Banking on Beauty

Posted February 25, 2009 in Feature Story

It’s no big secret that restaurants are getting hammered by the Great Recession, with owners and managers sweating harder these days than their cooks on the line.


Across the IE, as with the rest of the nation, eateries both big and small are falling or teetering on the brink. Downtown Supper Club, Joey’s Seafood and Grill, Raxx Barbecue and Brewing Co. and Via Veneto Trilussa in Riverside shut their doors recently, as did Bobby Baja, Las Campanas, Pei Wei, Sisley Italian Kitchen and Wapango in Rancho Cucamonga. National brands like Chili’s, Hooters and Macaroni Grill dropped the axe on several IE locations.  


Powerhouses like Chipotle, Panera and PF Chang’s China Bistro—whose entries into the Inland market were trumpeted in the local press—are all struggling. America’s 26 top chains have lost an average 49.3 percent of their value over the past year, according to Standard & Poor’s. 


We’d go on and on, but it gets too depressing. And we’d suggest pondering the fate of the ailing industry over a nice hot cup of joe, but Starbucks just shut down 21 IE coffeehouses. 


But while most IE restaurants still above water are trying to stay that way by throwing baggage overboard—reducing staff, cutting back on quality, scaling back service—a handful of others are bucking the trend. Faced with a once-in-a-generation economic calamity, their response has been to make the look of their establishments more appealing. As their competitors desperately try to lower expenditures, their reaction has been to put more money into their operations. 


That’s a gutsy, almost counter-intuitive way to face financial adversity. But to hear the restaurants’ owners tell it, if they’re going to go down, they’re going to go down gloriously. 


“We saw [the economic downturn] as an opportunity,” says Roger Bryenton, owner of Tango Baires in Upland. “Our restaurant had a wooden floor—I like wood, but it just didn’t seem beautiful enough for the guests. It’s difficult, though, to remodel when you’re trying to grow your business.”


Tango Baires serves Argentinean cuisine—empanadas, regional beef dishes and pizzas are its specialties. While the restaurant’s food earns high marks (IE Weekly reviewer Bill Gerdes describes it as “a taste that simply transcends the norm”), it’s a small establishment that has been struggling for visibility at its East Foothill Boulevard location. Bryenton and his family had long wanted to upgrade the look of the place, but didn’t want to drive away valuable customers with the must and dust that comes with a remodel.


Finally, the family decided the best approach would be to do the remodel while the rest of Upland slept. They started construction late one Sunday night and labored until dawn the next morning, They repeated the process the next week, and eventually brought in professional tile workers to finish the flooring. When it came to the tiles, Bryenton and his wife found they couldn’t make up their minds on the best look until public opinion made up their minds for them.


“We were in Home Depot, setting tile on the floor to see how it looked,” he says. “When we put down this lovely Versailles tile, all the other customers passing by remarked ‘Oh, that looks beautiful.’ So that’s what we went with.”


Guests returning to the restaurant were astonished by the transformation—handsome new tile flooring, new paint, new detailing—that took place literally overnight, as if by elves. Bryenton declines to say exactly how much the redo cost—certainly it set him back several thousand dollars. But by investing in his business while so many others are scaling, he hopes customers will get the underlying message: Tango Baires is here to stay. 


“We’re a small restaurant—we have only a few tables here,” he says. “But our food is unique and delicious, and we wanted to distinguish ourselves from all the other establishments in town.”


Raj Kumar, owner of Punjab Palace in Riverside, also wanted to show his customers and the competition that his Indian restaurant was in the game for the long haul. But unlike Tango Baires, Punjab Palace is a large establishment—the main dining room can easily seat more than 200 people. Not wanting to shut down for a remodel in the midst of a major recession, Kumar and his chef brother, Ashot, carefully laid plans for an extensive facelift over several months’ time.


“We chose to do this little by little,” he says. “The whole process took about eight months.”


Over that period, the Kumar brothers put in new carpeting, painted the restaurant from top to bottom, reupholstered the dining booths, and installed tiled mirrors along the walls that gave the main dining room the appearance of being twice its size. They also added new artwork—and, here, is where their ambitions for the restaurant and the expense they were willing to incur really showed. 


Guests of Punjab Palace, located at 10359 Magnolia Ave.—are familiar with the elaborate paintings that adorn its interior. To sit in one of the booths is to be treated to a dazzling vista of the Taj Mahal and other iconic images of the Indian landscape. What guests probably don’t know is that these paintings are each personally imported from India, one at a time. Over the past several months, as the Kumar brothers or other associates of the restaurant visited their native country, they returned one of the large art pieces that now look out over the establishment. 


“There’s a lot of competition in the restaurant market, and we didn’t want to look the same as everyone else,” says Ashot Kumar. “We hear all the time that more and more businesses are going down. We’re not going to be one of them. We’re a family business, with good food and good service.”


Raj estimates the remodeling set the restaurant back $20,000. Whether that investment translates to a steady increase in new customers remains to be seen, but on a recent Saturday night—while other restaurants were begging for business—Punjab Palace was filled to capacity. 


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