Nobody wants to admit it, but the Houston restaurant business is showing signs of a downturn. The real question is how long will it last, and what are chefs and owners going to do about it. We asked Houston's most celebrated and outspoken chef, Robert Del Grande (Cafe Annie, 1728 Post Oak Boulevard, 713-840-1111), for the real story.
Q. A lot of restaurants have told us that their business is already back to normal since September 11. How are things at Cafe Annie?
A. Pretty crummy. Business was already off about 5 percent when all this happened. For a couple of weeks business was down 50 to 60 percent. It's come back some: Last weekend we did incredible business at Cafe Annie, but that doesn't make up for the Tuesdays and the Wednesdays and all the private parties that canceled. If other restaurants are telling you that the industry is back to 100 percent, they're wrong. We won't be back until the airline industry and the hotel industry are back. There just aren't as many people in town. I'd say things are off by 10 or 20 percent.
Q. Does Cafe Annie do that much tourist business?
A. It's not just out-of-towners. We have private parties where maybe 30 Houstonians are coming out to hear a guest speaker who is supposed to be flying in from somewhere else. When the speaker cancels, everybody cancels. Our catering manager saved one of those by setting up a speaker phone in the middle of the table and having the speaker give his talk over the phone. That made everybody happy because nobody really wanted to cancel the dinner in the first place. But it's amazing what a huge effect business travel has on our entire economy.
Q. Will the holiday season pull us out of the slump?
A. I don't know. I've heard a lot of companies are calling restaurants to cancel their Christmas parties. Things are iffy now. And restaurants don't seem to do well when things are iffy. But I don't think it can go on this way forever. We are already getting tired of being hit over the head by the media with this stuff from the minute we get out of bed every morning: terrorism, recession, anthrax. Things will be back to normal when the media says they're back to normal -- so, you tell me. It's funny: The worst night of the flood, we had people calling and saying we shouldn't close the restaurant because it was no big deal. I've got waiters and chefs stranded all over town. Nobody can get into work. Huge parts of the city are under water. And people are mad because we won't stay open. Allison was a real disaster here, but it didn't faze us like this did. Which is strange when you think about it, because nothing has actually happened in Houston since September 11.
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Q. Have you noticed any change in what people are ordering?
A. No, I haven't seen any real difference. I think the real change is that people are eating more at home. I've heard Sur La Table [a cooking equipment store] sales were way up right after the disaster. I suppose if you are going to be jumpy, you might as well be jumpy at home. But sooner or later the comfort food thing gets real tired.
Q. Do you plan any changes for the menu?
A. No. The real battle in a tough economy is to keep doing what you set out to do. Can you keep up your quality and just break even until things come back around? We did that before, and it worked for us. You keep your reputation that way. The temptation is to cut your bottom line and sacrifice quality. We won't do that. [Laughs] Or maybe we just aren't any good at it.