Spain, once a gastronomic leader, sees rise in discount dining

BARCELONA -- Spain, known for leading restaurants such as the shuttered El Bulli, has seen a new type of dining establishment succeed during its recession: the discount dining chain.
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

BARCELONA -- Spain is known for three-hour, Michelin-starred meals with bottles of vino, often accompanied by the sounds of live flamenco. While the luxury and tourism industries are still flourishing with expats, the recession has pulled the bottom out of local hospitality. From El Bulli to traditional tapas places, 12,000 Spanish bars and restaurants closed in the last three years alone. While the most well-known and unknown faces of Spain's greatest attraction are struggling to survive, the recession has seen a rapid rise of restaurant chains that look to maintain the Castilian food tradition at a much lower price.

100 Montaditos, named after its menu of four-inch sandwiches, first opened in the south of Spain in 2000. The "mono-price + mono-product" system started out aiming to sell 100 different options for 100 pesetas each. The chain has seen rapid growth, particularly since the economic crisis began in 2008, and it now has about 250 franchises in Spain, as well as about 20 more around the world, including ten in Miami. In 2010, the chains' parent company Restalia also opened La Sureña, more of a raciones (plates of cured ham or cheese) and seafood discount chain with more than 70 spots across the peninsula.

Of course, with Spain in such an economic quagmire, Restalia may be the discount dining leaders, but they aren't the only ones. Similar chains, like Copas Rotas, which serves a large vino and tapas menu for a euro apiece, have been popping up to serve up Spanish tradition especially to the 60 percent of youth who are unemployed.

SmartPlanet talked to one Barcelona barrio bar that started selling five mini bottles of booze plus a tapa for 4€, while there's a Madrid bar that offers two-for-one drinks to those that show their paro (unemployment) slip. As more and more bars and restaurants are dropping their bottom line, the discount chains are going even lower, with 100 Montaditos taking the discount food race to the next level last year by introducing "Partimos en el euro," offering Spanish patrons all their sandwiches for merely 50 cents each on Mondays.

Restalia also follows suit of Spanish clothing empire Inditex, of Zara fame, by not paying for advertising, but by trying to make a name for itself in the news; for 100 Montaditos, it's all about offering itself as a solution to the peseta-pinching crisis.

In 2008, reacting to even tighter wallets, the chain kicked off Euromania (Dollarmania in the U.S. and so forth) in which not only is each of the sandwiches one euro, but pints of sangria, calimocho (red wine mixed with Pepsi) and beer are also a euro on Wednesdays and, more recently, Sundays. 100 Montaditos representative for the Americas, Marta Centeno calls Euromania a turning point for the brand "in reaction to the economic crisis to become a pocket-friendly concept." She says, "When we opened restaurants in Mexico and the U.S. we continued it to create awareness and to be known."

With buy-one-get-one tapas platters and euro sandwiches, many wonder how the Restalia chains can make a large enough profit to foster its rapid growth. Centeno admits, "It's really hard!" but says that they buy in bulk for seven countries and, if you count La Sureña, you have almost 400 restaurants operated by Restalia.

"We work with Mahou because we have an arrangement with them everywhere," saying Spain's cheapest beer brand "gives us a really competitive price." Centeno continued, "We may not be popular with them in the U.S., but a year or two into the expansion, [it becomes] a very high profit for investors."

Centeno describes 100 Montaditos as "the only Spanish gastronomy franchise" in the Americas, claiming to be less fast food and more casual dining because beer, wine and soda are served in proper glasses, not the McDonald's plastic and Styrofoam. While the 80 percent under-35 Spanish crowd shows up for half-food, half-booze, Centeno says they are finding that the vast majority of American clientele are focused on the cultural and gastronomical Spanish food experience. While the drinks are more expensive in, say, Miami, $3.50 for a large pint is a comparatively similar discount.

Of course, traditional bars and restaurants aren't worried about the discount chain competition, many saying they don't have and don't want the discount chains' customers. "These are two different types" of bars, said the bar owner/bartender of barrio Bar Easo to the din of the Spain versus Hungary game. "They are a different target audience," saying he didn't want the younger crowd in his bar. However, SmartPlanet was the lone customer in the bar.

Photos: Courtesy of Restalia

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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