In a rough time for restaurants, a concoction of shrimp and octopus has helped see Anita Sanchez through.
Molcajete, as the dish is known, is a popular menu item at Mi Casa Taqueria, the Turlock restaurant Sanchez has owned for eight years.
The dish runs from $12.49 for the all-vegetable version to $17.99 for the seafood-chicken-beef combination, but patrons are happy to pay.
"My quality is still the same," Sanchez said Thursday. "That's why I'm still in business. I didn't change quality. I didn't change the portions."
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With the economy flagging and consumers cutting restaurant spending to deal with job losses or pay cuts, the owners of the eateries have a delicate task.
On the one hand, they need to keep up the quality of the food and service. On the other, they need to watch their budgets closely.
"It's become a matter of survival, frankly, controlling costs and doing things more efficiently and effectively," said Daniel Conway, director of public affairs for the California Restaurant Association.
Tom Bruce, a Sacramento-based restaurant consultant, said owners need to make sure the cooks are following instructions. They might, for example, be told to put 6 ounces of French fries on a plate, but instead they toss a "handful" that tends to be on the heavy side.
"That accumulation over a year's period can cost several thousand dollars," Bruce said.
He spoke in Turlock last week at a seminar sponsored by the city and the Alliance Small Business Development Center. More sessions are coming.
Bruce said a restaurant should be stocked with only as much food and drink as it expects to sell in the near future.
"How many of you are in a position to take a big box of money and put it in the storeroom?" he said. "Take those dollars and put them into a well-organized marketing campaign. You can increase your sales, and then you can increase your inventory."
Forecasting costs for savings
Bruce urged restaurant owners to make weekly forecasts of their food and labor costs, then compare them to the actual numbers and see where they can find savings.
He said they should track their finances in four-week blocks, rather than calendar months, because the numbers can be thrown off if a month has five Fridays or Saturdays, which tend to be busy.
Bruce suggested offering signature dishes, such as a "killer burger" at a brew pub. He said restaurants should take part in street fairs and other neighborhood promotions. Pairing the region's abundant foods and wines is another option, he said.
Conway said some restaurants have drawn patrons amid the weak economy by extending happy hours or making lunch specials more prominent.
Focus on marketing urged
Even in good times, restaurants tend to have small profit margins and require many hours of work by the owners.
Bruce said owners should shift some of their day-to-day tasks to managers, if they can afford that, and spend time on marketing.
"What we've really seen in the industry is people working in their business instead of working on their business," he said.
Sanchez follows the advice about inventory control at Mi Casa, a 130-seat, 10-employee restaurant at Golden State Boulevard and Canal Drive.
"We know what we need and what we use," she said.
She has turned to Al Seaton of Turlock to handle the marketing. He said Mi Casa has a large proportion of Latino patrons who like the genuine Mexican food, but it is seeking to draw people of other backgrounds.
The restaurant's dishes appeal to the eye as much as the mouth. The molcajete comes to the table sizzling in a bowl made of lava rock. For the shrimp version, the seafood is draped along the edges along with orange slices and whole green onions. A tomato peel twisted into a rose shape sits atop it all.
"My place is not Mexican fast food," Sanchez said. "My place is traditional, gourmet Mexican food. You order a taco, and you can hear the sizzle of the meat."
Thursday's midafternoon patrons needed no convincing.
"We made it a point to eat here on our wedding day, it's that good," said Patty Mora of Merced, who came to Mi Casa with new husband Vincent Mora and a few other loved ones.
"It's authentic Mexican food," said maid of honor Alexandra Jimenez. "It's like having a home-cooked meal."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at 578-2385 or email@example.com.