Is a bad economy taking a bite out of restaurants?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ben Hillyer | The Natchez Democrat — Waitress Mandy Stearns, below, serves Barbara Williams and LaMonica Williams lunch at Roux 61 Friday.

NATCHEZ — The restaurant business in this town is like a pie, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said, and every restaurateur needs a big enough slice to keep the ovens hot.

While Natchez is a town of less than 16,000, Russ said the local restaurants, health care and retail shops serve outlying counties and parishes across the river, so it’s difficult to pin down an exact number of patrons that make up the service market.

And add to that the tourism off and on seasons, and it can be even more unpredictable, Russ said.

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It’s great for locals to have such a tasty variety of choices, business owners said, but the competition can cause restaurant owners to fall victim to the statistics.

“Restaurants, quite frankly, have some of the highest failure (rates) of businesses in the country,” Russ said.

“Eight out of 10 that open don’t make it.”

But there’s a trick to the treat that makes it worthwhile. The ones that work well tend to thrive, Russ said.

“It’s a tough business, but the ones that are successful in that business do well in it,” Russ said.

Tough times

Some local restaurant owners said the opening a few months ago of places like Roux 61, which seats 240 and employs 75, have likely put a dent in sales.

But those same owners said the lag is just more of the same they were experiencing since the Great Mississippi River Balloon Race bump — an off-season during a national recession.

Magnolia Grill owner John Parks bought the restaurant in 2008, the first year of the national recession.

When the town is alive with visitors or events that get locals out the house, the restaurant is busy, Parks said. But he said when it’s quiet — it’s slow.

“A lot of (the time) it has become feast or famine,” he said.

Parks said business has been slower lately than it’s been since he’s owned the grill Under-the-Hill.

“That’s true for this month and December, except for right around the holidays,” Parks said.

But Parks said he couldn’t blame the sluggish business only on patrons choosing the new places, like the seafood and steak restaurant on U.S. 61 or the new Under-the-Hill restaurant a few doors down, The Landing.

“It’s not just us (in Natchez),” Parks said. “It’s the economy. Everywhere has really been in the tank in this area.”

Parks said food brokers, food salesmen serving the region, as well as convenience stores, have also noted the decline.