The Kitchen Sink 

East Bay restaurants report only a minor slowdown in sales

From the San Francisco papers, you'd think the sky was falling on restaurants area-wide. But East Bay restaurants report only a minor slowdown in sales. That doesn't mean East Bay restaurateurs aren't feeling the pinch from the economic downturn: Unfortunately, costs keep rising. "Gas and electricity prices are the major change," says Eric Leroi of Oakland's Toutatis. "Especially gas."

Cindy Lalime Krikorian of Lalime's agrees. "Our PG&E bills have doubled. I know they're telling us to cut out our lights and use less power, but we can't not use our gas or refrigerators -- not in this business."

"Energy costs are minor compared to other costs," says Bob Klein of Oliveto. "Workers' comp rates and minimum wages have gone up. A number of our producers are struggling, and we're paying more money for produce. Sales aren't down, but costs are up." All three said that rising costs haven't yet affected menu prices.

Caterers are seeing their business shift along with the slump in the economy. Jane Anderson, general manager of Grace Street Catering in Alameda, says, "Certainly in the past we had a lot of large dot-com start-up parties. It's slowed down -- people seem to be conscientious about throwing larger, flashier events. And weddings are back to their pre-boom levels."

"I've had the slowest summer in years," complained one catering staff person, who asked not to be named. "It's not just me, it's all the caterers I know. People are jumping at jobs."

Part of why catering staffers are scrambling is that suddenly there's plenty of competition for gigs. Anderson says, "Two years ago I couldn't find a new employee. I just posted an ad on a job Web site and have gotten hundreds of responses. People are looking at what we're offering as a salary range, and their eyes are lighting up."

All the restaurateurs I talked to commented on the sudden, and welcome, surplus of staff. "We've always had to scrounge around for staff," says Krikorian. "Now three to five people a day walk in applying for jobs -- not just cooks and waiters but even busers and dishwashers. In twelve years we've never had our pick of people."

Crossley Smith, general manager and co-owner of Grasshopper, concurs. "I'm getting applications from people in San Francisco who are willing to commute. We definitely weren't getting those people [when we opened in December]. I'm getting applications from bartenders-slash-CEOs of dot-coms."

Only last year, restaurants around the bay were raising wages and starting to offer benefits in response to the skyrocketing cost of living and the loss of staff to the Internet revolution. While the news for East Bay diners and their pocketbooks remains good, for restaurant workers the recession may already be here.

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