Nieporent and Brennan on Weathering the Storm

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In this week’s magazine, Sharon Pachter and Charles Kiely, owners of the Grocery, discuss the problem of operating a restaurant during a recession: “We’ve started thinking, to what degree do we want to change who we are and what we do? You want to be flexible, but you don’t want to dumb down everything or do the same kind of food that everybody else is doing.” So, to what degree are higher-end restaurateurs changing things up? We’ve already heard from Tom Colicchio and Stephen Starr, but for good measure, we reached out to another pair of titans, Drew Nieporent and Terrance Brennan.

DREW NIEPORENT (Nobu, Tribeca Grill, Corton)

How’s business these days?
We’re still seeing an influx of tourism from Latin American and Asian countries. I’m not turning a blind eye, but things that hurt the restaurant business tend to be the month of January and bad weather, and we’ve just gone through the month of January and pretty severe winter and our numbers are pretty strong.

Are customers behaving differently?
We’re not seeing a pattern where people are trading down. We understand that people are looking for bargains, but we’ve always provided the proper value. Even in the worst of times, people are gravitating toward good movies, good shows, and good restaurants.

Have you done anything to brace yourself in case it gets worse?
We’re taking a posture of “let’s see what happens” versus a proactive stance of “let’s drastically reduce our prices.” We’ve always provided fair prices and value for different pocketbooks.

TERRANCE BRENNAN (Picholine, Artisanal)

How’s business?
We’re feeling it in the early part of the week; we’re still extremely busy on weekends. Artisanal is not that much off — Picholine is feeling it a bit more, due to the price point.

Are diners ordering differently?
There has definitely been a change in our wine sales. At both of our places, the check averages have gone down three to five dollars. We’re selling less of the high-end chef’s tasting menus.

So what are you doing to adapt?
We’re not changing our concept — the food has the same integrity and high-quality ingredients. We’re giving more to the customers. We do more for birthdays now. Artisanal is a special-occasion restaurant, and we’re playing that to the hilt with a lot of customizing. We’ve instituted prix fixes (a $24.09 lunch and $35 dinner) and a grilled-cheese bar as well as a Monday-night comfort menu. We have a Tuesday night half-off beer night. At Picholine, when the economy started getting really bad, we moved our menu d’economie into the dining room. You can have three courses and spend $60, which is a great value.

How have you cut costs?
Every day we’re looking at our controls and becoming sharper businesspeople. Payroll is the No. 1 thing. I used to allow a lot of overtime, and now we’re watching hours daily. Every day I know whether the kitchen is going over budget. I look at costs on a daily basis now as opposed to a weekly basis.