The business outlook for South Sound restaurants in many ways mirrors that of the national dining arena: cautious cutbacks, innovative investments and positive projections.

“We opened very successful restaurants in Anacortes and Alderwood Mall last year,” said Lane Hoss, marketing director for Anthony’s Homeport restaurants. “And while we don’t have any new restaurants on the books for 2012, that could change.”

Anthony’s, which employs more than 1,500 workers at 22 sites throughout the Pacific Northwest — including Tacoma, Gig Harbor and Olympia — also is following the national trend of “refresh and remodel.”

According to a National Restaurant News survey, dining venues this year are allocating a large chunk of their budget to renovating, upgrading equipment and additional marketing.

In fact, 27 percent of the 150 respondents said these would be their top spending priorities during 2012. Twenty-four percent ranked remodels first, while equipment and technology upgrades earned 21 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

“We’re reinvesting into our restaurants but a lot of what we’ve targeted is ‘back of the house’ — such as kitchen areas and equipment,” Hoss said. “It’s not as glamorous as renovating the dining room, but we continually have to be doing this because these are high-traffic areas.”

At Chipotle Mexican Grill, which opened a restaurant last year at Capital Mall in Olympia, spokesman Alex Spong said the company is investing in new sites and menu options. The chain opened its first ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen during September in Washington, D.C., and the location has been so successful that it will open a second ShopHouse there later this year.

“It’s similar in terms of layout and style. It has the look and feel of Chipotle, with the assembly line of items and the ability to create your own options — only instead with Southeast Asian cuisine,” Spong said. “But as to whether we’ll be rolling any ShopHouses out in the West, or the Pacific Northwest, I don’t know yet.”

Chipotle, which has 1,163 restaurants nationwide, as well as in new international niches in Toronto, London and Paris, plans to open between 155 and 165 restaurants during 2012 — the most annual openings in the company’s history. The 2011 total was 145, including the Olympia site.

And Chipotle Co-chief Executive Steve Ells said that more ShopHouse sites will be in the works as the company hones the concept.

But it’s not just restaurant locales and the settings that are being customized. Tastes are being tweaked as well, as chefs aim to please discriminating palates.

Such menu manipulation is a priority for Salty’s in Federal Way, said outside sales coordinator Noel Romero.

“Our chef is restructuring items that we’re offering in the next month or so,” Romero said. “That’s the only thing that I know of so far that’s changing this year — and that’s something that we’re always focusing on to reflect the specialties of the region.”

Anthony’s, too, plans to capitalize on its “local and fresh” seafood focus.

“We’re continually reviewing our menus and what sells by listening to what our guests tell us,” Hoss said. “Because we try to focus on fresh and local as much as possible, that means changes every season. So, we’re constantly looking — especially in spring and summer — for what’s best produced in this region.”

In addition to interior changes, restaurants are kicking off major marketing efforts. Social media is the top choice, with 47 percent of NRN survey respondents ready to spend dollars here. Traditional media campaigns also are a priority, via main TV channels (11 percent), cable stations (8 percent) and radio (7 percent).

In-store promotions, in the works for 2012 by 28 percent of the national respondents, also are part of the strategy for local restaurants like Ivar’s. The Northwest seafood chain, in business throughout the South Sound since 1938, now has 68 sites — including Tacoma and a restaurant that opened in Puyallup last year.

During recent months, the company also rolled out a commercial line of 11- and 24-ounce, microwavable soups in grocery stores across the United States, as well as five new chowders and soups now selling at regional dining spots and cafeteria facilities. The restaurant also created the TwoSpoon Soups brand for non-seafood offerings.

“With (the restaurant’s) expanded capabilities, (Ivar’s is) excited to offer what Seattle has loved for so many years to a nationwide audience,” said Chris Lewark, sales and marketing director.

In addition, like Anthony’s, 51 percent of restaurants polled expect employee levels to remain steady, while 38 percent are looking to hire.

However, not all restaurants have been as fortunate as those in the South Sound.

Of the companies polled, 11 percent are planning staff cutbacks and 18 percent said they were still too economically challenged to invest in promotions or renovations. And 67 percent said that they’re hiking menu prices this year, albeit by a minimal margin of 1 percent to 3 percent.

Trends for 2012

According to a survey of 1,800 American culinary chefs by the
National Restaurant Association, the top 2012 restaurant themes include:

• Hyper-local items (ingredients from restaurant gardens)

• Sustainability

• Locally produced wine and beer

• Unique protein sources (e.g., pork flat iron, beef petit tender, nontraditional fish)

• Farm and estate-branded items

• Food trucks and street food

• Artisan spirits and ice cream

• Culinary cocktails

Writer Holly Smith Peterson can be reached at hpeterson@BusinessExaminer.com.