Tasty Optimism 

Restaurant owners hope their uptick in holiday business signals an end to the post-9/11 slump.

The holidays have come and gone, and with them the daily news updates about the strength of our economy. According to ShopperTrak, a national consumer tracking company, sales for Christmas week were up almost 25 percent over 2002, and sales for the season beat last year's by 5 percent. Have East Bay restaurants -- whose December business sustains them through the dead zone of January and February -- experienced the same burst of revenues? Is the post-9/11 restaurant slump finally over?

"Absolutely!" says Kevin Weinberg, co-owner and executive chef of the Walnut Creek Yacht Club. "This is the best holiday season we've ever had. In 2002 we posted sales less than the year before. But this year will be higher than the percentage we were down."

Many restaurants are holding steady -- and that's nothing to complain about. "We're almost even with last year," says Jamie Powell, manager of Rick & Ann's in Berkeley. "Actually, we've put more people through the door -- they've just been spending less money."

"I've heard the term 'cautious optimism' used a lot, but that's how I feel," says Citron manager Takashi Nikaidoh. "From right now, things look fantastic, but that's if we forget October and November. Our Decembers are always great."

The tide, however, seems to have turned only recently -- too late for venerable restaurants such as Scend's in Emeryville, Oaktown Cafe in Oakland, and Cafe Zula in San Leandro, all of which closed this year. "We opened in December 2001, so the timing wasn't great," says Leonard Casaneres, Zula's owner. "We were pretty successful by word of mouth, and Sundays we had a very heavy church crowd. But I needed every day to be a Sunday."

The catering services I spoke to seem to have seen the greatest rebound. Rick & Ann's catering operations have taken off in 2003, according to Powell, and Gloria Atherstone, owner of Glass Onion Catering, reports that her business is double last year's. On the other hand, Atherstone figures the boost in sales is partly because of the loss of competition from a couple of well-established competitors that folded during the bust.

Still, there's the cautious optimism. In a recent poll of its members by the California Restaurant Association, 90 percent of the respondents said they thought business would improve in the next year -- that's up from 43 percent who responded affirmatively in 2001. And companies are back to throwing Christmas parties, albeit less extravagant ones than in the giddy late '90s.

Whether more gifts under the tree -- or more holiday parties -- portend economic stability is certainly up for debate. What gives Citron's Nikaidoh hope for 2004 is that, in December, people were already booking January parties and reservations for Valentine's Day. "We want people to be looking ahead, because that means they have a certain confidence in their present," he says.

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