COLUMBIA — College kids skimping on date nights, families forgoing their weekly outing to a favorite restaurant and fewer customers snagging bites-to-eat after school or before work - they're scary thoughts for restaurant owners.
Not scary enough though to deter three new restaurants from planning openings downtown. The new businesses are banking on the hope that people will continue to dine out even after putting $50 worth of gas in their cars.
The Rome, 114 S. Ninth St.: A family-style Italian restaurant with “a unique perspective on Italian.” Opened July 26.
Room 38, 38 N. Eighth St.: An upscale lounge offering tapas — small appetizers — desserts and cocktails. The restaurant will become a cocktail lounge with a contemporary feel after 9 p.m. Soft opening Thursday through Saturday. The event is RSVP only.
Bleu Restaurant, 29 S. Eighth St.: Restaurant and wine bar that will be open for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch. Will feature small plates and entrees and 19 wines on tap. Will open in late August.
Nationwide, restaurants are feeling the pinch. The National Restaurant Association announced in a July 31 news release that the Restaurant Performance Index weakened in June. The index is "a monthly composite index that tracks the health of and outlook for the U.S. restaurant industry." The index for June was 98.3, down 0.3 percent from the month before. Restaurant Performance Index values above 100 demonstrate a period of expansion while values below 100 show a time of contraction.
Meanwhile, Metromedia Restaurant Group, the parent company of Bennigan's, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy on July 29, effectively shutting down all of its company-owned restaurants. Columbia's Bennigan's, located at 3301 Lemone Industrial Blvd., wasn't affected because it's a franchise.
Carrie Gartner, director of the Columbia Special Business District, said downtown could use more restaurants. The district offers help to entrepreneurs in writing a marketing and business plan and looking into trends downtown. What they find might help boost restaurateurs' confidence in the decision to open in the District.
"We're really underserved in the downtown area, which means we have more people wanting to go out to eat than places to eat," Gartner said.
She said there's not a lot of fine dining downtown, but that's not the only thing people are looking for either.
"The trick is finding that niche," Gartner said. "People still want to spend money. The hard part is finding out what they want to spend it on."
The wave of new restaurants is normal for this time of year.
"For a restaurant, this is the time to get all the finishing touches done, and the wait staff trained before fall," Gartner said.
For 10 years, Cory Hodapp and Dan Kolace, co-owners of a new family-style Italian eatery on Ninth Street, dreamed about opening a restaurant. They worried about ending up in a strip mall until the building next to Booches - site of the old Columbia Billiards - became available in August 2007.
"The property opened, and it was exactly what we wanted," Hodapp said.
Hodapp acknowledges the challenge the economy poses. But he said he and Kolace are confident they've structured the menu to allow customers to spend as little as $6 or as much as $20.
"The economy makes you nervous," Hodapp said. "The typical family might not be eating out as much with food and gas prices, but a family of four could come eat here for a reasonable price."
The location can make or break a restaurant, which is why Hodapp and Kolace snagged the Ninth Street space quickly.
Hodapp said it's the perfect spot for being visible to people walking to and from MU.
Hodapp said the former owner of the property, Phil Spudich, was supportive of The Rome as the next business in the space where Columbia Billiards had reigned since 1973.
"He looked into us a bit and did his research," Hodapp said. "He was excited about what we were doing and believed in it."
Hodapp said Spudich gave the new owners a couple words of advice: to keep everything homemade, to put the time in and to not get discouraged.
The owners listened to Spudich, but they have plenty of experience between them. The Rome on Ninth Street actually has a mother restaurant in Boston, originally opened by Kolace's parents and run by Kolace and his four brothers. Hodapp moved to Boston for a year and a half to get training in the food side of the business.
Back in Columbia, the men can lean on the mother restaurant when they have problems.
"We probably call them two to three times a day asking questions and getting advice," Hodapp said.
The owners said they are banking on hard work and long hours to reduce costs and make the restaurant a success. Since opening Aug. 2, Hodapp and his dad have often been in the back, busily cooking and making sure the cooks are trained properly.
With plenty of experience and advice from family, Hodapp said they are excited about the "wise investment" they've made downtown.
"The college is growing; the town is growing," Hodapp said. "It's going to get better every year."
Billy Giordano, Jeremy Bowles and Shan Rich, owners of Room 38, aren't restaurant rookies. That may explain their optimism about the tapas restaurant they're opening on Eighth and Walnut streets where Otto's used to be.
Giordano said he helped to open Forge and Vine on Seventh Street and learned everything he needed to know to open his own restaurant.
"I learned how to run an efficient restaurant," Giordano said, "what does and doesn't work as far as staff, specials, how to learn from mistakes. Hopefully, we can avoid those mistakes here."
Mistakes in the restaurant business can begin with money, but the partners have done research there, too.
"It was not an easy task as far as funding," Giordano said. "The economy is rough."
The owners said they looked around and talked to a variety of banks in February when they started planning the restaurant. With equal contributions from the three partners, funding from private investors and capital from Rich's Enrich Construction and Remodeling company, the owners came up with the necessary money to survive through construction and while they build a customer base.
"Hearing of other restaurants and bars closing is intimidating, but we have the right concept and the right people," Giordano said.
Giordano said he hopes the tapas concept and the owners' motivation will help to make it a favorite of Columbia residents. The partners were careful to look into what might make a successful restaurant in Columbia before beginning the project.
"We did research as far as trends," Giordano said. "We have found something new and different to bring to Columbia."
The space also saved the owners time and money; it just needed fixing up to match the theme.
Like the owners of The Rome, the three men are doing much of the initial work themselves, often working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to keep costs down. But they aren't complaining.
When the work is done, "it's going to be something you haven't seen around town," Giordano said.
Room 38 will open its doors later this month.
Talk of a weakened economy doesn't frighten Tina Patel, co-owner of Bleu, opening next to The Tiger Hotel in late August.
"Our concept is exciting and new for Columbia," said Patel of the restaurant and wine bar.
The entrepreneur said she has been working in restaurants since she was in high school and has wanted to open one of her own since she was in college.
Co-owner Travis Tucker has also worked in the hospitality industry for more than 10 years.
"We have worked in a lot of great places and have gained lots of knowledge that will help us make Bleu the best it can be," Patel said.
Patel hopes that the location, as well as the atmosphere, will be a draw for customers.
Leased from The Tiger Hotel, the space was originally a grocery store. It has since been a bar, an Internet company, flower shop and craft gallery.
"We're located in the heart of the District. We are very excited about our location," Patel said.
Despite the possibility of people cutting back on their nights out, Patel said she feels confident that Columbians still need a social outlet. But prices are being set to include all market segments.
"People could come in for snacks and a drink, or order a full dinner and spend a couple hours here," Patel said. "We want to be an everyday place, not just a special occasion place."
Patel and Tucker say the Bleu Market, a sandwich and soup cafe next door, has been doing well since it opened in March.
"We are thrilled at the response to it and hope that will carry over to the restaurant."
Patel's optimism does not stop with her own business.
"We're excited for the other restaurants opening up as well," Patel said. "All the new businesses will help to revitalize downtown."
Missourian reporter Daniel Shar contributed to this report.