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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 21, 2011 11 years ago

'Frugal Fatigue'

The beleaguered restaurant industry is fighting its way back. It recently landed a few punches.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Boom times to Ray Arpke means his restaurant, especially the second floor bar-dessert area, is so packed he must walk around the outside to get from one end to the other.

That's how things were in the early 1990s at Euphemia Haye, the prominent eatery Arpke has owned with his wife, D'Arcy Arpke, since 1980. Those were the restaurant's heydays, says Ray Arpke.

The recession, however, hit Euphemia Haye hard, much like it did the entire high-end restaurant community in the Sarasota-Bradenton area. Several well-known spots closed, while others changed themes and menus.

But Ray Arpke, for a few nights in early December, found himself in a time machine: Euphemia Haye was so busy he again used a back stairwell to get around the building. That, coupled with a 7% increase in sales in October and November over 2009, has the Arpkes hoping the worst of the recession could be over.

More proof: Customers are buying expensive drinks again, says Ray Arpke, like Dom Perignon and Opus wine.

“People seem to be back to spending money,” says D'Arcy Arpke, who considers the recent uptick frugal fatigue. “People are maybe beginning to enjoy life again.”

Arpke could be onto something, at least in the Greater Sarasota area.

In fact, a trio of restaurants recently opened in high-traffic locations that were previously run by other owners under other concepts.

The restaurants include: Square 1 Burgers & Bar, across the street from Sarasota Memorial Hospital; Legacy Sarasota Grille, which took over space on U.S. 41, near a bridge to Siesta Key; and The Loft Ristobar, which is off Fruitville Road, just west of Interstate 75. Sarasota homebuilder Steve Rinehart owns the Loft, which seats up to 400 on three levels.

Managers and owners of those restaurants could look to the Arpkes for a how-to guide on restaurant survival strategy. First, Euphemia Haye, with 54 employees, treats every season like the restaurant is brand new.

For D'Arcy Arpke, who handles the business side of the restaurant, that means balancing the line between saving and spending. For the 2010-2011 season, Arpke leaned toward the latter. The restaurant spent nearly $100,000 on infrastructure projects, for example, including a $30,000 refrigerator and a renovation of the front of the building. Arpke also increased the advertising budget.

Says Arpke: “We go into every season like it's our first.”

The Arpkes, restaurant lifers who met in the 1970s when they both worked at The Colony, a landmark Longboat Key resort that recently closed, persevered with Euphemia Haye through several economic downturns.

The couple bought the restaurant from former owner Les Buntin, who named it after his grandmother. Ray Arpke cashed in some life insurance, the couple dipped into their $6,000 savings account and they financed the rest of the deal through a bank loan.

“The shifts got a little longer,” Ray Arpke says of owning his own place, “but at least I was working for myself.”

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