Photograph by Jerry Portelli – Arizona Business Magazine Jan/Feb 2011
Q&A Steve Chucri, President and CEO Arizona Restaurant Association
-In 2002, Steve Chucri was lobbying at the state level when the Arizona Restaurant Association president and CEO position was presented to him. Chucri now uses his political and lobbyist backgrounds to help Arizona’s restaurant industry navigate today’s tough issues. An executive committee board member with the Arizona Tourism Alliance, Chucri discusses strategies to create workable solutions to many issues affecting his industry.
Could the recession have been worse for the restaurant industry?
I always think it can be worse, because you don’t know worse unless you’re in it. That being said, yes, the economic hit, the recessionary hit to our industry was substantial. It may not be as substantial as to other elements of the tourism industry, but when you have the closing of restaurants double from normal times during this recessionary time, that’s pretty substantial. … I’m not going to say we were the worst or we were the most impacted, but there has been a huge impact from the most experienced restaurateur to the novices of the industry. Both were equally hit.
How have the arizona restaurant Association and the arizona tourism alliance been working together to get through the recession?
Restaurants over the recent years have become more and more dependent on tourist dollars. The receipts show that. About 25 percent of our receipts from restaurants are coming from tourists. … I think what we’ve been able to work on with both organizations is how do we continue to work together and make Arizona a destination? We’re becoming more and more known for our culinary fare.
Second to that, we’ve also worked legislatively together to ensure we’re not being targeted for miscellaneous taxes and we’re not getting targeted as an industry when it comes to funding issues, especially the Arizona Office of Tourism.
What challenges do you see facing the restaurant industry in 2011?
I see an increase in costs. We’ve been fortunate to maintain costs at a low level because of the recession, but I’m getting concerned that if things do start to pick up we will see costs starting to rise. I feel as though the smallest of things, the profitability of a restaurant, is very, very low and it doesn’t take much. You can’t just go to your menu and start raising prices in an economy like this. … I think we’re going to make a real push to see how we can get rid of that CPI (consumer price index) component with the minimum wage, but I don’t want to dwell too much on that, as we’re still in the strategic phases.
On the good side too, I believe that people are going to realize, yes we’re in a recessionary time but restaurants essentially are on sale right now. … I see people also realizing, like I said on the positive side, that it isn’t all that expensive to go out to eat.
How has Arizona’s restaurant industry been recovering from the recession?
In many, many ways, across many segments of our industry, it’s been at a snail’s pace. … I will tell you that 2010, from the quick-serve industry all the way to fine dining, it has been better than 2009. Now, that’s not universal, but the increases we are seeing are at a snail’s pace.
I think the wish, if there was one, of the industry would be that growth would pick up a little more quickly. Not at the crazy pace we were going at back in 2006, 2005, but something that is more meaningful and can be measured. … I think that restaurants are doing all they can to make sure that happens by offering these terrific deals and really using a lot of ingenuity and happy hours.
Restaurants are really good at incentivizing and getting people to come in. I think we’ll always continue to see that happen. … If restaurants can grow and if our industry can grow back up to the 4 percent or 5 percent and it’s sustainable each month and it’s sustainable on a consistent basis, you’d see a lot of smiles on restaurateurs’ faces.