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Eating Takes a Beating 

Hard times have meant closing time for restaurants around the country. Is Cleveland any different?

In cities like New York and Chicago -- where business travel and entertainment account for a generous serving of daily revenue -- restaurants are taking it on the chin. The one-two punch of a generally cooling economy combined with the collective loss of appetite following the events of September 11 have seen foodservice sales lagging well behind annual projections, to the point where a recent survey by the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association predicts this may be the first year in a decade that industry sales have actually stagnated.

But in Cleveland, things could be worse. While local restaurateurs generally blame a lack of free-spending conventioneers for our middling success as a nationwide dining destination, the very fact that most of our dining rooms cater to locals has given us a buffer against the hard times. You gotta eat, after all, so the region's many inexpensive family restaurants seem to be weathering the economic storm, according to Greater Cleveland Restaurant Association President Tony Minelli.

That's not necessarily true of more upscale eateries, though, as last week's closing of OZ in Tremont clearly demonstrates. The year-old bistro was a critical success, but was still struggling to build a devoted clientele when chef-owner Donna Chriszt pulled the plug. She laid the blame for OZ's failure on undercapitalization -- not having enough financial resources in reserve to sustain the restaurant through slow economic times. "Without a strong customer base and sufficient resources, you are pretty much dead in the water," Minelli concurs.

Cleveland caterers and party centers are struggling, too. "Lots of them have been seeing a significant decrease in holiday bookings," Minelli says. "Businesses that might have planned a holiday bash last year are having second thoughts now. They don't want to pay for a party one day and find themselves laying off people on the next."

Of course, the restaurant industry is notably volatile in any economic climate, with a steady stream of comings and goings. And while Minelli says he knows of several would-be entrants into the Cleveland restaurant scene who are rethinking their plans in light of current conditions, he points to Star -- Gary Lucarelli's restaurant on Playhouse Square, which opened October 10 -- as proof that life goes on.

"Across the board, sales are going to be pretty flat [for 2001]," he says. "So much is still unknown about where the economy is headed. But most of our members will just try to hang in there through the holiday season and maintain hope for the future."

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