Is a bad economy taking a bite out of restaurants?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 29, 2012

“There’s a lack of people coming in town,” he said.

And if the trend keeps up, Parks is afraid the community will feel the effects.

“Natchez’s small selection is going to keep getting smaller,” he said.

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Local love

Parks said he probably serves 50 percent locals and 50 percent tourists.

And it’s the locals they count on to come back.

“(Locals are) our bread and butter,” Parks said. “We love them.”

Guy Bass, co-owner of Cotton Alley and a number of former successful restaurant endeavors in Natchez, said taking care of the locals has recently become more important than ever.

“It’s a changing business,” he said.

“Back when we had 30,000 people living here and tourism was popping, everything was great,” Bass said.

“But now we have to really, really, really take care of our locals.”

Bass said the Natchez Convention Center seems to be producing more pedestrians willing to stop in his restaurant this year. And those types of patrons and other tourists are an added plus, he said.

Bass said January has been a slow month for his restaurant, as well. But since Cotton Alley is currently undergoing a move to 208 Main St., it’s been hectic. Saturday was the last day the restaurant was open at the South Commerce location, he said.

Fresh meat and seafood

Co-owner of Roux 61, Brian Lees, said business has been good since the restaurant opened two and a half months ago.

But Bass said with any new restaurant, those in the industry usually expect a surge in sales during the “honeymoon period,” in which patrons are eager to check out what the new place has to offer.

Fat Mamas Tamales owner David Gammill said it’s common for new restaurants to get business when they open their doors.

“Everybody’s curious and wants to try it,” he said.

But Lees said that he’s not concerned about business lagging off any time soon.

“I expect it to stay steady,” said Lees, who also owns Sonny’s Pizza with his family.

Gammill said he’s heard other restaurants have been feeling effects of the new places, but the nature of his restaurant prevents Fat Mama’s from taking a hit.

Since Fat Mama’s serves a specific kind of fare — tamales, margaritas and a few other Mexican items — it has escaped the competition, and Gammill said he hasn’t noticed a dip in revenues.

“(Fat Mama’s) is kind of a niche restaurant…there’s not too many tamale or margarita restaurants open,” he said.

City food taxes

City Clerk Donnie Holloway said he couldn’t make any definitive predictions, but he expected food taxes for the city might take a hit from Roux 61, since the restaurant is located just outside the city limits.

However the most recent food tax revenues that were reported for November’s revenues increased by 3.4 percent from $26,489 in November 2011 to $27, 395.

According to food tax revenues reported to the city, the city’s average food tax decreased last year compared to 2010 by 2.9 percent, from an average of $29,152 per month in 2010 to $28,296 in 2011.

The total food tax revenues in 2010 were $349,829, and in 2011, total food tax revenues were $339,546.

Despite the market, all restaurant owners agreed the key to success is hard work, quality food and good service.

Sticking to the basics

Lees said his focus would remain on his restaurant, not the competition.

“I really don’t focus on anything else other than operating my business and making sure I do what I need to do correctly,” he said.

Restaurateurs agreed putting out a good product is paramount to keeping the doors open.

Bass said he and co-owner David Browning have been operating restaurants in Natchez successfully for the past 30 years. And the key to making it work lies in sticking to the basics of the business.

“Good food and service will bring customers,” Bass said. “Take care of your people, give them what they want, and they’ll come back.”

And whether it’s tamales, fried catfish, jambalaya pasta or burgers, Bass said a passion for serving the public is paramount.

“The restaurant business is the hardest business. You have to love to do it, and that’s what we’ve done our whole lives.”