By JOYCE M. ROSENBERG, Associated Press
Some diners at Hurricane Grill & Wings had been limiting themselves to a small order of the chain's saucy chicken wings and a glass of tap water. These days, many of those people are upgrading to a bigger order of as many as 15 wings and a soda.
For Hurricane Grill, which sells its wings in more than 30 varieties of sauces, the larger plates and the sodas are a sign that customers are OK about spending a little more when they go out to eat.
The evidence may not be a big economic report like gross domestic product or factory orders in a region, but small businesses have their own indicators that the economy is improving.
NO MORE BROWN-BAGGING IT
People who held onto their jobs during the recession are familiar with the scenarios. The company-sponsored doughnuts disappeared from the Monday morning meeting. Training classes that previously included a catered lunch were traded in for brown-bag sessions.
"Bring your own bagel into the meeting, we're not going to serve you breakfast," was the message companies gave employees, says Tom Walter. His company Tasty Catering, based in Elk Grove Village, Ill. provides catering to corporate clients.
When companies did serve food at staff meetings, they found ways to cut costs, Walter says. Strip sandwiches like six-foot heroes were served instead of individual sandwiches. Turkey and brie on artisan breads were replaced by turkey and Swiss on whole wheat.
During the worst of the economic downturn, Tasty Catering was forced to let one full-time employee go. Fortunately, Walter found another job for that staffer elsewhere. He avoided other layoffs of full-timers in late 2008 because his staff offered to cut their hours to 25 per week, from 40, for three months.
Last fall, things began to change. Clients who had stopped feeding employees started ordering again. Companies that had gone downscale began ordering more expensive food.
Four months ago, many clients had whittled down their catering bills to about $10 person. More recently that's crept up to as much as $13 per person. The most popular dish these days is champagne chicken. In the leaner times, brisket of beef was a hot item. It's cheaper because it takes less labor to prepare.
"We had the busiest November we've ever had," Walter says. "March looks like it's going to be the busiest ever."
The increased spending isn't just fueled by an improvement in his clients' businesses, Walter says. Companies are worried about losing their best staffers, "so they're giving their employees more rewards."
When the financial crisis hit in September 2008, many companies stopped worrying about décor. Sluggish sales and the threat of layoffs pushed lush lobby plants and holiday displays off the priority list. Sales fell 30 percent at Parker Cos., a Scotch Plains, N.J., company that does interior landscaping and displays in the Northeast.
Parker's sales remained down through 2011. Hotels and office buildings that never used to think twice about spending $30,000 for a holiday display were now spending $8,000 says William Note, Parker's creative director. On top of that, law firms and other clients stopped paying to have indoor foliage maintained and replaced, even in high-profile places like reception areas. Planters were empty or had leafless stalks. Or, the plants were barely alive "with dead leaves hanging down from them," Note says.
In the last quarter of 2011, Note noticed that many companies decided to start sprucing up. The number of proposals that Parker has written for customers this year is up 60 percent from a year ago.
But companies aren't spending freely. Note says some clients want to replace their plants, but they're no longer buying flowers for reception desks and other public areas. They're choosier, asking companies like Parker to bid on projects — something that wasn't the practice five years ago.
Note is trying to make impressive displays for less money. "I'm trying to be as creative with nothing as I possibly can," he says.
FIFTEEN WINGS AND A COKE
Customers at Hurricane Grill & Wings are eating and spending more. People who limited themselves to orders of five chicken wings during the recession and its aftermath are now chowing down on 10 or 15. They're also ordering more appetizers and entrees. Another big change: People who had asked for a glass of water are now ordering sodas. That's $2.50 on the check instead of nothing.