Downtown Wheaton restaurants starving for business
Owners call economic downturn the worst they've seen in decades, but see some hope in advertising program
Filippo Leo says the cost of running his downtown Wheaton restaurant has skyrocketed in recent months, while the number of customers he serves has dropped.
The owner of Marchone's Italian Specialties at 11224 Triangle Lane said business has never been this bad and he's worried.
"I've been through 1980," he said, referring to the recession in the early part of the decade. "This is worse."
Leo said business has dwindled so much that he's not sure he can break even, let alone make a profit.
And he isn't the only area restaurant owner wringing his hands. Wheaton, an area known for its ethnically diverse food, isn't raking in the customers, said Pete McGinnity, the manager of business redevelopment in Wheaton at the Mid-County Regional Services Center.
Some restaurant owners say business has dropped by as much as 30 percent since last year, he said.
"They're all wondering, How long is it going to take, and what's going to happen, and how is it going to change?'" McGinnity said of local Wheaton restaurant owners.
Lilian Contreras, the assistant manager of El Boqueron, at 2311 Price Ave., said business is "very bad."
"We're very scared," she said in Spanish, gesturing toward her mostly empty dining room.
Next door at Ferdinand's, at 11300 Fern St., owner Louis Hangemanole agreed. Two years ago, the lunch rush was busy—a sign of prosperity, she said. But now, his restaurant is the emptiest it's been in a long time.
"People think twice before they start the car," he said.
McGinnity said restaurants are suffering because most people budget their money carefully in tough financial times, and spending money for a meal at a restaurant is usually the first to go.
To bring diners back to the downtown area, people like McGinnity and Emily Adelman of Local First Wheaton are experimenting with new ways to market Wheaton's unique eateries.
Local First Wheaton is an alliance of merchants dedicated to sustaining local business in the area. The alliance and Wheaton's new county Web site, www.wheatonmd.org, which features photos and interactive maps of where to eat in Wheaton, are designed to promote the town from a new, fresh atmosphere, McGinnity said.
For the second year in a row, restaurants will also be advertising at Brookside Garden's annual Garden of Lights show, which attracts 30,000 to 40,000 people a year.
Marketing is even tougher in a recession, because local businesses are less likely to allocate money to advertising, McGinnity said. But he hopes local restaurants can attract more clientele by being more visible in the neighborhood.
Eddie Velasquez said he is taking that exact approach. As he prepares to open his coffee shop, Dejabel Café, at 2519 University Blvd. West, Velasquez said he believes that as long as he can promote his restaurant, he can ride out the storm.
"I don't think that it's going to stay like this forever," he said of the economic downturn. "It's going to be a little tough right away."
Adelman said newer restaurants have a much harder time surviving the economy than more established ones because, "Just at the time when they should be building up, the market is completely slowing down." While Adelman said the challenges facing restaurant owners like Velasquez are "daunting," Velasquez remains optimistic.
"I think that when you're faced with uncertainty, it just makes you a stronger individual," he said.