Ashland restaurants are tightening their belts this month as they find themselves sandwiched between a recession and a minimum wage increase, forcing them to be more creative with less.

Ashland restaurants are tightening their belts this month as they find themselves sandwiched between a recession and a minimum wage increase, forcing them to be more creative with less.

Some upscale restaurants, such as Larks Home Kitchen Cuisine, seem to have been hit particularly hard, because many diners are opting for cheaper fare, said Michelle Glass, food and beverage director at Larks.

"It's definitely a challenging time right now both from the recession standpoint and because of the minimum wage going up," she said Tuesday. "The combination of those two has certainly created a challenging climate for restaurants this month."

As a result, local restaurants — high- and low-end alike — are serving up discounts, cutting employees' hours and offering new specials in an effort to lure customers.

Upscale restaurants scale down

Since the state minimum wage increased by 45 cents an hour to $8.40 Jan. 1, Larks has implemented a dinner deal to try to increase business. Since Jan. 11 the downtown restaurant has offered three courses for $30, a significant discount because entrées at the restaurant typically cost $20 or more.

"We're hoping that this will make locals, who might see us as being one of the more upscale or expensive restaurants in Ashland, see that we are actually more affordable," Glass said.

Larks is hoping the promotion, which runs through the end of March, will bring in extra business during the slow winter season.

"January is always a tough month and it's definitely quieter than it was last January. But one of the benefits to us for January is that so many other places are closed, so we do always see a decent amount of business," Glass said.

After the economy plunged last fall, the restaurant also trimmed its hours in order to cut costs, Glass said. Larks now opens every night at 5:30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m.

Avalon Bar & Grill, an upscale restaurant in Talent, is also open fewer hours this year, said Dal Carver, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Renee.

The eatery is now closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, two days that it used to be open solely for dinner.

"We just decided not to open at all on those days, partly because of the economy and partly for efficiency," Mr. Carver said.

The Carvers have also implemented several promotions at the restaurant to try to take in extra cash, and the restaurant is now doing reasonably well, he said.

"Were adding quite a few things that maybe we should have done before the economy. It kind of sharpens your wit a little bit."

Avalon now offers an $8.95 early dinner from 3 to 5:30 Wednesday through Saturdays. There is also a new happy hour, from 2 to 6 p.m. on the same days. On Friday nights, the eatery features live Motown music, to encourage diners to stick around after supper and order desert or drinks, Carver said.

"We've tried to do it more by adding things and less buy cutting things," he said of making up lost revenue. "We want to have as many things going on as possible to make this a little bit of a gathering place in addition to a place for fine dining. We're trying to bring that aspect of the business in."

Inexpensive restaurants ramp up customer service

Workers at Happy Falafel, a Mediterranean fast-food joint on Ashland Street, are relying on their customer service to keep locals coming back, said Jay Krebsbach, the restaurant's general manager.

The low-priced eatery has only seen a slight decline in business since the recession struck, he said.

"We're doing pretty much normal winter sales, and we've got some real strong days," Krebsbach said. "Actually I think things are looking pretty good for us because we're in a good price point and we've got a good, steady local following."

The restaurant also gives out free yogurt sauce with their meals, which customers seem to appreciate more now, Krebsbach said.

"People are counting their change and we don't want to hit them for another 50 cents here and another 50 cents there. Giving them a little something now makes it so they'll probably come back in the future," he said.

John Wallace, the owner of Giseppi's Pizza, a reasonably priced restaurant on Siskiyou Boulevard, has decreased the hours for some employees, in order to save money, he said.

"The owner and manager are working a tremendous amount of more hours," he said. "The hours have been cut back so we've been able to not lay people off. I'd prefer to keep the people but just give them fewer hours and hopefully we can ride this thing out together."

The eatery, which offers a $2.25 pizza lunch special, is also offering some discounts on pizzas and is going to expand its menu next week with take-and-bake pizzas and gluten-free pizzas, Wallace said.

"We have a good day-trade. People are still eating lunch here, but where we're hurting is in the evening. People are not ordering as much in the evenings," he said.

Wallace is also encouraging his employees to focus on customer service, he said.

"If you treat people fairly and you give a good product, they have a tendency to participate and eat here again," Wallace said.

Business expected to pick up in the spring

Glass, the food and beverage director at Larks, said she expects business to pick up at local restaurants in the warmer months, although business this summer could be slower than last year too.

"It's certainly quiet right now and it's quieter than normal. Everyone's trying to be optimistic and keep our fingers crossed. Restaurants are so very much in the moment and very much day-to-day, so you just try to be optimistic and do the best you can," she said.

Staff writer Hannah Guzik can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or