City’s success attracts high-end chains<br> <i> Newcomers raise stakes in a competitive market</i>

PARKSIDE ROTISSERIE & BAR owner Steve Davenport says the high-end chains make his restaurant look stronger, because it offers top quality at better prices. /
PARKSIDE ROTISSERIE & BAR owner Steve Davenport says the high-end chains make his restaurant look stronger, because it offers top quality at better prices. /

With upscale new stores and high-end residential developments, Providence has been looking more and more like Boston and other large cities. Now, with several high-end chains opening restaurants in the city, even the culinary offerings are becoming more similar.
Despite Rhode Island’s reputation for unique, independently owned restaurants, chains are far from a new concept in this market, even at the high end – this, after all, is the birthplace of The Capital Grille, which started in Providence in 1989 and now has 26 locations nationwide.
But while top-tier chain restaurants used to be rare in the state, several new arrivals are rapidly changing that – most notably, in the last two months, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and Shula’s 347, both staking a claim on The Capital Grille’s longtime domain.
Yet another high-end chain, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, is coming to the city later this year, in the new tower of The Westin Providence.
The former Davio’s restaurant at the Providence Biltmore Hotel was taken over nearly three years ago by a chain, too, McCormick & Schmick’s, whose biggest competitor is the homegrown Hemenway’s, owned by the same company as The Capital Grille.
And while Temple, the restaurant in the new Renaissance Providence Hotel, slated to open this spring, will be more moderately priced and have its own identity, it also won’t be independent, but rather part of a new restaurant group started by Sage Hospitality.
Dale Venturini, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Hospitality and Tourism Association, said that several factors are attracting the high-end chains to Providence. First, the residential development is expected to bring a more upscale clientele to the city. Also, increased business from meetings and conventions is bringing more people downtown.
“The pie has just gotten bigger,” she said. “Now we just need to make sure we bring in the people to fill it.”
Ruth’s Chris, which opened its 100th restaurant in December in the new GTECH Corp. building, had been looking at coming into Providence for a long time, said Jay Austin, general manager of the new restaurant. The rebirth of the city, with public investment, cultural attractions and development, made it a perfect fit, Austin said.
“It’s kind of like a turning point for the company, and it’s kind of like the turning point for Providence,” Austin said.
John Elkhay, whose Chow Fun Food Group owns two high-end restaurants, 10 Steak & Seafood and XO Steakhouse, as well as the more moderately priced Big Fish and Citron, said he doesn’t anticipate places like Ruth’s Chris having too much impact on his business.
Elkhay said that he has developed strong connections to his clientele and thus has an advantage over the new chains in the city.
“I think a lot of Rhode Island dining has to do with relationships,” he said.
Still, Elkhay said that changes have been made, including the expansion of the steak menu at 10 and remodeling work at XO. The restaurants also have begun offering organic produce, organic meat and sustainable seafood. The idea, according to Elkhay, is to offer options that the chains can’t implement unless the concepts are handed down from the corporate office.
At Parkside Rotisserie & Bar, a 10-year-old restaurant on South Main Street that has won awards from Wine Spectator, owner Steve Davenport said that he doesn’t feel threatened by the prospect of competition from the high-end chains. In fact, he said the prices that a place like Ruth’s Chris may charge can make Parkside seem stronger by comparison.
“Personally, I think that they make a restaurateur like myself look better as far as value is concerned,” Davenport said.
Johnson & Wales University Professor Michael Sabatoni, who chairs the school’s food service center, said that the high-end chains shouldn’t take any business away from the locals. Restaurants like Ruth’s Chris generally attract three types of customers: corporate clients, participants in meetings and conventions, and people looking to celebrate a special occasion.
“When you think about Ruth’s Chris, as wonderful as it is, it’s not a restaurant that you’re going to frequent every week unless you’re on a corporate account,” Sabatoni said.
(Austin agreed with that assessment, saying that about 60 percent of Ruth Chris’s clients only eat there once a year.) But the chains could be a strong addition for workers in the hospitality industry, Sabatoni said, because they offer alternatives to the independent restaurants and because, as chains, they might offer opportunities at other locations as well.
“There could be some great opportunities for the students that have worked at the restaurant here in Providence,” Sabatoni said.
So far, Austin said, customers are taking to the restaurant. Ruth’s Chris has been focusing on atmosphere and service to ensure it can create repeat business.
“If we’re doing things right, people are going to come back here because of their experience at Ruth’s Chris,” Austin said.
And while customers shouldn’t have trouble accepting good service, one thing they may have difficulty with is the $9 valet parking charge – a first for downtown Providence.
Parking at restaurants throughout the city has generally been complimentary, Sabatoni said, whereas there’s often a charge at restaurants in Boston or New York.
“I hope it’s not going to be the norm and they’re going to set the pace for that,” he said.
However, according to Austin, the charge isn’t actually a profit-making scheme for Ruth’s Chris. The company has a contract with a valet parking vendor and actually ends up paying more money beyond the charge to customers for each car parked.
“If I didn’t have to charge, I wouldn’t charge,” Austin said.

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