From the exhaustive wine list and filet mignon to the wood-accented interior and elegant lighting, you know you're in a downtown Chicago restaurant.
No, make that Indianapolis.
Wrong again – try Fort Wayne.
The Summit City has called Eddie Merlot's its own since owner and founder Bill Humphries established the upscale eatery here in 2001. The 32-year restaurant veteran is overseeing an ambitious nationwide expansion that includes future locations in Scottsdale, Arizona; Orlando, Florida; and Chicago.
Construction is underway in Englewood, Colorado, so that an Eddie Merlot's can debut there by winter. Humphries celebrated the Pittsburgh, opening of his 10th restaurant in April.
Success among upscale diners is evident at other Fort Wayne restaurants. They are maintaining traffic and in some cases building sales – even as some consumers are still frugal about spending.
Upscale and coming
Humphries said an aging population is the key to his marketing strategy.
“The baby boomers just don't want to entertain, but be entertained,” he said. “When you come out for a good meal, there's no worry about cleaning up afterward. You can just sit back and enjoy your friends.”
Chops and Baker Street restaurants are two other examples of businesses that could cash in on the expected increase in annual sales that the National Restaurant Association forecasts.
When Chuck and Kara Pastor bought Chops, 6421 W. Jefferson Blvd., in 2003, the recession was four years away. It probably wasn't the best time to start a fine-dining establishment.
“We were a little nervous at first,” Kara Pastor said, “but we kept our (mindset) and said, let's just make sure we take care of the customers, and that will take care of everything else.”
Pastor said she and her husband's emphasis on service and even the popularity of the Food Network played a part in Chops attracting patrons.
“There's just been this explosion of interest in food and people wanting to have what they see on TV,” Pastor said. “People see all the chef shows and want to experience that. We try to give them good food and a great atmosphere.”
Even with its loyal following, Baker Street restaurant, 4820 N. Clinton St., constantly looks for ways to attract new diners. This year, the business began staying open daily. Last year, it started a patio event showcasing its kitchen talent.
“It's a way to highlight the chefs and for them to show their skills on the patio,” said Josh Crawford, an assistant manager at Baker Street. “It has a kind of Food Network feel.”
‘What we count on’
The National Restaurant Association expects annual sales to expand 3 percent and reach $9.5 billion this year in Indiana. Nationwide, sales are pegged at $683 billion, which would be a nearly 4 percent increase from 2013.
Visits to fine-dining restaurants were up 5 percent last year, compared with double-digit-percentage visitor declines during the recession, reports NPD Group researchers.
In fact, fine-dining traffic gains last year were ahead of the total food service industry, which ended 2013 flat.
Upscale dining, which represents a small share of overall industry traffic but a 14 percent share of food service consumer spending, has been ahead of the industry in visits for the past three years.
But the economy is still recovering, right?
True, but the growth in fine-dining traffic is due not to lower cost but rather to higher perceived value.
“That's what we count on, especially with the older customers and young professionals,” Humphries said. “I saw this coming a long time ago.”
The average check at a fine-dining restaurant was $28.55 last year, compared with $5.32 at fast-food restaurants, which represent the bulk – 78 percent – of total restaurant traffic. Casual dining restaurants have the next highest average check at $13.75, but visits to this segment of restaurants have declined the past several years, NPD reports.
Humphries said he targets households with an income of $100,000 or more. In Fort Wayne, census figures show a median income under $45,000.
Critics could argue that Humphries was taking a gamble by opening upscale restaurant in what many would call a blue-collar town.
But he's OK with that.
“I needed a test market, so I knew if it clicked here, we would be OK in bigger cities.”
Well, it clicked.
“I love Eddie Merlot's,” said Sheryl Geralds, operations manger at the Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce in metro Detroit. “It has a very good reputation. I'm taking my daughter and her family from California there (this) weekend.”
Geralds said the restaurant is where the bigwigs dine.
“It's an experience and offers a really nice atmosphere,” she said. “It's just fantastic and one of the premiere places to go.”
Fort Wayne financial consultant Amy Burton frequently takes clients to Eddie Merlot's.
“There are other places, too, but Eddie Merlot's is usually my first choice,” said Burton, who works for Raymond James advisers. “It's a local favorite, and for good reason.”
Burton said besides a good steak, which Merlot's is known for, Humphries' community involvement is another reason she frequents the establishment.
An example of his philanthropy was demonstrated earlier this year when Eddie Merlot's footed the bill for “Veggie U” classes at St. Jude Catholic School.
Veggie U is a five-week program designed to teach children how to plant and grow vegetables, the importance of a healthy diet, and the joy that comes with trying new things.
“That's very important to me,” Burton said. “He's not just taking from the community, he's giving back.”
Indiana Restaurant & Lodging Association President and CEO Patrick Tamm said Eddie Merlot's success is a testament to Humphries not deviating from his blueprint.
“The last couple of years, the white-tablecloth market has done really well,” Tamm said. “It's kind of confounding the experts as to why this segment is doing so well.”