A SULTRY MURAL of the owner in her prime peers down upon diners at Fifi's Restaurant, where tinkling piano keys and low lighting create a moody retro nightclub feel.
"No matter where you're sitting in the restaurant, she's looking at you," Fifi Berry, 62, said with a sly laugh.
But just how much longer diners will have the opportunity to be eyeballed by the pretty lady while munching on the establishment's continental cuisine is in question.
Sales have fallen 35 to 40 percent over the past five years.
And as the southwest Toledo eatery - the only Toledo restaurant to receive three stars from the prestigious Mobil Travel Guide for 15 years in a row- celebrates its 25th anniversary, the owner and ever-present hostess is weighing her options.
She is considering a sale or closure of the business off Airport Highway at Bernath Parkway and expects to make a decision no later than the end of the year. "The numbers have to work," she said. "There are things that I would like or need to do. Perhaps it's time for someone younger to take over."
Her situation is not unique, Ms. Berry said, noting that other local independent, upscale restaurants are struggling.
The loss of such establishments would be a blow to the community, she said, because they are major supporters of community causes and help make northwest Ohio unique.
"It's a town with too many restaurants," Ms. Berry said.
The decline in business has been gradual, she said, blaming the fall-off on the growth in chain restaurants, both company-owned and franchised.
Agreed George Kamilaris, chef-owner of Georgio's Cafe International in downtown Toledo, "The chains are very powerful. They build gorgeous places and have reasonable prices. But they are no cheaper than we are. They get customers with the drinks and appetizers."
Times have been tough, Mr. Kamilaris said. "But you have to adjust," he said, adding that he has reduced staff and does more work himself along with brother and co-owner, Chris.
A check of a restaurant guide published by The Blade in 1980 tells the story. Of 45 spots voted as readers' favorites, only about a third survive. Most picks were locally owned, single-location establishments.
The Toledo-Lucas County Health Department has issued permits to 1,671 food service operations, including school cafeterias. But officials don't know how that compares to 1980.
Gus Nicolaidis, longtime owner of the Oaken Bucket, Reynolds Road, said independents face stiff competition.
"It's like a gas station on every corner," he said. "Everybody used to go to their favorite restaurant. Now they go to a franchise and get a steak for $12 instead of $15 or $20."
Steak & Ale was one of the first non-fast-food chains to come to Toledo, he recalled. "I told everybody that franchises would come to haunt this town," Mr. Nicolaidis said.
In connection with Fifi's 25th anniversary, Ms. Berry heard from lots of longtime customers. "People wished me another 25 years and I was saying 'Are you crazy?' "
Times were different when she opened. "Eighty percent of the city was independent restaurants," she recalled. "Now, 80 percent is franchised and chains and 20 percent is independent."
Explaining the motivation for Fifi's, she said: "I always enjoyed great food, cooking, and entertaining." A pet peeve about her hometown, however, was that "you couldn't get anything to eat after 10 o'clock" Her place, then as now, would serve until 11 on weeknights and midnight on weekends.
She called it Fifi's Tidbits & Spirits to incorporate her longtime nickname and reflect her original focus on a small menu devoted to "noshing and nibbling."
To help with atmosphere, she installed a piano player on weekends. Selections would lean to Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald. "Soft and romantic," the owner explained.
The mural of Ms. Berry was suggested by a designer who helped with decorating. "I was embarrassed by it," she confided. "I thought it looked self-centered."
"It's not like a Budweiser sign," the designer responsed.
Adding to the establishment's allure was the proprietor (her given name is Andrae, but few use it anymore, she said) and exotic background as a model and dancer in New York. The place was a hit and within a few years doubled its space in the shopping strip on the southwest edge of Toledo.
In 1983, Ms. Berry dropped "tidbits and spirits" from the name and expanded the menu. "People wanted bigger food," she explained.
She can't pinpoint when business began to decline.
Cutbacks at major corporate employers such as Dana Corp., Owens Corning, and Owens-Illinois Inc. didn't help. Toledo's smoking ban, enacted in 2003, scared away more business. Departures of surrounding businesses created vacancies in the strip center.
Ms. Berry has responded to changing customer demands, including the trend toward more casual dining. The dress code is long gone. An improved lounge area was added.
Despite public perceptions, she said, prices are reasonable considering the level of service and the meal quantity and quality. Dinner entrees are in the $20 to $30 range.
Chain restaurants say they aren't to blame for the independents' problems.
A spokesman for Darden Restaurants Inc., operator of Red Lobster, Olive Garden, and Smokey Bones, said the key to success is "providing dining experiences that exceed guests' expectations."
"There's plenty of room for both multi-restaurant and single restaurant companies to enjoy success," Darden spokesman Joe Chabus said.
In weighing options, Ms. Berry said she has many considerations, including a staff with six long-timers.
For now, at least, she can be found in her usual post overseeing the staff and making sure customers are satisfied. "I try to go to every table, to every customer," she said. "I don't want somebody who doesn't know my business greeting my customers."
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