Fewer of us are going out to eat, pinching the bottom line of Missouri’s independent restaurants. Consumers have curtailed spending to get through the economic downturn, eating out less often.

Jack Borgmeyer says it’s been tough to coax customers to his Grappa Grill restaurant in St. Charles the past few months.

“Well, we definitely learned a lot,” Borgmeyer tells the Missourinet, laughing a bit, “and had to quickly. It’s like running any other business. Sales are what you can get. You have to be more aggressive in this market than you did three or four years ago when I first got into the game myself.”

Borgmeyer says he has become more aggressive in his marketing, using e-mails, social networking and corporate relationships to lure customers. He says the restaurant also strives to be more involved in the community, anything to keep the restaurant out in front. Borgmeyer says such marketing techniques are extremely important to a restaurant like his that has been operating for 14 years and has to compete with new restaurants.

Down the road in O’Fallon, Tom Kuhn sees the same thing at Madison’s, stating that every independent has to fight not just lower demand, but increased competition from chains offering special deals.

“Dinner for two for $20?” Kuhn asks, referring to the latest promotion of a prominent restaurant chain. “It’s really difficult to feed a person for $10 and try to make a profit. It really is. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”

The recession hit hard. The recovery has been slow.

“Our business is up a little bit, but it needs to be up a lot more,” says Kuhn.

Kuhn says he has relied on an increase in his catering business and banquets to offset lackluster dine-in traffic. Though aggressively marketing, both Kuhn and Borgmeyer say word-of-mouth remains the best advertising for a restaurant. They say service gets the customer through the door. Atmosphere and consistent food quality gets them to come back.

Both Kuhn and Borgmeyer serve as officers in the Missouri Restaurant Association. Association CEO Bob Bonney says it’s difficult to run an independent restaurant any time, let alone during a time when the country struggles to emerge from recession. To help, the association is offering the Dine Out Missouri promotion for the second year. Diners can earn a $25 gift certificate by spending a total of $200 during the month of October at participating Missouri Restaurant Association members.

Participating restaurants and information about the promotion can be found at the DineOutMO website.

Bonney says restaurants are a vital component of the state economy. He says statistics released by the National Restaurant Association peg employment at Missouri restaurants at slightly more than 9% of the total state workforce. It estimates that every $1 spent in Missouri restaurants generates an additional $1.23 in sales for the state economy, which in turn generates tax revenue for local and state governments.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:20 MP3]