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Recession Specials help Chicago restaurants beat it

by Ashley Johnson
March 10, 2009


Ashley Johnson/MEDILL 

Restaurants are using special deals to lure cash-strapped customers.

Business is down for both affordable and high-end dining places, so many Chicago restaurants are dishing up “recession specials,” and customers are responding. 

Dominique Harris, 23, who works at PepsiCo, Inc., said she enjoys coming with her coworkers for the Monday burger special offered at Poag Mahone’s after 3 p.m. The restaurant advertises in its window a nine-ounce burger for $2.50 with a minimum purchase of $2. The poster states that the special will last “til the recession is over.”

Harris said she often searches for affordable specials because of the uncertain economic crisis. “With the economy being the way it is, everyone, including myself, is looking for a way to save money while also getting the most for your money.”

Poag Mahone’s, an affordable American restaurant in the Loop, offers customers who purchase the special a 64 percent savings on just the burger. Phil Olson, a Poag Mahone’s manager, said the restaurant has not experienced a huge drop in business. But the special has definitely increased activity. Olson said that on a Monday night without the special Poag Mahone’s usually sold 20 to 25 burgers, but now sells about 144.

Even diners who are used to eating at pricier restaurants like Sushi Samba are taking advantage of “recession specials.” LaToya Laury, visiting from New York, was going to Sushi Samba to order from its “Sunday Funday” brunch:  for $16 a person gets an entrée plus a salad or fries and three brunch cocktails. Like many consumers, she said, the current economic situation has forced her to watch her spending. But she said she hopes more restaurants offer more savings.

“Restaurants should have these specials because it allows people to come out and have a good time even though our situation right now looks bleak,” she said, “After long days and dismal financial reports you want to be able to unwind and enjoy a wonderful meal without having to worry about breaking the bank.”

Sushi Samba in River North offers a recession menu Thursday through Sunday: a three-course meal including a cocktail at $35. Sylvia Jung, a Sushi Samba manager, said that the deal provides a 30 percent to 50 percent discount; an average dinner with drinks is usually $75.

“With the recession we have experienced not as many customers as we expected,” Jung said.

But since the restaurant has promoted its recession deal the pace of business has picked up and there's more stability with their customers, Jung said.

“We have established new relationships with many people who haven’t dined here,” she said.

With the menu deal, Jung said, since most of the entrees are family style, which means the portions are for two to three people, the portions are scaled back. “We made it the appropriate size of a meal per person,” Jung added.

At a smaller scale restaurant, Bella Luna in River North, huge window posters trumpet recession deals, and they’re helping to keep the business going.

Chris Bosco, a Bella Luna manager who’s been in the restaurant business for over 20 years, said business is down substantially.

“Over the year we’ve lost about $7,000 to $8,000. For us it’s a lot because we’re a mom and pop type place.”

Bella Luna offers a recession special of a large 16-inch pizza and two glasses of wine for $14.95, a 50 percent discount. Bosco said this special has been doing pretty well and he's seen customers coming by themselves to eat the special and have some left over for later.

“You’re basically getting the pizza for free,” he said.

A Kenwood resident, Andre Wright, said he was in the area and saw the sign for the pizza special. He said he’s watching his spending lately.

“I figured you can’t go wrong with pizza. It’s a filling dish,” he said, “And having wine with it really makes the special.”

Bosco said the restaurant’s pizza business has gone up because people can feed three to four people with pizza whereas entrees such as veal and chicken are not selling as much, he said

But while the specials may help generate more customers, Bosco said, the economy still is impacting sales.

“Business is not really picking up, but it’s keeping us going,” Bosco said.

The restaurant has also had to scale back on sizes of entrees including some pasta dishes, he said.

A customer at Smith and Wollensky, Jessica Simmons, who works downtown, said she enjoys finding recession specials at high-end restaurants.

“I'm personally trying to watch my spending,” she said, “It's nice to be able to treat yourself to meals from time to time without having to sacrifice quality.”

With business down, Smith and Wollensky is marketing the restaurant’s first customer bailout menu. Dinner here overlooking the Chicago River usually averages $70 to $80 per person, said General Manager Patrick Norton, but for $49.09 a person can now get an appetizer with an entrée such as filet mignon or crabcakes and a dessert. He said it’s a 10 to 15 percent savings.

The bailout menu is selling well, Norton said. “It’s 15 percent of our dinners."

He said the restaurant offered the menu as a way to catch people’s attention since every restaurant is fighting for market share.

“It’s value-added rather than discounted,” he said, “You get more for the same price.” He said it’s a way to catch people’s attention so that they come in and enjoy themselves but still be responsible.