How much are diners putting their money where their mouth is?

Posted Dec. 29, 2008, at 8:23 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — While many restaurants in southern Maine are reeling from national economic problems, a quick sampling of the city’s eating establishments showed more mixed results.

Restaurants such as Governor’s and Nicky’s Cruisin Diner seemed to be faring well despite the faltering economy. Panda Garden Chinese restaurant, on the other hand, has seen a big drop in business.

Randy Wadleigh, who owns five of the six Governor’s restaurants around the state, said his November and year-to-date numbers were very strong compared with numbers from last year. The best numbers, so far, are coming out of the restaurants in Bangor, Old Town and Waterville.

Governor’s tends toward comfort food and New England fare and offers a variety of entrees starting at $6.99, Wadleigh said Monday. It’s also a restaurant that draws a variety of people — those who might normally go to a fast-food restaurant looking for a nicer meal and fine diners who are seeking a diner experience.

Those factors, Wadleigh believes, help keep the restaurant humming.

“In general, I’m very nervous. I think the winter’s going to be tough on a lot of people,” he said. “But historically our concept and name does well in recession times.”

Locations in Lewiston and South Portland haven’t seen the same strong numbers, Wadleigh said. A Governor’s location in Houlton, which was also a franchise, closed in April 2008. Rising energy and food costs were to blame, according to earlier reports. A Governor’s restaurant in Presque Isle is a franchise and is not owned by Wadleigh.

This is a rough time of year for many restaurants, Wadleigh added, as people cut back on costs after the expenses of the holidays, try to stick to New Year’s resolutions about eating healthfully, and are reluctant to go out in bad weather. Things usually pick up around February school vacation, he said.

Wadleigh added that the National Restaurant Association has warned members that food costs from distributors could be up as much as 4 percent in the coming year. Governor’s does not have any price increases planned at this time.

Nicky’s on Union Street in Bangor is another source of comfort food. The winter weather, which so far has produced just one major snowstorm, has helped numbers.

“Actually, because there are fewer snowstorms, even our slow days are beating last year’s days,” said Karen Day, who owns the eatery with her husband, Howard.

“Knock on wood, we haven’t seen a huge drop,” she said. “With the [falling] cost of home heating oil and gas and the mild weather so far, those are some pluses for restaurant owners.”

Diners are strategizing in ordering, however. Karen Day said customers might not order soda, sticking to free water instead or choosing one order of french fries to share instead of each diner ordering a separate plate.

“They’re doing different things,” she said. “But going out to eat is still something that is not really a superexpensive form of entertainment.”

Mike and Josephine Yao of Panda Garden, however, said business has dropped by around 30 percent from last year at the Franklin Street restaurant. Some of the company Christmas parties they expected to book this year didn’t materialize, and regular customers such as businesspeople who take clients to lunch have told the Yaos their budgets are tight.

“It used to be once a week,” Mike Yao said of his regulars. “Now it’s once a month.”

The Yaos are hoping to ride out the economic downturn and said they have no plans to raise prices despite the decline in business.

“When you raise [prices], you only scare people away,” Josephine Yao said.

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