Store owners are cautious, to say the least, given the current economy.

It's 2009: Do you know where your customers are?

Central Ohio restaurateurs are preparing for one of the toughest economies in recent memory, fearing a night out will be among the first items cut from tightening household budgets. Many restaurants have halted their expansion plans, cut hours and introduced specials to fill seats.

"Were expecting a rough ride in '09," said Rick Hauck, president of the Cleveland-based Hyde Park Restaurant Group, which operates four steakhouses and one upscale lounge in Columbus.

Hauck said high-ticket restaurants could bear the brunt of a retreating dining public that likely will pick less expensive places to eat. Sales were down 12 percent in 2008 and corporations cut back on entertaining, and canceled -
or drastically trimmed - holiday parties.

"We're doing everything we can to increase sales, within reason," he said.

One is the introduction of value-driven specials, such as the pre-fixe dinners, which offer salad or soup, main course and dessert for $25.

"It doesn't come across as a discount," he said. "We don't want to change who we are. We can't change who we are."

Even the quick-casual market is feeling the pinch.

Dominic Rotolo, president of the locally based Rotolo's Pizza chain, said he's seen about 12-percent dip in sales. On a bright note, the prices for some commodities - flour and cheese, for example - have come down.

Customers are still loyal, Rotolo said, but they're visiting less often. And they're buying fewer of the add-ons, such as salad and garlic bread.

Daily specials are still popular, such as $10.99 Tuesday (a large pizza with one topping) and family pasta Sunday, Rotolo said.

"We may have to do that more," he said. "We may have to come up with more creative specials to get them through the door or up their frequency."

Robert Welcher, a local restaurant consultant, sees the current climate as a good shake-out period for the local restaurant industry.

"In a cyclical economy, which we certainly are in, there are deals out there to be made," he said. "It's good buyer's market right now in every respect.

"You'll find the good operators will survive."

And the days of the flashy restaurant premiere, complete with suitable pomp and circumstance, aren't over, he said. For example, Cleveland-based Sushi Rock soon will take over the Bluefish spot, a large, high-profile location on the Cap.

"It's not a good time to hunker down," Welcher said.

Things aren't bad for all restaurants. Jeff Rains, president of Breads of the World, a local franchisee that operates 72 Panera restaurants, 20 of which are in the central Ohio region, said receipts are up company-wide, although he
wouldn't say how much. In fact, his group opened four stores in 2008 and plans to open four in 2009.

"I think what's going to happen this year, people who have differentiated themselves in the minds of the customers-I think those people are going to be OK," he said. "I think if you're in that group of restaurants where people associate you with three or four or five competitors, I think you're in trouble."

There was some encouraging news from the National Restaurant Association, which estimates that overall restaurant industry sales will increase in current dollars by 2.5 percent over 2008 figures. The numbers translate to an inflation-adjusted decline of 1.0 percent.

The trade association also forecasts:
Sales at full-service restaurants will reach $182.9-billion in 2009, an increase of 1.0 percent over 2008.
Quick-service restaurants will post sales of $163.8-billion in 2009, a gain of 4 percent over 2008.
Eating-and-drinking places will take in $395-billion, an increase 2.2 percent over 2008.

Nancy Haitz, owner of Cookware Sorcerer in the Short North, said people aren't turning in their Diners Club cards for pots and pans just yet.

"They're not going to do a complete turnaround and invest in a bunch of cooking equipment in lieu of eating out," she said.

Sales have been solid for the home kitchen-equipment purveyor, Haitz said.

"There is a renewed interest in cooking," she said, "but I don't think it has anything to do with the recession."