Maria's Italian Kitchen has humble roots: It started in 1975 as a takeout place in a converted garage. The chain was reborn in its current configuration of family restaurants 10 years later, and is now adapting to the world of downtown Los Angeles with a new location that features both fine dining and takeout.

"It's not mom and pop anymore," said Maria's owner, Madelyn Alfano.

The downtown location opened in July, and includes sit-down fine dining with linen napkins and imported stemware, a bar and lounge area, and a separate takeout area that features tables for customers wanting to grab a quick meal. The other eight Maria's, which are scattered throughout the county, offer casual dining only.

Don Froehlich, head of operations for Maria's, said Alfano developed the concept of offering customers both sit-down and takeout options partly because the restaurant is in downtown's financial district, and she wanted to build a customer base among people who work in the area and don't always have time for a seated meal.

"I think being downtown, we had a whole new clientele with all the office buildings and thought that the express would work out for us," said Froehlich, who has been working at Maria's since the first location opened in Sherman Oaks in 1985.

But growing a clientele at the downtown Maria's has been a struggle. Alfano, 51, recognizes that downtown lacks a large number of residents, and the area is still slowly being revitalized with entertainment complexes such as L.A. Live.

"It's slow at night, which is a little disappointing," Alfano said.

She is also facing a down economy, which isn't likely to give any of Maria's restaurants a significant boost in diners anytime soon.

Ed Enogoron, a Santa Monica food and hospitality consultant, said the restaurant industry is experiencing steep declines in consumer spending. Customers are either eating at cheaper restaurants, or have stopped dining out.

"This is the first time we have seen these types of changes in food spending habits since the 1950s," said Enogoron, president of Perspectives the Consulting Group Inc.

In order to stay in business through the current recession, Enogoron said restaurant owners like Alfano need to make sure customers keep coming back.

"Eating out is a habit," he said. "During difficult times, you want to do everything you can to keep people in the habit of coming to your restaurant."


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