by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the ever-volatile restaurant business, the only thing certain is change. Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Restaurant Association (and WSU alum), says many of the challenges facing restaurants stem from economic issues, but they're not the ones you might expect.
"In Washington, unemployment is less than 5 percent," says Anton. "The national rate is right around 5 percent. Anytime you get under that number, you're basically at full employment."
That translates into fewer available workers to fill positions. "That's especially true in the back of the house," Anton says. "It's a risk to find candidates to be prep cooks, entry-level cooks or dishwashers."
Complicating the labor crunch is the continually growing demand for restaurant meals. Even with low unemployment, people are working more hours than ever and families are finding their time crunched. That translates into more meals eaten at restaurants than ever before.
"With low unemployment and everybody wanting to be our customers, we've got to be able to serve them," says Anton. "That's going to be a trick for the restaurants, when you don't have the crew to fulfill the demand."
Because dining out is becoming more of an everyday thing, restaurants are adapting to accommodate whole families rather than just couples or adults-only parties. Anton says restaurants have become places where parents and kids can really pay attention to each other. "The TV is off, the phone is off, and Mom and Dad aren't busy cooking," he says. "So for quality time with the kids, restaurants are the place to go. And that means restaurants really have the opportunity to cater to kids."
Look for establishments to expand their kid-friendly offerings, from more varied menus to kids' cups to providing crayons and table games, he says.
"Most of our restaurants are still working on that niche," he says. "Something simple you see is the flooring -- we've seen this huge boom in acid-washed floors. There goes the slushy on the floor, and it's no big deal. It's easy for the staff to clean up, and parents don't have to feel bad that their kids made a mess. I think you'll see more things that look nice but allow more of a family atmosphere."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & f course, the economy isn't the only factor affecting restaurants -- thanks to the Food Network and the explosion of information available at people's fingertips, diners are becoming more educated and more savvy. The National Restaurant Association recently surveyed more than 1,000 member chefs of the American Culinary Federation to compile a list of the hottest food trends for 2008, and all of the top trends have already found their way into the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene dining market.
Given the publicity about our epidemic of obesity and the resulting demand for more healthy dining options, it's not surprising that small plates -- for both the main course and dessert -- and local or organic produce topped the survey as the hottest trends in dining. Small plates allow frequent diners to have variety without waste, while local and organic produce is good for the individual, the community and the planet.
At Brix in Coeur d'Alene, Chef Adam Hegsted sees these top trends in action every day. "Especially on our tasting menu, we do a lot of small, bite-size things, similar to small plates," he says. "It's a good way to try something you might not ordinarily eat."
Like a lot of people in the food business, Hegsted likes sampling a variety of small dishes when he goes out. "It's the same concept as when you go out for sushi," he says. "You get to try a lot of different things, yet it's not real expensive."
Even when the menu doesn't specifically feature small plates, customers often order several items to share across the table. "We see that especially with our pizzas and salads," he says. "They'll get a bunch of appetizers and share everything together."
Hegsted is so keen on the concept that he plans to open a new small-plates restaurant in the Caf & eacute; Doma space on Sherman Ave., he says.
As customers become more educated about where their food comes from, more of them are requesting food from local sources, he says, but chefs have been quick to embrace local food as well.
"People look for [local food] and look to see it on the menu, but that trend is chef-driven, too, because chefs look to source the best products, and [local and organic] products are a lot more fresh," he says. "The organic stuff tastes better. It's more cared for, because it's a lot harder to produce. There's a lot more love that goes into it, and you can taste that. You get a chicken that tastes like a chicken."
Hegsted visits farmers markets in the summer and uses those visits to spark his own creativity.
"Going to the farmers market is a big thing for me," he says. "I really enjoy bringing in those products, seeing what we can do with them, and then letting the customers know about the farmers, and telling them where the food is grown."
By developing relationships with local producers, Hegsted becomes a conduit linking farmers and diners, spreading the web of food relationships.
"It's inspiring when you go to the farmers market and talk to the farmers and see how hard they work for their money," he says. "And part of the fun is finding that perfect product. If you do that, it's worth the time."