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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, April 29, 2010

Chains fare well
Recession closes independent Italian eatery in Star Plaza

By Anne Hayden

GUILDERLAND — In the midst of the economic recession, Aromi d’Italia, more recently known as Café Teria, is closing its doors after nearly a decade of serving Italian food and gelato in the Star Plaza.

The restaurant opened in February 2001, and originally had four owners — Michael Ermides, his two brothers, Savas and Jon, and their brother-in-law Chris. Over the years, Ermides’ family members bowed out of the business, which he called “grueling.”

In November, after the restaurant took a hit due to the faltering economy, Ermides converted the full-service establishment to a counter-service cafeteria, and changed its name to Café Teria. Ermides said on Tuesday that the change resulted in even more lost customers.

“I think people became comfortable with what we were,” he said. This past February, in a last-ditch effort, Ermides brought table service back to Café Teria. But, on Friday, April 30, the restaurant will close its doors for good after the dinner service ends at 10 p.m.

The space has been bought by Joseph Soliman, who owns the Hidden Café in Delmar, and plans to open his second restaurant in — Star Plaza. Though the food-service industry has struggled during the recession, and Ermides was forced to close his doors, there may be hope for Soliman, according to reports from the NPD Group, a Washington based market research firm.

Its studies show that, although the number of restaurants in the United States decreased by 1,652 from the fall of 2008 to the fall of 2009, the last quarter of 2009 showed some improvement in restaurant traffic. The biggest improvements were seen in “fast casual” restaurants, according to Bonnie Riggs, a restaurant industry analyst for the NPD Group. That category of eatery also remained the strongest throughout the recession.

“Consumers are not just trading down in the quality of restaurant they visit, but on menu items, as well,” Riggs said. She referenced chains like Five Guys Burgers and Fries and Chipotle as faring well throughout the last year-and-a-half. A Five Guys opened on Western Avenue in February, and a Chipotle, a Mexican fast-casual eatery, is slated to arrive in Stuyvesant Plaza at the end of the summer.

Riggs said, although there is a widespread weakness in the industry, the hardest hit sector is the independent, fine-dining establishment. Up until this last quarter, Riggs said the NPD Group saw double-digit declines in fine-dining traffic.

The NPD Group also offers trend forecasts, and Riggs said she predicts that, although the rate of traffic decline to restaurants will continue to slow, traffic will remain weak until the third quarter of 2010.

According to Janet Kaplan, the vice president for real estate for Stuvesant Plaza, there has been no indication that the restaurants in the plaza are struggling. Eight eateries, lease space at Stuyvesant Plaza. That number will grow to 10 when Chipotle opens in late summer, and an independent Japanese restaurant called Mr. Fuji opens in the early fall.

Other eateries in the plaza include: Bountiful Bread, a chain restaurant that offers soups, salads, and sandwiches; Bruegger’s Bagels, a chain offering bagels, sandwiches, wraps, and soups; Coldstone Creamery, an ice cream chain shop where the ice cream is made on-site; Creo, an independently owned, fine-dining, Mediterranean-style restaurant; Londonderry Café, a casual eatery featuring patio dining; Peaches Café, an independently-owned casual restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert; Provence, an upscale restaurant featuring French and Mediterranean cuisine; Starbucks, a coffee shop chain; and, T. G. I. Friday’s, a casual restaurant and bar.

“We always try to get restaurants we think will last. We try to determine whether they will fit the mix, what their financial strength is, and what kind of clientele they have,” Kaplan said. She said she thinks the key to a lasting, independently-owned restaurant is a good operator.

In response to complaints from Stuyvesant Plaza restaurant-owners that the new chain, Chipotle, would attract a different demographic — college students — than the mall’s target clientele, Kaplan said any draw for new customers to the shopping center is beneficial. She said the plaza had received an easement from the town to build a small parking lot to the side of T. G. I. Friday’s, to handle some of the extra traffic generated by a new eatery.

For Ermides and Café Teria, a few miles west on Route 20 from Stuyvesant Plaza, the recession was just too much to handle. Ermides, in addition to owning the restaurant, is the manager of Star Plaza, and said the independent businesses there have had a hard time over the past year, but none of the others are near closing.

Ermides is not getting out of the food-service business, entirely, though. He is planning to take the recipe for the gelato that Aromi d’Italia became known for, and to sell it wholesale to other restaurants, including Soliman’s new restaurant in Star Plaza.

Ermides said he wanted to thank everybody for their patronage, and said that, throughout the decade that he owned his restaurant, he met a lot of great people and forged a lot of wonderful friendships.

“We’re sad to see it go,” Ermides concluded, “but at the same time, we’re relieved to end the daily grind.”

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