COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | JOHN PATRICK FORD

Dining out feeds the new economy

A surge in the restaurant business is boosting the San Diego economy. Anyone who has gone out for dinner in the hot areas of Gaslamp, Little Italy and North Park can see the popularity of eating out — seven nights a week.

Furthermore, the traffic is not in the pizza and burger joints but the upscale, yet casual, restaurants specializing in seafood, vegan and a variety of ethnic cuisine. Gone are the days of the plain neighborhood restaurants serving pasta, tacos and chop suey. You don’t see many young families in these new, trendy eating establishments catering to the fresh and easy millennials.

Growing even faster in the San Diego economy is the craft beer business, which accounts for many of the new restaurant openings. If a local brewer wants to get into the craft beer business, it opens a casual pub to demonstrate its product. San Diego is reportedly the largest craft-beer manufacturing city in the country.

According to the San Diego chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth, the thriving restaurant industry is now a significant factor in the recovery from the recession. The meeting held recently in Del Mar reported that March sales at restaurants and bars overtook grocery store spending for the first time ever. This indicates that there is a strong trend away from home cooking and increase in the expansion of restaurant chains.

That does not necessarily mean Americans are crowding to customary fast-food drive-thrus. Growth in the restaurant business is now seen at the fast-casual chain outlets such as Chipolte Mexican Grill and Tender Greens, among the many popular fresh food emporiums that are a step above the traditional burger joints so popular with Americans over the past 50 years.

Business must be good for the startup chain restaurants, judging by the number of IPOs hitting the stock market. The biggest problem, according to speakers at the conference, is finding suitable locations for new branch stores. A shopping mall or restaurant district can handle only so many similar ethnic-style eateries, pizzerias or taco shops.

Besides limitations on good locations, the advancing legislation to increase the minimum wage will affect the profits of these restaurant chains and their stock value. Much will depend on how long healthier food continues to attract customers.

My personal observations on the popularity of dining out in San Diego have been a revelation. Take Little Italy for instance — 20 years ago, India Street was primarily a pizza and pasta destination for long-time restaurants such as Filippi’s and Mona Lisa. Now, several blocks are packed with ethnic and specialty food restaurants of all kinds. A recent visit on a Sunday night to the popular Ironside Fish & Oyster Bar was an eye-opener.

Many old commercial buildings and factories in Little Italy are converted into eclectic interiors. On a weekend evening, the sidewalks are crowded with strollers choosing from the large selection of places to dine, many with their dogs on leashes. It is a total switch from what used to be simple family restaurants and delis operated by the descendants of the Italian and Portuguese fishing-fleet community.

The other surge in San Diego’s hospitality scene is the growth of the craft-beer industry. At last count, there were more than 100 craft breweries in the county, Beer connoisseurs claim that San Diego is the craft-beer center of this surging business.

There is so much interest in the latest India pale ale (IPA) that the local media carry weekly columns touting the latest new beer pubs and their latest new brews, with opinions from so-called beer experts. There are evening cruises on the bay known as Hops on the Harbor, which provides a three-hour beer dinner with samples from craft-beer breweries.

A current weekly column even declared international IPA day, one of the few new holidays not invented by the greeting-card industry.

The U.S. craft-beer business is estimated to be a $102 billion market fueled by the nation’s growing thirst for India pale ale. The growth of the craft beer business rocked various state regulations created in the 19th century to prevent beer taverns from serving only their own brew.

Showing the power of the growing craft-beer industry was the recent rejection of the Ghio family lease renewal for the popular Anthony’s restaurant on Harbor Drive. Missing from their rehab proposal was a venue for a popular craft-beer outlet. The update of the 50-year-old site was just a facelift of the traditional Fish Grotto and Fishette dining areas.

A last-minute reprieve by the Board of Port commissioners allowed Anthony’s to resubmit its renewal bid.

Competition from the other two proposals recommended by the Port District staff included, among several specialty dining areas, a craft-beer outlet. The Morton family Brigantine proposal called it the Ketch Grill and Taps. A consortium including the Cohn family proposed a Stone Brewery outlet with at least three other seafood and specialty food dining areas.

San Diego intends to offer a variety of dining options with plenty of craft beer to quaff down unusual cuisine while boosting the economy.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com.

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