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A not-so wonderful year in the food industry 

In It's a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey gets his wish to never have been born, he becomes a witness to the dramatic changes in his Bedford Falls community if, indeed, he had never lived. George is humbled to see how many lives he had touched and changed. Ultimately realizing how wonderful his life is, he prays to live again -- warts and all.

George Bailey is analogous to what was once Charlotte's thriving economy, an economy that Charlotteans had enjoyed for quite a while.

The period of 1995 to 2007 was a "wonderful life" in Charlotte. The number of jobs and residents increased; Charlotte absorbed newcomers from regions plagued with aging infrastructure and cold weather. The housing market continued to be a bright spot nationally. Banks were getting bigger and steak houses were spontaneously generating themselves. It seemed all corporate chains wanted to open in Charlotte. Del Friscos set the razzle-dazzle bar ever higher with its meat emporium upfit of $10 million and an interior complete with escalators and handcrafted David Yurman-like steel cable railings, and a novel-length wine list.

Yet rumblings of bad things to come, like bumbling Uncle Billy Bailey, were out there. By mid-2007, the drought began to affect many of the area's small landscaping companies and garden shops. In September 2008, gas lines were common in Charlotte -- a shortage created by the disruption of refinery production as an aftermath of hurricanes Ike and Gustav -- and potential diners decided to conserve gas for work and school, eating in, not out. No water, no gas -- Charlotte was beginning to feel Third World, not World Class.

Then in mid-September, the economy started to unravel. By the end of the month, Wachovia was sold, putting more local jobs on the line. By Thanksgiving, companies started scrambling to survive. Expense accounts were cut, and holiday parties were downscaled or scrapped altogether. Area restaurants felt this. Charlotteans were also unsure of whether the pink slip would be coming their way, and even those with "recession-proof" jobs didn't dare look at their 401Ks. Churches received fewer pledges. Restaurants served fewer customers, and wine salespeople sold less wine. Food purveyors became affected: Poseidon Seafood closed.

When 2008 started, it held such promise. The highlights of my 2008 reviews include a diverse group of eateries: the Brazilian bakery Pão Brazil, Polka Dot Bake Shop (cupcakes) in Myers Park and a French bakery, Amelie's, in NoDa. In Huntersville, I delighted in a watermelon, cucumber, goat cheese salad at Maddi's Southern Bistro. And on South Boulevard, I found Quipe at Punta Cana, a restaurant featuring the cuisine of the Dominican Republic. Neighborhood spots like Crisp in Elizabeth and Zada Jane's and Foskoskies in Plaza Midwood served as reminders of the creativity within Charlotte's neighborhoods.

A big theme this past year was "local," from Charlotte's locally grown Chef Chris Edwards with his New South Kitchen & Bar in south Charlotte (winning CL's Best New Restaurant of 2008 award), to a story I wrote about what "local" means. Farmer Sammy Koenigsberg of New Town Farms in Waxhaw said, "Local is becoming the new 'fresh,' and will soon be on the scrap heap with other meaningless words."

But this current downturn in the economy has affected area farmers as well. My lamb connection, Gordon Whitted of Weatherbury Station in Burke's Garden, Va., who sold his meat at the Kings Drive Farmers Market, is selling his farm.

This kind of shakeout will continue in 2009, especially with real estate developers renting out an inordinate amount of space for restaurants and eateries. Look at the list of restaurants that have either opened or will open posted on the Web site for Uptown's EpiCentre: Fleming's Steakhouse, MEZ, Belle Vita, Jason's Deli, Five Guys, Thai House, Cold Stone Creamery, The Fudgery, BlackFinn, Whisky River, Bruegger's Bagels, Smoothie King, Uptown Sundries, Shane's Rib Shack, Wild Wing Café and Indochine. That's a lot of seats to fill each night in a community with less cash to spend.

A thinning of venues will occur within pricey steak house corporate chains; at locally owned establishments like Table and Monty's Seafood Grill, which closed recently, in Ballantyne; and at the smallest, more-remote eateries as well.

And as construction sites diminish, so have the number of food trucks feeding those workers.

The outlook for Charlotte restaurateurs in 2009: green -- as in cost saving. The word among restaurateurs is they will have to work "twice as hard for half the customers."

Here's my advice: If you have a favorite restaurant, visit it. Do not depend on others to keep the business alive through this economic downturn. If it's place you will miss, think about that now.

When his bank customers crowd the Building and Loan asking for their money, George explains that their money is not in the bank, but invested in each other -- much like Charlotte's economy.

Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, and new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? To contact Tricia, send information via email (no attachments, please -- these are destined for the spam filter):

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