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November 11, 2008 at 7:46 AM

The state of the biz: chewing the (not so) fat with the “Chef in the Hat”

When word came in that chef Thierry Rautureau was throwing his fedora into the ring this month, offering a $45 four-course “Harvest Menu” at Rover’s, I figured: “See, even Thierry’s doing the discount mambo!” — by offering his version of that November resto-promo “30 for $30.” That popular bi-annual promotion, now underway, includes quite the impressive selection of hot-shot restaurants.

The number of get-those-bodies-in-the-door promotions are growing fast, with everybody (or so it seems) getting into the act. And there’s good reason for it, says Rautureau, who’s seen his share of “gruesome” economic downturns: “You do whatever you have to do to stay in business.”

And so, on Tuesdays through Fridays through month’s end, Rover’s “Harvest Menu” (according to the news release that announced it) will “Satisfy that desire for warming fall-inspired dishes without leaving wallets feeling like they’ve been harvested.” Forty-five bucks buys a trip to Madison Valley for a fabulous Frenchified feast: smoked trout with celery root salad; parsnip soup with collard green and duck confit; Wagyu Beef or fish du jour with vegetables; gateau de pommes for dessert. Add wine pairings, and it’ll cost you an additional $40.

“My goal for next year is, if the economy shows no sign of getting better, to have a $45 menu all the time,” he says. Having offered the promo in the past, “It absolutely brings people in. It’s the same Rover’s food, there’s just less of it.” Choices are attractive to the customer,” says the chef, who several years ago began offering an a la carte menu in addition to his wallet-busting multicourse degustation. “We’re letting people tell us what they want to do.” And whether they “want” to do it or not, customers all over the country are tightening their purse strings, he says, leaving chefs and restaurateurs coming up with cunning ways to get them to loosen those strings.

Consider recent come-on-in come-ons like the “Pay what you can afford!” promotion at Edmonds’ Shell Creek Grill. And the November “Kids eat free!” promo at Austin Cantina (one kid per paying adult, Tuesdays through Thursdays, 5 to 7 p.m.). And the debut of “Monday Night Supper” at that casual fine-foodery Spring Hill in West Seattle, whose rotating, bargain-priced menus begin next Monday with “Spaghetti & Meatball Night” (pasta fazool, $5! ‘pisketti with a giant meatball, $10! spumoni, $3!).

November’s 30 for $30 (formerly 25 for $25) can be a real drag for finer-dining restaurants that aren’t signed up for it, drying-up business for competitors during an already dry month — which accounts for similar promotions at unaffiliated restaurants like Place Pigalle (which would be high on my list for a visit since their special menu features everything I love about the place, right down to the pot de creme). Throughout November, Seattle’s elegant Waterfront Seafood Grill and its Tacoma cousin Sea Grill are giving it up for the costly crustacean with “Lobsterpalooza” — offering everything from a New England-styled lobster roll ($15) to a lobster BLT ($18), to the fussier butter-poached lobster with mascarpone risotto and black truffles ($32).

“What I’m hearing in the industry, in the rest of the country, is not very funny,” says Rautureau, who — as anyone who knows him knows — is always good for a laugh. “There’s definitely fear in the eys of many. It’s taking its toll on the restaurants. Some feel like they can ride the wave, but I think the biggest fear and the biggest problems are for the young restaurants, the new restaurants. They’re panicking because they haven’t had a chance to settle down and look at the bottom of their business.” One minute things are going gangbusters and then, “suddenly, you’re not busy anymore.”

Rautureau knows that scenario all too well. He’s seen the cycle of feast and famine at Rover’s and got a taste of it very early. “We opened in August 1987 — and had a stock market crash in October. That was `Welcome to the business!’ for me. There were nights when no one — no one! — walked in the door. Those are some long scary nights. Then there was 1990: three years later, when we had the high-tech crash. And of course, that time between 2002 and 2004. After 2001 we lost something like 30 percent of our volume.” But go figure, says Rautureau, “Last year was our best year in over 20 years in business.” Proving what? I asked him. “That there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

That light, he says, is kept burning by working hard at promoting yourself and your business. By drawing customers in when there may otherwise be none. By doing whatever it takes to get them in the door, keep your staff employed and getting through the down times alive. “It’s hard to keep everybody happy when your restaurant is only half-full” — or worse — he says. “But you’ve got to keep the spirit up. Otherwise, you’re going to drown.”

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