Despite economy, area restaurants are determined to succeed

By: Brad Smith, Special to The Telegraph
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Acorn Cafe owner Julie Oliver remembers when she decided to make her dream of opening a restaurant a reality. “It was last summer — when everything went bad — I decided to open up my own place. It was crazy, hearing that so many other restaurants were going out of business,” she said. At times, the situation didn’t phase her. “Then, I’d wake up at 3 in the morning, having a panic attack,” Oliver recalled. “A part of me knew that I had to go forward with my plans.” Oliver, along with her six employees, opened the Acorn Cafe on Feb. 2. Located at 49 Natoma Street, Suite I, the restaurant “is steadily building up a strong customer base,” she said. Originally, Oliver thought she’d get a lot of business from city employees, working across the street. “I have some business from across the street,” she said, “but most of if now comes from commuters. And, thanks to good word-of-mouth, I’m getting a decent flow of customers. As long as the customer flow builds up, I’m happy. Happy and still doing business.” Other restaurants in Folsom, some belonging to major chains, have suffered due to the poor economy. In the last year, residents have seen Black Angus, Applebee’s and others close their doors. “It’s troubling, of course,” said Joseph Luchi, director of Folsom’s Intergovernmental Affairs and Economic Development. “We are aware of the problem. We’re concerned but, overall, there’s no reason for alarm.” Luchi said that while some restaurants had closed down, other businesses were taking their place. He cited instances such as three new restaurants opening on Prairie City Road and another on East Bidwell. “The Ravine will be reopening under a new name. Visconti’s Italian Restaurant relocated to accommodate their expansion,” he said. The city is always concerned when a business closes, he said. “But, we have a pattern here in Folsom: Once a business shuts down, another one soon takes it place,” he said. Luchi said that Folsom “doesn’t have a problem” when it comes to attracting businesses. “Our city has a number of advantages working for it. One, we have an affluent, well-educated population,” he explained. “Two, we have very stable workforce. Those factors are very attractive to prospective businesses.” Tom Rackenbaugh isn’t bothered by the economic situation, which is why he’s opening a “Chicago style” hot dog eatery on East Bidwell in a few months. Folsom, he feels, could use a place like his, which is why he selected the area. “I want to give people a place where they can sit down and enjoy good food that you can’t find elsewhere,” he said. “I’ve been in the restaurant business for more than 20 years,” he said. No matter what the economic conditions are like, Rackenbaugh feels that people “will always want to dine out. When they do, as a restaurant owner, I want to make it a great experience for them.” To Rackenbaugh, it’s all about three things necessary to make the customers happy. “Great service, great food and great atmosphere. Without those things, you can’t have a great restaurant,” he said. He plans to make customers’ dining experience affordable as well. “I want folks leaving my place feeling satisfied and wanting to come back. Again, it comes down to service, food and atmosphere,” he said. Allen Price, Old Europe’s general manager, agrees with the sentiment. “That’s what sets us apart from chains and fast-food places. That’s why we keep having customers come back again and again,” he said. More than a year ago, the restaurant The Heart of Europe shut its doors. Price and others who worked there, along with a number of loyal customers, were “dejected” by the closure. “Everyone of us who worked there, felt as if we were all a part of something special,” Price said. “It was like having a family split up, separated.” After the closure, Price kept in contact with both staff and customers. The latter, he said, urged him to open another restaurant along the same lines. “People missed the authentic European cuisine and missed the staff,” Price said. The more he listened to his former customers, the more he thought about opening another restaurant. Price talked to the Heart of Europe’s chefs, Tomas and Jon, broaching the subject of a new business venture. Both chefs were more than willing to try again, as were the other former employees. Plans to open Old Europe were coming together, he said. “Sure, the economy was a concern,” Price said. Like Oliver and Rackenbaugh, he feels that the public response to Old Europe will be different. “It all ready has been different,” he said. Since opening in February of this year at its 825 Sutter St. location, Old Europe has “been enjoying strong, steady business,” he stated. Price said that the new restaurant has been “very fortunate” in that not only many of the Heart of Europe customers are dining there a lot, “but I’ve noticed many new customers who keep coming back.” He feels that the customers — old and new alike — are “spreading the word” regarding Old Europe. “The feedback has been very positive,” he said. Oliver said word-of-mouth is “very important” in any business, especially with restaurants. “Advertising is important — but you can’t go wrong with great word-of-mouth,” she said. However, in order to have that great word-of-mouth, a restaurant has to have “something different to offer,” she added. “The big chain restaurants and fast-food places offer the same thing,” she feels, “and places like mine, well, we’re different, we have variety.” Price said that Old Europe’s chefs “create dishes that you won’t find in a chain-operated establishment. “Do you want something original and authenticate? Or, something made according to the company’s recipes?” he said. Rackenbaugh feels that the current economic situation “is just a cycle and it’ll end in time.” Oliver and Price both agree and have said the increase in their customers might be an indicator of things slowly turning for the better. When the current economic cycle does get better, Oliver, Rackenbaugh and Price feel that they’ll be around, still in business and making their customers happy.