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July 11, 2009 at 10:02 AM

Restaurants expect more sizzle than fizzle ahead

On Monday it was Seattle’s Oceanaire Seafood Room. Friday it was Todai, the Japanese buffet in Redmond Town Center.

Two more restaurants abruptly shuttered, joining an ever-growing list of recent closures: Cremant in Madrona, Blue Onion Bistro in Ravenna, Iris Grill in Issaquah, Andre’s Eurasian Bistro in Bellevue, Yarrow Bay Grill in Kirkland.

When will it end?

Soon, predicts Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Restaurant Association, who echoes the optimism he’s hearing from restaurant owners throughout the state.

“Individually, there will always be operators struggling, but collectively the industry’s improving,” Anton said. For the first time since the economy soured, the association’s “shockingly accurate” monthly surveys report that more restaurant owners expect sales to be the same or increase during the coming fiscal quarter.

“I talk to restaurant operators every day, and while they’re everywhere from ‘Chicken Little‘ to ‘All roads are paved with gold,’ the optimism is outweighing the pessimism, and all the data I’ve seen reflects that things are getting better.”

Tell that to Terry Ryan, CEO of the high-priced Minneapolis-based Oceanaire restaurant chain. “In Southern California, Florida, Arizona, Nevada, our industry is getting crushed,” Ryan said Tuesday, after his company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, closing four of its 16 restaurants. In Seattle, 68 employees lost their jobs.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my 40 years in the business,” Ryan said. “Yesterday was the saddest day of my career,” he said of Monday’s closures.

Ryan cites the inability to renegotiate a better lease with the Seattle landlord as the prime reason the restaurant closed. Other factors contributed to its demise as well, he said. “Utilities, wage increases, benefit plans for our employees. It got to be very, very expensive. We were losing 50 grand every time the minimum wage went up.” Sales, he said, “were holding in there. Business was down by about 15 percent [from 2008], and that isn’t bad.”

“It’s a no-brainer that this year is not last year,” said Anton, noting 70 percent of Washington restaurants are reporting lower sales figures now compared with 2008. But he guesses things have bottomed out.

“High-priced restaurants, especially those without outdoor seating, are going to continue to struggle this summer,” Anton said, “but among those with a value price-point, many are actually having a pretty good year.”

Joe Fugere, owner of Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, is one of those operators. He’s opened four restaurants in the past five years. The latest made its debut last month, taking over a Chili’s Mexican restaurant space in Issaquah, and business is booming.

“A lot of my colleagues are frustrated with the economy as they see their guest counts go down,” Fugere said. “Our revenues are down a bit, but … I think we’re turning the corner.” At his pizzerias in Columbia City, Wallingford and Westlake, “we’re seeing some of our regulars coming back and spending a bit more, buying desserts, wine or the extra course they might have cut out two months ago.”

As for the number of restaurants closing shop, “there’s a lot out there,” Fugere admitted. But one man’s loss is another’s opportunity: “I can find three leases tomorrow,” he said.

One of those leases could well be at the now-shuttered Redmond location of Todai, a franchise of an international chain of all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants (a second remains open in Seattle’s Pacific Place). It was open for the last time on Thursday night.

Redmond Town Center sued Todai in January, saying it was nearly $80,000 behind on its rent as of Dec. 31, 2008.

“We have several tenants we’re looking at already,” said Christina Henning, marketing manager for Redmond Town Center. “It’s very likely we’ll be replacing them with another restaurant sometime soon.”

Despite economic hardships on the dining front, the appetite for new restaurants remains insatiable. Adventurous new restaurateurs like Kristina and Craig Bartleson bought the Sand Point Grill in April. And Erin Fettridge served her last meal at Greenwood’s Stumbling Goat Bistro June 26. It’s set to reopen under new ownership at month’s end.

When the much-anticipated Bastille Cafe & Bar made its Ballard debut two weeks ago, patrons stormed the gates. Tongues are wagging in anticipation of Brandon Pettit’s and Molly Wisenberg’s New York-meets-Northwest-accented pizza parlor, Delancey, set to open any minute. And for MistralKitchen — the latest from star-chef William Belickis — a grand experiment in dining set to open in the 28-story West 8 Office Tower downtown this fall.

When Belickis’ 5,000-square-foot restaurant opens, we might see sushi chef Yutaka Saito in one of the open kitchens. The owner of Saito’s had long been hatching plans to blow out of Belltown. And this week, after nearly a decade in business, he did just that.

But the closure of his restaurant is not another casualty of the failing economy. Saito and his wife and business partner, Anita, turned down several offers in the 18 months their restaurant’s been on the market. First-time restaurateur Jeff Pham got the keys this week, chosen, said Anita, “because it’s the only offer that came through that didn’t want to buy Saito’s name.” Pham’s Asian noodle bar and lounge, V-Bar, is expected to open in August.

Like Fugere, who’s always keeping his eyes open for just the right location to place another Tutta Bella, Saito hopes to showcase his considerable skills at another more intimate venue — one likely to bear his name.

By the time he’s ready to take that plunge, chances are good there will be an empty storefront with his name on it.

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