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"Many of our patrons no longer have the disposable income to pay $50 to $100 for a dinner out," Lahl adds. "On one end of the spectrum, customers who used to eat at Applebee's are now eating at McDonald's or Sonic. And the high-end restaurants, in order to keep customers happy, can't raise prices. They might have to reduce portion size or offer less elaborate menus. It's all about adapting."
Adapting has also meant paying closer attention to customer service. "There was much less job turnover in local restaurants in 2011," Lahl says. "Servers are realizing that if they have a good job, they're staying. And restaurant owners realize they need trained, seasoned servers."
For some restaurant owners, putting more emphasis on good customer service has been a lifesaver. "I nearly lost my restaurant 10 times over in 2010," says Beth Barden, who owns Succotash. She knows that Succotash has always had a reputation for hip-looking but occasionally lackadaisical servers. "I had always been someone who believed that you didn't need a lifetime of restaurant experience to work for me. I mean, you have to give people their first job. But that ideology wasn't always the best for me. I realized that I needed the right balance of veteran servers and first-timers to effectively give our customers the attention they needed."
It's true that good service, like good food and the perception of a good value, is a winning idea for restaurants today, but in this market there's yet another issue. "Kansas City is saturated with restaurants right now," Patterson says. "In fact, we have one of the most oversaturated restaurant markets in the country."
"That's true, to a degree," Lahl says. Especially, he points out, "if you think of the number of restaurant choices between Zona Rosa south to 119th Street and Metcalf." He adds: "What's changing is that many diners today aren't traveling as far to go to a restaurant. They're eating in their own neighborhoods."
That theory might be considered a negative for dining destinations that historically have lured patrons from all over the metro. But 2011 was an upbeat year for the Plaza, which added two high-profile chain restaurants, the Florida-based Darden Restaurants' upscale Seasons 52 and Coal Vines Pizza Wine Bar, and two independently operated concepts, Zócalo Mexican Cuisine & Tequileria and the new gastropub Gram & Dun (created by Urban Table and BRGR operator Alan Gaylin).
Does that mini boom bode well for 2012? Lahl says he's cautiously optimistic.
"The economic difficulties of the last few years have really brought the restaurant community closer together," he says. "We're all working together more now than I've ever seen before, sharing ideas and creating solutions for problems. If that trend continues, I think 2012 could be a very good year."
I'm happy to say that 2011 — for me, anyway — was not the year that I found myself substituting Sonic for Applebee's. In fact, I didn't eat at either of those restaurants in the last 12 months. But even I didn't dine out as frequently as I did in 2010 — I was considerably more frugal in my personal dining choices. Perhaps too frugal because I regret not taking one last spin through the Ultra Chocolatta Bar at the Peppercorn Duck Club or having one last slice of Sky-High Pie while watching the city skyline rotate around me at Skies.
Who knew, at the beginning of 2011, that places I had assumed would always be here would soon close forever? That's why my goal for 2012 is to make frequent visits to all of the restaurants that I love and don't want to lose. So please excuse me while I step out for a minute. A hot cinnamon roll and a bowl of cottage fries are waiting for me at Stroud's.