weekend, Federal Hill restaurant owners say they’ll be jammed, thanks not only to local customers but to Brown University’s parents weekend. “My own mother couldn’t get in here Saturday night,” said Mediterraneo owner Gianfranco Marrocco.

Around Rhode Island, it’s not uncommon to find busy restaurants. Sometimes, there are even waits for tables.

Yet the employment picture in the state remains grim, with the jobless rate for September at 13 percent and 74,000 people looking for work. “I look at the front page of the newspaper, and then I look at our reservations for Friday and Saturday, and I can see the irony,” said Tom Wright, co-owner of Eleven Forty Nine restaurants in Warwick and Seekonk, and a former dean at Johnson & Wales University.

Restaurant industry economists and area restaurant owners offered several explanations for the apparent disparity of busy restaurants and historically high unemployment. In any economy, they said, some people will continue to do well and have no reason to alter their lifestyles.

There’s also been a sea change in the culture over the past several decades toward more use of restaurants, including take-out places. “Restaurant use among Americans has become entwined in the daily fabric of American life, and Americans are very reluctant to give that up,” said B. Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for the National Restaurant Association.

Restaurant insiders said that while many people are forgoing big-ticket items – the trips to Disneyworld or Las Vegas – they are still looking for a little escapism, and a nice meal is a relatively inexpensive way to get it. “It’s not just about feeding people, it’s about entertainment,” said Providence restaurateur John Elkhay.

Elkhay also pointed to “pent-up demand.” People have been hearing bad news for months, he said, and there’s still bad news when it comes to jobs. On the other hand, the Dow cracked 10,000 on Wednesday, and most 401(k)s are looking healthier. “Even a little bit of good news, people want to celebrate,” he said.

Finally, many restaurant owners are adjusting to the economy by offering bargains for cash-conscious consumers. “Everybody’s looking for value,” said Mediterraneo’s Marrocco, who said his lunch and dinner specials have been big hits with customers.

Economic data from Rhode Island supports the idea that people are continuing to eat out. Revenue collected by the state from meal taxes was up 2.4 percent through July, the latest figures available. In 2008, meal tax revenue fell 1 percent for the same period.