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Dickinson’s hospitality industry strong as a whole, but restaurateurs note levels of decline

El Sombrero manager Felipe Aguirre said business at the Dickinson restaurant is now slower than it was during the boom, but not by much. (Press Photo by Andrew Haffner)

Dickinson diners may find it easier to get a table now in one of the city’s restaurants than at the height of the oil boom.

Despite the negative effect of the slowdown on the regional economy, some local restauranteurs have reported only a small decrease in business from the fat years of fast business and high oil prices. Others, however, have seen a bigger decline in the number of customers sitting down to eat.

Players Sports Bar and Grill is among many restaurants in Dickinson to see a visible and economically measurable drop in business as it comes off the height of the boom.

“Customer count is down,” said Ron Johnston, director of strategy for Dickinson-based management company The Fisher Group, which owns and operates Players.“It’s pretty obvious just in the traffic flow. We probably measure too many things, but one of the key metrics is obviously headcount -- just footsteps through the door -- and that’s down significantly.”

The evidence provided by restaurant owners and managers may stand somewhat at odds with data from the Office of the North Dakota State Treasurer that points to 2015 being a high point, so far, for Dickinson’s hospitality tax revenue, which serves as a reflection of the industry’s health.

Dickinson Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Terri Thiel said the tax includes lodging services as well as restaurants, but is probably a better indicator of food and alcohol sales due to the way the tax is structured -- either way, the most recent data shows industry growth.

“It’s not up like it had been in those other years, year-over-year,” Thiel admitted of the hospitality sector, “but at this point it hasn’t decreased.”

As of October, the most recent month for which data is available, the annual total collected in hospitality tax was $978,761, an increase from the same point last year of about 1 percent, or a little more than $7,600.

That tax represents a total of about $978 million in revenues generated so far this year by Dickinson’s hospitality industry as a whole, which has been climbing for the past few years with yearly gains as high as 33 percent, as in the jump between 2011 and 2012.

Thiel cautioned that the statistics have some lag and that the October number likely reflects some mix of August and September revenue, but said the data, as it now stands, still reflects growth.

Restaurants on a spectrum of performance through slowdown

Don Pedro’s Family Mexican Restaurant manager Isabel Gonzalez said her restaurant’s traffic has dropped considerably from where it was last year, which she attributed to higher menu item prices than competitors, reduced occupancy in neighboring hotels and the overall chill in the local economy.

However, she added the successes of Don Pedro’s have been cyclical in the past, so the latest slow isn’t particularly unusual.

“It’s been up and down,” Gonzalez said.

Since the most recent peak hit last year, she explained, “a lot of people have left” who formerly patronized the restaurant.

“We had a lot of Hispanic people who used to come here and they were pretty much working at the oilfield and a lot of stuff like that,” Gonzalez said.

She added that the flow of workers from the southern U.S. also brought in diners seeking “a taste similar to what they get down there.”

Gonzalez also noted the seasonal slowdown in patronage, but said the restaurant’s heavy season in the spring -- while not on par with its previous high point -- had still been good.

To meet the reality of the times, Gonzalez said staffing has been pared down for efficiency and additional outlets for sales, which include a planned foray into catering and increased promotion in town and on the Dickinson State University campus, are being explored.

Felipe Aguirre, who runs El Sombrero Mexican Restaurant with his family, said the Dickinson restaurant has gotten a “little slower,” but not very much.

Aguirre said the restaurant hasn’t made any changes to its menu or operations and attributed its relative consistency to primarily local clientele.

Because of that, he said, even during the quicker years of the boom, the restaurant never really saw a spike in patronage.

While the yearly average for 2015 has only decreased slightly from its previous years, Aguirre said, the seasonal chill is coming on.

“Every year around this time it drops anyway,” he said. And as winter sets in, Aguirre notes, “it’s pretty slow everywhere.”

Buffalo Wild Wings, a relative newcomer to the Dickinson restaurant scene, opened in the beginning of the slowdown last December. Although it missed the crest of the oil boom wave, the eatery is still riding above the average performance of its national brand’s franchises, according to regional manager Tory Crowe.

The restaurant is one of three operated by a family ownership group that also holds franchises in Minot and Williston.

While the Dickinson location doesn’t have much in the way of comparative history, Crowe said it has performed consistently throughout its brief tenure.

He added the other two restaurants, both with longer histories, have been similar in that stability.

“One of our pluses is the sports theme,” Crowe said. “No matter what changes demographically, the sports are the same, year-to-year, which I think helps us keep steady.”

Planning ahead through customer decline

While the number of patrons at Players may have decreased, Johnston said, the ones that now spend their time at the restaurant are also spending more money there, on average, than in the past.

While that uptick isn’t enough to match the lower customer count, Johnston said it could be viewed as evidence of a “healthy, vibrant local community” and speaks to the importance of providing core customer groups with a quality product.

He said the local ownership of Players, as well as its statistically minded management, allowed Fisher to predict the downturn to some extent and begin planning ahead for leaner times “a while ago.”

While Johnston admitted he’d love to see the customer count hit a high point again, he said the adjustments made to the restaurant in the meantime had focused on maintaining quality and leaving an impression on the community.

That strategy, he said, has included working different specials and “impactful items that made sense” into the menu to keep patrons happy and build a foundation for support in future times of plenty.

“When the boom comes back, they’ll remember that,” Johnston said.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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