The mid-Willamette Valley's restaurant scene continued to build momentum in 2018, thanks in part to a strong economy, and that meant even more dining options in Albany, Corvallis and other communities.

“You have more choices now, and I think that’s great. There really is something for every taste and budget,” said Matt Bennett, owner of the acclaimed restaurant Sybaris in downtown Albany.

Many of the new restaurants are focused firmly on quality, said John “JC” Mersmann, owner of the Dizzy Hen, which opened in Philomath this year. He previously was the chef at Gathering Together Farm for 10 years.

“If you think about serving something good, you have a good chance of making it,” Mersmann added.

Customers themselves are growing more sophisticated and have helped restaurants improve their fare. “They’re supporting more dynamic, more organic, more interesting options. They’re working to make the dining scene better,” Mersmann said.

The farm-to-table movement is spreading from high-end restaurants to cocktail bars, taquerias and more, which makes sense considering the cornucopia of fresh produce in the mid-Valley.

The scene’s momentum builds with the new entries, Bennett said.

“It’s awesome. The more that’s going on, the better it is for all of us. If you’re going to Brick and Mortar, and there’s a long line, ‘Hey, let’s go someplace new that we haven’t been to,’” Bennett added.

Employment figures show that the Linn County restaurant industry continues to expand. That sector added about 140 jobs, according to the latest 2018 figures, increasing to 3,250 workers.

Benton County’s restaurant job growth has been flat, holding steady at about 3,500 jobs for the last few years, said Patrick O’Connor, economist for the Oregon Employment Department.

But that stagnant job growth reflects a high plateau, not a problem, O’Connor added.

“Over the longer haul, Benton County is still performing better since the recession. Linn County had more ground to make up,” he said.

If another economic downtown occurs, don’t expect major job losses in the dining industry, O’Connor said.

“Restaurants aren’t as severely hit. Good times, bad times, people still need to go out and eat,” he added.

Local owners also are aren’t willing to give up when the economy goes sour, Bennett said. “The mom and pop places, those are really the folks that aren’t afraid of working the hours. There’s no overtime if you own it,” he said.

Still, there’s plenty of turnover with restaurants, even in the best of times.

“It’s probably one of the highest churn industries in terms of businesses coming and going,” O’Connor said.

Kyle Odegard can be reached at kyle.odegard@lee.net, 541-812-6077 or via Twitter @KyleOdegard.

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