Chef Stirs up Talk on the Economy

It takes a chef to cut to the bone of the economy.



Robert Minniti didn’t look like he belonged on stage. The chef/owner of Bacio Italian Cuisine (baciorestaurant.com) in Cinnaminson and president of SJ Hot Chefs (sjhotchefs.com), a group of independent restaurants that pool resources to market themselves, was part of a five-person panel on the big bad topic of “the economy” at the recent Rutgers-Camden Quarterly Business Outlook.

The other panelists — an economist, a banker, a vice president of a construction company, and a dean — were all straight-laced, clean-cut. Minniti’s hair was slicked back, his sideburns on the long side of proper, and his light suit punctuated by a wide tie with a splashy pattern. He looked like a guy who built his culinary skills in Atlantic City and was most at home in a busy kitchen, not in front of about 300 South Jersey business leaders looking for answers.

The other panelists had important things to say, for sure. They talked about tight credit markets, expected timing of turn around, and growth quarters. Some of their opinions clashed, but they were all resolute in their predictions of “this is when things will get better.”

Minniti talked about setbacks he and fellow independent restaurateurs have faced. One of the first things cut out of family budgets in tough times is dining out, and he said restaurants felt the first pinch a year ago when gas prices soared. He stressed creative marketing, building relationships with clients, and creating a dining experience as keys to surviving. But he added that restaurants would need a better fourth quarter in 2009 than 2008 in order to make it.

“That’s my spin on it,” he said. “But who knows?”

The crowd laughed. We all want to know when things will get better, but until the end is here, is guessing the date of that turn around any better than asking a Magic Eight Ball?

In South Jersey, where unemployment is the state’s highest, according to the Department of Labor, I’ve heard people refer to unemployment numbers as proof of a recession at the same time they point to shoppers at the new Nordstrom in Cherry Hill as indication of a turn around. There are so many factors that make this recession different than ones that have come before (like a housing bubble burst, bank bailouts that have failed to loosen up credit markets, record consumer credit-card debt) that a mixed picture is all one can really paint.

I stopped at that new Nordstrom at the Cherry Hill Mall on the way home from the meeting. It’s very nice, shiny, bright, and stocked with luxury items but few customers. That day’s Philadelphia Inquirer carried an ominous warning about the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust, the company that developed, among other projects, the renovation of the Cherry Hill Mall. The company is reportedly at risk of bankruptcy because of its unsecured debt.

As Minniti would say, “Who knows?”

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