New Year's celebrations are marked by hearty helpings of hugs, kisses, mirth and merriment. Such celebratory staples help us close the book on the trials and negative aspects of the year gone by and muster up anticipation for the New Year. And if those don't work, there's always champagne.
This year, however, not even a whole magnum of bubbly can help local restaurateurs wipe away the haunting memories of the tumultuous economic climate that sullied the second half of 2008.
With business at local restaurants down an average of 20 to 30 percent since summer and the widely-accepted prognosis that those numbers will get far worse before they get better, 2009 figures to be a make-or-break year for many of the region's dining establishments.
"Everyone talks about all these bailouts," said Michael McGeath, the owner of La Jolla's Trattoria Acqua and a veteran of the San Diego chapter of the California Restaurant Association. "They don't realize that the restaurant industry employs about 25 million people nationwide."
Unlike auto manufacturers and ailing financial institutions, there is zero governmental relief in the cards for restaurateurs, leaving them to come up with their own initiatives for surviving the recession.
"Happy hour" promotions that feature smaller portions are one of the most common initiatives eateries throughout our region are choosing to enact.
"Our thoughts are that our guests still want to have a special cocktail or an interesting glass of wine, but might need a break on the cost," said April Johnson of George's Bar, which instituted happy hour pricing earlier this month.
Jim Engquist, the general manager of The Steakhouse at Azul La Jolla, said the half-priced happy hour Patio Menu has been well received and that people have been impressed by the quality of food and value.
That sentiment was echoed by La Jolla resident, Len Barrett.
"Getting food this good at half the price seems almost too good to be true," Barrett said. "Luckily, it isn't. I'll be back."
Statistics show that local diners discovering and latching on to such deals is a popular trend during harsher economic environments.
"We have been offering a happy hour for several years, but have recently further reduced prices because of our current economic situation," said Liz Frye, the General Manager of Zenbu Sushi Bar & Restaurant. "As a result, business has increased 20 to 25 percent during our early business hours."
If dining is theater, happy hours are the Sunday matinee friends and family meet up to gleefully take in en masse. But, as with any production, there's plenty of activity going on behind the scenes that, though invisible to the audience, is crucial to the show's success. Menu adjustments, cost-cutting, smaller portions, shorter operating hours, closing for lunch, reducing staff hours or the number of staff on-hand altogether and many other survival tactics are being employed in the San Diego restaurant community.
"All of us are leaning on our purveyors to try and get the best deals and discounts available," McGeath said. "We are asking (people) to share the misery along with us."