Monday, July 27, 2007
Florida Today
By Maria Sonnenberg

Snowbirds, local families out of town.

As the dog days snarl into the calendar, local restaurant patrons may notice shorter or nonexistent wait times at their favorite eateries.
The reason: Free-spending snowbirds flew back North months ago, while local families traditionally hop out of town for summer vacations, leaving many restaurant tables across the country unoccupied.
Although the national Restaurant Association claims that August is the most popular month to eat out nationally, Brevard County restaurants usually experience a drop in customers until the fall.
“I think the association figures are based on larger-scale restaurants, like Darden,” said Nancy Borton of Yellow Dog Café in Malabar, referring to Orlando-based Darden, which operates large scale casual-dining chains Olive garden and Red Lobster. Borton believes August may be busy for restaurants located near malls, because families engaged in back-to-school shopping sprees look for nearby places to grab something to eat.
“People are getting ready for school, and they’ll stop in at restaurants near the malls,” Borton said.
Although Brevard is considered a tourist destination, it is the locals who make or break many restaurants.
“The tourists are gravy,” Borton said.  “The locals keep us afloat.”
Restaurateurs have learned to live with the summer doldrums.
The Bortons, for example, are taking advantage of the slower months to finish a two-level, 3,000-square-foot deck overlooking the Indian River behind yellow Dog.  The new outside dining facility includes a doggie dining menu. “We’re hoping to have our grand opening on Labor Day,” Borton said.
Once September arrives, things start to heat up in the Yellow Dog kitchen.
“From September to Mother’s Day, that’s cuckoo time,” Borton said.
Antonio Pinero has spent half a century in the business.  All those years have given the owner of Islamorada Restaurant in Suntree a keen knowledge of the seasonal nature of the industry.
“It’s always slow August and September, because people go to the beach or get out of town,” Pinero said.  “You notice it when the snow birds aren’t here.”
Pinero estimates that business may drop as much as 20 percent during the summer months.
For Pinero, summer is the time to try out new dishes, such as the gazpacho he recently introduced at Islamorada.
“Customers have been raving about it, so I’m adding it to the regular menu’” he said.
Alex Litras uses the hot summer months to recharge his restaurants, his staff and his family.
The owner of Café Margaux in Cocoa Village, Litras reopened his upscale restaurant Saturday after a three-week hiatus.  His adjoining Ulysses’ Steakhouse closes for vacation the first two weeks in August.
The closings not only allow Litras to retool menus and give staff a break, it also allows him some time off.
“It’s difficult for us to get away when the place is open,” Litras said.  “I’m a control freak, so if I’m gone while the place is closed, I don’t have to worry.”
After taking some time with his family, Litras returns to prepare for next season.
“This is the  time we plan for new items on the lunch and dinner menus, which will be in our reopening menus,” he said. The hiatus allowed Litras the time to add to the menu new, complex entrees, such these two mouthfuls:
Garlic-sautéed jumbo white shrimp with almond and spinach ugali and roasted red pepper romesco.
Five-spice, sesame-seared Ahi tuna over green-tea risotto with plum wine and caramelized ginger sauce.
The break “ also helps me get organized for the upcoming wine dinners,” Litras said.
Café Margaux’s elaborate wine dinners, the restaurants signature event, soon will be supplemented by smaller affairs at the new 24-person banquet facility Litras recently opened atop the café.  On the schedule are malt-scotch and dessert wine tastings.
“The time off allows me to better put together theses little events,” Litras said.
Keeping nearby Ulysses’ open makes sure that Litras’ “regulars” are happy while Café Margaux is closed.
Closing Café Margaux for three weeks in the summer also allows kitchen personnel time to recharge.
“No matter how much you love your work, and these guys in the kitchen love to cook, when you’re away from it for a while, you love it even better,” Litras said.  “When they come back, there’s a new excitement.”
Some of his staff receives paid vacation for the entire holiday.
The serving staff can choose to take time off or may opt to work at Ulysses’, giving Litras another benefit.
“It’s worked out really well.” Litras said.  “It’s given me the opportunity to cross-train.  Prior to July, you were either a Café Margaux or Ulysess’ server.”
Even die-hard Floridians take a little time to acclimate to the fierce summer weather.
They may eschew a big meal on a hot day for lighter fare.  However, give them a few weeks, and they’re ready to get back to normal. Litras has discovered that his customers also seem re-energized by his reopening.
“When you reopen, most of the Brevard County residents have gotten used to the heat,” he said.