From “Times may be tough, but Fond du Lac restaurants are thriving” — Fond du Lac is bucking a national trend when it comes to restaurants.

When times are tough, consumers start scrimping and saving instead of splurging at a restaurant. A Harris Poll released last week found that seven in 10 Americans, or 71 percent, are cooking more meals at home to save money. The poll also found that 57 percent of respondents used to eat out regularly, but now it’s a luxury.

In Fond du Lac, locals haven’t stopped supporting their favorite places. Restaurateurs and food educators say many factors — including more affordable restaurants, frugal spenders and family values — have driven sales despite the downturn.

Too busy to cook

Business dropped a little when the recession hit in 2008, but Fond du Lac residents still went out to eat, said Heather Linstrom, co-owner of Linstrom’s Catering in Fond du Lac and Seasons Restaurant in Peebles. They’re still dining out; Linstrom said she’s seeing “nice clientele and nice business.”

She said many people, especially families with two working parents, are so busy that they don’t have the time or energy to prepare home-cooked meals. By Friday night, it’s easier to take the kids out to eat.

“At the end of the week, they think ‘Can I afford to do it?’ The question is ‘Can you afford not to do it?’” she said.

In Fond du Lac, going out for dinner is a social occasion, she added. The weekly fish fry isn’t popular just because of the fish; it’s a chance for everyone to meet after a long, stressful week.

“People are passionate about family and food,” she said.

Saavy spenders

The ever-popular pizza had even more fans when the recession started, said Angie Antkowiak, who owns Ang an’ Eddie’s Pizza with her husband Eddie. The couple started the restaurant, at 7 14th St., in March, but has had a wholesale and consulting business for two years. During that time, the Antkowiaks talked to their restaurant clients, discovering that pizza was a way to feed a lot of people for not a lot of money.

The couple has restaurant experience — they ran Boxcar Eddie’s in North Fond du Lac for six years before closing due to health problems in the family.

So far, Ang an’ Eddie’s has been busy with orders. Pickups are very popular, Antkowiak said. Many customers are college-age to early 30s and have families.

They’re still cautious, using coupons and looking for deals whenever possible, she said. But after sacrificing so much, consumers are itching to spend a little on themselves.

“It’s one thing they can still do that isn’t that expensive, especially (ordering) pizza,” she said.

Pizza is a hit at Gino’s Italian Restaurant, 584 W. Johnson St. Jack Knipple, who owns the restaurant with his wife Jan, has noticed fewer customers since the economy slowed. Customers are also being more selective with their spending, but specials do drive sales. Half-price pizzas on Sunday and Monday are a big draw; the restaurant is selling record numbers of pizzas on those days, he said.

Customers have also signed up for text alerts for specials on their cell phones, Knipple said, another sign that they’re hungry for good food and good deals.

Growing interest

A healthy restaurant industry is welcome news for job seekers as well as customers. At Moraine Park Technical College, enrollment in the culinary arts program has never been higher, said instructor James Simmers.

He said the interest may stem from the popularity of cooking shows and networks. Shows like “Top Chef” illustrate what many are finding out about working with food.

“It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s stressful,” he said.

Simmers said cooks are in demand right now, and food science is a growing field. More companies are looking at ways to prepare healthier foods, including pre-packaged products. Those manufacturers are going to need workers skilled in food technology and research.

He added that food experts are going to be needed as people take greater interest in their food. They want to know where it comes from and how it’s handled.

Linstrom agreed that customers care about their food. It’s one of the reasons why Seasons Restaurant’s mission is to serve as many locally produced ingredients as possible.

It’s not just about trying to lose weight, Linstrom said, but also living with health conditions. More and more restaurant and catering customers are being diagnosed with celiac disease and other conditions that affect what they can eat. Linstrom said requests for gluten-free meals have spiked 50 percent from two years ago. Now, almost every event she caters requires a gluten-free option.

Does that mean the popularity of Wisconsin staples like cheese, beer and butter will diminish?

Absolutely not, Linstrom said.

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