Wilbur's Offers Menu Items For Diverse Palates

By Colleen Lent

Hampton Union, Tuesday, August 3, 2004

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Serving up the stats and facts, cultivating a restaurant client base, seems as easy as boiling a pot of water. In 2003, the National Restaurant Association reported one in three meals are eaten outside of the home, resulting in school cafeterias and restaurants preparing 54 billion meals annually. Nevertheless, Wilbur Forbes, owner of Wilbur's Family Dining in Hampton, says maintaining a profitable business is more akin to recreating a Julia Child culinary masterpiece. He says the industry has equal helpings of triumphs and travails.

In July, the restaurant moved from its longtime home at 30 Lafayette Road in North Hampton to 881 Lafayette Road in Hampton. Forbes says the landowner of the former location found it more profitable to use the three acres of land than continue renting to Forbes. This is a common situation prompting Seacoast businesses to relocate, often resulting in down time and customer defection. Even so, Forbes says he was fortunate to find a new site a stone's throw down the road, minimizing lost business.

The move also resulted in increasing the restaurant's footage from 1,300 to 2,300 square feet. Although Wilbur's has only gained a couple of seats, bringing the total to 70, there's more elbow room in the kitchen. Forbes says the extra counter space eases the preparation of homemade specials.

Menu items are updated as consumer trends change. In the 1990s, Americans were riding on the low-fat bandwagon until the low carbohydrate high-speed train came barreling into town a few years ago. "We've yielded to every pressure that comes along," Forbes says. "As the fads change, we change." Currently, Wilbur's is offering sandwich wraps, salads, and meat omelets for the carbohydrate counters and egg substitute for the cholesterol watchers.

Yet, Forbes says his primary target market is diverse, ranging from toddlers to seniors. Thus, the specials, including meatloaf, roast beef, pasta, turkey, and fish with all of the fixings are menu staples. In addition, homemade breads are a new menu item, catering to those throwing caution into the wind by sinking their teeth into a warm slice slathered in butter. Meanwhile, big breakfast eaters can wolf down waffles wallowing in syrup and poached eggs and lobster lounging in hollandaise sauce.

Consumers feel the pinch when grocery store shelf prices fluctuate, as Mother Nature unleashes her wrath, affecting everything from coffee to lettuce crops. Restaurants feel the wallet walloping as well. In addition, Forbes says the small-business owner is affected by economic shifts in non-food items. "We have peaks on everything," he says. On July 20, AAA reported New Hampshire gas prices averaging $1.909 per gallon, up over last year's $1.506. The rise in gas prices isn't eroding the restaurant's regular customer base. However, it does crimp the balance sheet in another respect. "Gas prices affect everything that's shipped," Forbes says. Rather than raise menu prices, Forbes keeps patience on tap, realizing most price storms clear, eventually resulting in sunnier skies.

Keeping breakfast and lunch specials under $5 and dinner specials under $10 is a customer retention strategy at Wilbur's. With many high-end Seacoast restaurants offering entrees between $17 and $25, feeding a family of four can cost between $68 and $100, excluding beverages, dessert, and a tip. Forbes says he offers an affordable alternative aside from chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and french fries.

In turn, it appears traditional dining still has a slight lead over drive-up venues. According to a 2003 market survey by KRC Research, 26 percent of children and teenagers prefer family-style restaurants while 22 percent opt for fast food.

It's not just a meat and potatoes industry, Forbes says. Adding plumbing, roofing, cleaning, accounting, and decorating into the equation results in many 12-hour days for some employees. He admits the move to a newer building has reduced some of the handyman headaches. Even so, while most are hitting the snooze alarm, the opening employee at Wilbur's is stirring, grinding, and slicing at 5 am. "You can make money in America as long as you're willing to work and work hard," Forbes says.

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