Restaurateur and chef Greg Vartanian sits in a booth at the Southern Pacific Depot, one of three fine-dining restaurants in Visalia owned by him, his brother and his father. The restaurant is a former Southern Pacific Railroad depot built in 1916.
Written by David Castellon
Editor’s note: The Business Journal is marking the 10th anniversary of the Lehman Bros. bankruptcy, and the start of the Great Recession, by featuring local small businesses that survived the ordeal. Here is one of them.
Even before the Great Recession, the restaurant industry was shifting away from fine dining to casual and fast-casual restaurants.
“People were looking for value, and the value came in fast casual,” said Greg Vartanian, who co-owns with his father and brother, The Vintage Press, Southern Pacific Depot and Jack & Charlie’s in Visalia.
But while the economic collapse fueled that trend, Greg Vartanian’s three fine-dining restaurants not only survived that period, but also have seen improved business since, as more people than ever are dining out.
This despite increased competition from casual and fast casual restaurants, the latter serving food normally found in sit-down restaurants, but customers have to order or pick up their meals at a counter.
“You didn’t see that 20 years ago,” and they were starting to emerge before the start of the Great Recession, which was a good time for the restaurant industry, as people had more disposable income and could afford to dine out before the economy turned, Vartanian said.
Once the Valley started to experience the effects, “Fine dining was feeling the squeeze, because people were still going out, but they kind of traded down a little bit.”
As for how his three Visalia restaurants survived, Vartanian said, “I think in the community we live in, we are very relevant to people,” in part because as there are few other “white tablecloth” restaurants in the region.
Still, he added, there is more competition, as “We compete for the same food dollar that goes to the fast-casual segment.”
During the recession, the Vartanian family began offering inexpensive entrees, alongside the more expensive ones to draw diners on budgets.
The family also advertised more, but not in a regular fashion. Instead, they started participating in charitable and community events, offering food for people to sample and attracting new customers.
Vartanian said he learned from the recession that fine dining always has a place, as “Taking your wife out for a pleasant evening will not go out of style.”
He also better learned the value of listening to customers to find out what works and what doesn’t.
But restaurateurs don’t need feedback via Yelp reviews, said Vartanian, who urged customers to ask to speak to managers and owners to praise or disclose problems with meals.
“Don’t go to social media. Keep the humanity,” he said. “Anonymously, like on Yelp, it’s hard to do anything about it.”