Despite tough economy, some restaurants find the recipe for success

Danny Barbarigos, owner of La Tasca Tapas Restaurant in downtown Arlington Heights, was interested when Groupon approached him to offer a coupon on the power-buying website.

“We tried some knock-off sites and sold maybe 30 or 40, so we decided to try this,” Barbarigos said.

The online venture quickly paid off when 2,500 Groupons offering $30 worth of food for $15 were sold in a short period of time. Even after a month, many of those customers are still coming in, he said.

Barbarigos and other independent restaurateurs both veterans and newcomers to the suburbs have been pitching something different to customers or experimenting with various marketing efforts to remain viable during this tough economy.

So what do restaurant owners do to keep the doors open? Like Barbarigos, they try web-based coupons or discounts, create a following on Facebook, boost their own websites with events, send e-mail blasts with special offers, or just provide old-fashioned print coupons, dinner specials or group events.

“We wanted to stay on top when the recession hit,” said Barbarigos. “We didn't want to get comfortable.”

After all, many big names in the restaurant industry already have closed or plan to, including Don Roth's in Wheeling and Texas-based Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen in Arlington Heights.

While a variety of reasons can be behind a restaurant's closure, the main reason likely continues to be the domino effect of the recession. Many consumers simply have opted to cook at home since their jobs or their salaries have been cut. Those who do venture out are seeking the best value for their money.

Owners of Naf Naf Grill in Naperville believe their Middle Eastern cuisine delivers that value, with a sandwich and a soft drink falling below $10. The restaurant has already doubled its size since opening in January 2009. The four co-owners now are planning to open two other suburban restaurants with the same name.

Naf Naf sponsors Customer Appreciation Days, where diners can get free baklava for their birthday or a sandwich-and-free-soup combo at other times.

Naf Naf also started a Facebook page about six months ago and has about 1,400 friends.

“It's a great tool to keep in touch with customers,” said co-owner David Sloan.

Italian-born chef Isacco Vitali said he makes his dishes from scratch at Isacco Kitchen, a fine Italian restaurant in St. Charles. Couple that with intimate surroundings and less overhead, and he can survive comfortably.

Vitali's restaurant also is active on Facebook, posted on Yelp and sends e-mail blasts to customers.

“It's the new way to advertise,” said Vitali.

He also started cooking for home parties, which has differentiated him from competitors.

“We offer good food that's high-end and it's affordable,” said Vitali.

Many restaurant owners are now using the Internet, including social networking sites, to help boost revenues, said Ron Paul, president and CEO of Chicago-based Technomic Inc., a research firm focusing on the restaurant industry.

“There isn't a lot of evidence right now on how effective that is,” said Paul. “But everyone is doing it now.”

Paul also said that limited time offers, coupons, discounts or even bundling special dinners or events have helped to build attention and traffic into restaurants again.

“The outlook has improved,” Paul said, “but it will take some time to get back to where the industry was in 2007.”

  Business at the Naf Naf Grill in Naperville, where Freddy Martinez and others have cooked up kebabs and other Middle Eastern dishes, has doubled since opening less than two years ago. DANIEL WHITE/
  More than 2,500 people bought Groupons for La Tasca Tapas restaurant in Arlington Heights. Mark Welsh/
  To help generate business, La Tasca Tapas owner Danny Barbarigos turned to Groupon. Mark Welsh/
  Waitress Michelle Weippert of Schaumburg serves drinks to Groupon users Maggie Nolan of Arlington Heights, left, and Carrie Shockman of Wisconsin at La Tasca Tapas in Arlington Heights. Mark Welsh/
  In St. Charles, Chef Isacco Vitali reaches out to his Isacco Kitchen customers through e-mail blasts and Facebook. RICK WEST/
  Freddy Martinez slices shawarma at the Naf Naf Grill in Naperville. The Middle Eastern restaurant has seen growth despite the tough economy. DANIEL WHITE/
  Falafel is an inexpensive menu option at Naf Naf Grill in Naperville. DANIEL WHITE/
  In Naperville, Naf Naf Grill has seen business grow despite the economy. DANIEL WHITE/