Spokane chefs hoping for Restaurant Week boost as they battle rising wages

SPOKANE, Wash. — Inlander Restaurant Week is best known for giving local spots a boost over a ten-day stretch every winter, but restaurant owners say it has the power to impact business well past the end of February. They’re hoping that’s the case again this year as they battle their biggest minimum wage increase yet.

“It went up $1.50 overnight,” said Tom Sciortino, managing parter of Wild Sage Bistro. “If we didn’t change the way we did business at all — if we just accepted that wage increase without passing that on in some different direction, that was a $35,000 hit to our bottom line.”

That difference has to be made up somehow, somewhere. Since passing the buck to the customer by raising menu prices is the last resort, Sciortino and other leaders in the business have had to get creative.

“There’s no stone we have not turned,” said Dan Barranti, owner of The Laguna Cafe. “It’s a matter of what we call menu mix management.”

Barranti has put an emphasis on buying local and looking at less labor-intensive dishes, but that still hasn’t been enough to offset rising wages.

“While guests may see prices go up over the last four years, it’s not going to the restaurant owners, I can guarantee you that,” he said.

Barranti said over the last four years, minimum wage has seen a 40% increase.

“Our people work hard for that money and they earn it and they deserve every penny of it,” he said. “But… it makes it a little bit of a challenge for restaurant people because it’s already such a low-margin business to begin with.”

Barranti said if he didn’t change anything about his business this year and sales remained on par with last year’s Restaurant Week, he’d see a $1,000 loss to payroll in this year’s ten-day stretch.

Sciortino told 4 News Now while his team has planned for the increases, he’s resorted to buying smart — meaning, he’ll negotiate prices with suppliers by promising to buy in bulk and avoid raising menu prices.

“So for example right now, I’m sitting on 2,000 pounds of duck legs,” he laughed.

Both Sciortino and Barranti said Restaurant Week is crucial for business in the long-run — this year is no different, especially when wages come into play.

“I still have people that say ‘you’ve been on our radar, we’ve been thinking about you, you’ve been open a couple years,’ and I’m like ‘well, 14 [actually],'” Sciortino said. “So, this gives them a reason to kind of pull the trigger.”

Barranti said his staff considers Restaurant Week a failure if the second stretch of sales doesn’t beat their first. He said so far, things are looking good this year.

“It’s not a money-making proposition, it’s to get the word out about what you do and to show some new things on the menu,” he said. “Hopefully you build enough sales off of that to help cover that minimum wage.”

Inlander Restaurant Week runs up until Feb. 29th. If you post on social media using the hashtag #IRWRaveReviews, SYSCO will donate five meals to Second Harvest.