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Diner: Get In Line

OTR restaurants and bars need our support

By Annie McManis · October 11th, 2001 · Diner
It doesn't take much investigating to discover that business is down for restaurants in Over-the-Rhine. Pick an evening for dinner, and you'll have your choice of tables at most establishments. Six months ago, you needed a reservation or a lot of time. And although none of the restaurants really wants to say it, the thought lingers that these places are still feeling the sting from April's riots.

Sure, a number of other factors contribute to declining sales. "Summer is historically a slow period for us," says Paula Baldwin, daytime manager of Nicola's (1420 Sycamore). "Then, the stock market crashed, the World Trade Center was attacked and people stopped eating out as much." And although she's not discounting April's events as a factor in her restaurant's declining sales, she doesn't want to dwell on them.

"I thought it would have a shorter effect on us than it did," she says, "The media blew everything out of proportion. It's time to move beyond it and start looking at what we have to offer as a neighborhood down here again."

Baldwin feels media coverage made many people afraid to return to Over-the-Rhine, even after the city-wide curfew was lifted. She says she still gets frequent phone calls from folks asking if Nicola's is "still open down there" and operating "business as usual," and if the neighborhood is safe before they'll make a reservation. Her answer: a resounding "Yes."

"I tell them that I live here, and I've never had a problem," she says. "Then they make a reservation and come see for themselves what they've been missing."

Just down the street at the Diner on Sycamore (1203 Sycamore), the place was hoppin' on a recent Wednesday at lunch. The Diner was one of several OTR eateries that participated in a promotion -- "Munchin' on Main" -- to attract the lunch crowd with daily specials. Paul Stenger, the Diner's bar manager, says the promotion "really boosted our lunch sales."

Unfortunately, the dinner hour continues to remain quiet. According to Stenger, the Diner's dinner sales are off "about 50 percent" over last year. The Diner has stopped serving dinner Monday through Wednesday evenings because sales have been so poor. Stenger also says September and October are usually when slow summer sales start to pick up, and typically he begins hiring in the fall for evening servers.

But he doesn't think that will be the case this year. In all likelihood, he says, he might bring on help for the lunch hour, but not for evenings.

Like Baldwin, Stenger listed a number of factors likely contributing to the declining bottom line: the younger Main Street bar crowd doesn't go to dinner before bar-hopping, and new developments in Hyde Park and elsewhere are luring diners away. Lastly, he says sales have been off significantly since the rioting in April.

He also reiterated his thoughts that Over-the-Rhine is a safe place. "I've never had a problem. I think it's a very safe place, especially on Friday and Saturday nights when there is a huge police presence," he says. "People should know that what they're getting in Hyde Park (for example) is not unique. (Over-the-Rhine) is a great place, and you won't find anything like it in the city."

And that's the bottom line with all the Over-the-Rhine establishments: They're one-of-a-kind.

Brewing Up Business
If you've ever had a pint of Hocking Hills Hefeweizen, you know what I mean. Rik DeBar, brewmaster for the BarrelHouse Brewing Company (22 E. 12th St.), brews the most phenomenal unfiltered weizen beer outside of Germany: The smooth, creamy beer actually has a subtle, fruity-banana taste to it. Ask the server to give you a slice of lemon with it for a little citrus twist. You won't find anything like it in a bottle or can anywhere. You can only get it from the BarrelHouse Brewery in the heart of Over-the-Rhine.

The BarrelHouse is another establishment impacted since the riots, although you would hardly know from talking with co-owner Mike Cromer. He must have been a PR man in a past life, because he wants to talk about everything his place is doing to keep customers coming back. Indeed, the BarrelHouse has sponsored a number of activities, such as the First Annual Main Street Arts & Music Festival in August to try to attract folks back to Over-the-Rhine businesses. The place also is focusing on its regional musical acts and street festivals (including a Microbrew Fest in November and a Bourbon festival in December) to attract customers.

Cromer is pleased with the "Munchin' on Main" lunch promotion, stating that his lunch business is strong. And although he adds that dinner sales are off since the riots, he's learned that he has to be more creative to keep his business busy: "We've discovered we've just got to try a lot harder to get people to come down here."

I'd be hard-pressed to tell you of another local brewery with better beer or better music than the BarrelHouse. Or of another fine-dining restaurant like Nicola's with an outdoor, arbor-covered patio for dining. Or of an urban, four-star dining experience like you can have at Jump Café (1203 Main St.). Or of any diner in the city more unique than the one on Sycamore.

Time to Make a Statement
But the fact is, if customers don't start to return, we run the risk of losing these establishments. If people don't make a stand for supporting the unique places that give Over-the-Rhine its character, we'll all have to go to the suburbs and stand in line with a blinking pager for a bottle of beer and a cookie-cutter meal.

Where you spend your money makes a powerful statement.

Case in point: On Oct. 11, one month after the horrible terrorist attack, restaurants across the country, including dozens here in the Tristate, have committed to donating a portion of or all sales and tips to relief efforts and victims' families. I expect these restaurants will have record sales numbers for the day, simply, because people want to make a statement.

And where you spend your money makes a powerful statement.

Why not continue that enthusiasm for supporting one another and make a statement about Downtown and Over-the-Rhine restaurants? Hell, if you haven't tried an OTR restaurant, now is the best time to move your end-of-the-week happy hour or your Saturday night dinner plans. You'll probably get a table right away.

As David Miller, co-owner of Kaldi's on Main Street (1204 Main St.), says, "Don't let anyone or anything keep you from enjoying what you want to enjoy. Isn't that the one thing we've learned in the past month? We may not agree on everything in this city, but at least we can all agree on that." ©



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