Restaurants are serving up more sales in Southwest Florida. In a sign that the local economy is improving, sales have bumped up over the past year in restaurants in Lee and Collier counties, despite continued high unemployment, foreclosures and business closings.
In Collier, sales have been rising for two years, In Lee, they turned upward this year after dropping three years in a row.
After crunching the numbers himself, Craig Timmins, a principal in IPC, a Naples-based commercial real estate brokerage, said he was surprised.
"Restaurant sales have made a pretty decent comeback," he said.
In Collier, sales grew 5.3 percent to $657 million in the year ending June 30, up from $624 million a year earlier, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Revenue. That followed a 2.8 percent increase in 2010 and a 3 percent drop in 2009.
"Between 2008 and 2009, I would have thought there would have been more than a 3 percent decline in Collier County, but it was only 3 percent," Timmins said. "Basically, we recovered that in 2010, and we saw strong growth between '10 and '11."
In Lee, restaurant sales increased 3.3 percent to $980 million in the year ending June 30. From 2009 to 2010, they dipped 0.6 percent. They dropped 2 percent in 2009 and 1.2 percent in 2008, as the recession pounded the local and national economies.
"Seeing positive sales there is a good sign," said Gary Jackson, an economics professor at Florida Gulf Coast University in Estero, noting that increased spending is needed for a recovery to continue.
"The spending of consumers is very important," Jackson said. "It makes up a large percentage of our economy."
Locally, the increasing sales can be attributed to many factors, including a growing number of chain restaurants and more discounts and value-driven offers by restaurants. Tourism, which continues to be strong, is another part of the equation, with visitor spending on the rise.
In Florida, restaurant sales grew 4.6 percent in fiscal 2011 to more than $28.9 billion. They were down in 2010 and 2009 after a slight increase in 2008.
Statewide, the number of restaurants has continued to grow since 2005, despite declining sales in 2009 and 2010.
"If you look at the four states that were hit the hardest - California, Arizona, Nevada and Florida - those are the four states that seem to be coming back the strongest," said Jennifer Weerheim, a vice president for marketing for Yard House, headquartered in Irvine, Calif.
Yard House, known for its variety of beers, classic rock music and American food, has 32 restaurants, with three on Florida's east coast. Another one will open in Boca Raton next year, as the chain continues to scout for more locations across the country. Restaurant sales are up across-the-board for Yard House and Weerheim said one reason is that people just want to "come back out again," and escape the bad news they're hearing on TV about the economy and Wall Street.
"They just want a place to relax and feel good again," she said.
That might help explain why restaurant sales nationally are expected to reach a record $604 billion this year after three tough years that chopped sales growth, according to a forecast by the National Restaurant Association.
In Southwest Florida, dozens of restaurants have closed during the past few years, unable to survive in tough economic times. But many others have opened in their place, with more national chains entering and expanding in the local market.
Collier has about 860 restaurants with more than 96,000 seats, according to the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation. There are more restaurants now than there were at the height of the real estate boom in 2005, when the count was 767. In Lee, there are more than 1,350 restaurants, with more than 144,000 seats. That's up from 1,193, with about 128,000 seats, in 2005.
How much is too much when it comes to restaurants?
"The market decides," Timmins said. "It's the free market forces at work."
Now is a good time for restaurants to open because land and construction costs are lower, lease rates are more affordable and there are more locations to choose from because of higher vacancies in strip malls and shopping centers across Southwest Florida.