March 12: Restaurant Report

Richmond, VA (NBC 12) - In these tough economic times, most of us are trying to save every penny we can, and for many, that means eating out less.  That has restaurants feeling the pinch. In tonight's Restaurant Report: Ashley Swann has more on how local eateries are faring, and what they're doing to keep you coming in.

In a region with so many dining options, times are indeed tough for all restaurants, but especially small, independent owners. They're now doing everything they can to survive, and for you, that can mean some great dining deals.

A lifelong veteran of the restaurant business, Al Johnson opened My Restaurant (3511 Courthouse Road) in Chesterfield in July.  It was the realization of a promise he made to himself upon the birth of his first child.

"I wanted to be a great dad and I swore that when my children went to college I was gonna get back into the restaurant business.  I'm very passionate about people and about great food and great service," says Johnson.

But Al could never have foreseen the economic storm that would hit. Nine months in, traffic outside along Hull Street Road remains steady, but his dining room sits almost empty most days.

Al says, "We've lost so much ground that we're curious whether or not we're gonna make it, it's a struggle."

For many local restaurant owners, the struggle is over. These days, it's not uncommon to find dining spots closed, open lights replaced with trespassing warnings & for-sale signs.

Megan Svajda of the Virginia Restaurant Association says it's not just the economy that's hitting restaurants where it hurts.

"You also in bad times have increases in taxes on businesses, you have increases in health mandates, things like the smoking ban. These are things that are going to hurt small businesses, their bottom line," says Svajda.

The bottom line for operators is that to survive they must draw in more business. To do that, many are offering never-before-seen deals.

Just this week, BlackFinn Restaurant & Saloon announced their own "economic stimulus package" featuring a number of drastic weekday discounts.

Fan Favorite "Buddy's" now has a 5-dollar lunch menu, along with cheaper drink prices.

Even Starbucks has started a breakfast value meal.

From dollar-off discounts and coupons, to cheap date nights, the savings are everywhere.  It's  a train our friend Al says he was quick to board.

"We've handed out free lunch cards, free appetizer cards, half-price dinners, Sunday through Thursday," says Al.

But, so far, his best efforts aren't bringing enough customers through the doors. With no idea what the future holds, Al like so many others, is holding tight to his restaurant dreams, hoping that if he keeps cooking, customers will come.

"We just keep hoping for the best, expecting the worst & smile our way through it," says Al.

Now here's a look at tonight's critical list.

Da Vinci (301 W. Brookland Park Boulevard) in Richmond with 4 critical violations, including raw gyro meat stored over ready-to-eat pasta.

Moving on to Henrico, Curry House (4032 Cox Road) with 4 critical. An inspector found raw chicken stored over cooked rice & cleaned onions.

And finally, Ettrick Deli (3608 E. River Road) in Chesterfield with 4 critical violations. Among them, BBQ, chicken & tuna salads held at improper temperatures.

Last but not least, this week's Hall of Fame award goes to: Lu Lu's (21 N. 17th Street) in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom for a perfect inspection January 26th.