By WADE DANIELS Staff Reporter Thanks to an improved economy, more people are eating out these days, and the trend is fueling the development of new restaurants and the expansion of existing chains in the greater San Fernando Valley. “I’m seeing more new places opening or looking to open than in a long time,” said Connie Trimble, president of the Valley chapter of the California Restaurant Association. “It’s because the economy is good, although it’s still expensive for individual restaurants to open, so it’s mostly corporate expansion.” In the first half of this year, the city of Los Angeles approved permits for about $3.3 million worth of new restaurant construction about six times the $480,000 in permits approved in the same period of 1997. Existing restaurants spent about $2 million on alterations and additions in the first six months of 1998 compared to $340,000 in the same period a year earlier. The San Fernando Valley Economic Research Center of Cal State Northridge culled the numbers from raw data from the city’s Department of Building and Safety. The statistics are preliminary and are accurate within plus or minus 8 percent, according to a department official. Companies like San Clemente-based Pick Up Stix Inc., a Chinese fast-food chain that makes meals fresh instead of scooping pre-prepared food from lamp-heated vats, has targeted the Valley as an attractive market. The company, which has 19 stores in Orange County and San Diego, opened its first eatery in Granada Hills in March and will open additional stores this year in Valencia, Studio City and Calabasas. “We feel like the Valley is our kind of market, and the economy seems ready for it now,” said company co-founder William Beckett. Officials from company, whose meals usually cost a few dollars more than places like McDonald’s, say they would like to open even more stores in the Valley, but it has been difficult finding retail space in areas where people can afford to pay a little more for a meal, said Ed Hoban, the chain’s director of real estate. “We have to stay ahead of the game and do things like watch for restaurants that are about the close,” Hoban said. “You have to jump on an available location or someone else will get it fast.” Chris Crocker, a restaurant properties specialist with Capital Commercial Real Estate Services Inc. in Encino, said a lot of restaurant companies are having similar trouble finding space in the Valley markets they target. “Most of the choice spaces in more affluent places like Encino, Woodland Hills and Sherman Oaks are taken,” Crocker said. “Because of this, some companies are looking to get as close as possible to desired areas but settling for a little bit less than their ideal.” He noted that there have been continuing negotiations to build new restaurants in places like Porter Ranch, which is planning a retail center along with its housing development, and at the refurbished Northridge Fashion Center. Other chains that plan expansion in the greater San Fernando Valley include the Calabasas Hills-based Cheesecake Factory Inc., which will open its second Valley-area restaurant in December in Thousand Oaks. “Our Woodland Hills restaurant has been improving each year, and this helped us decide to open another one in (nearby Thousand Oaks),” said Cheesecake Factory spokeswoman Linda Candioty. While much of the interest from restaurant companies may be focused on more upscale areas of the Valley, there has also been heightened activity this year in less affluent areas. Demand for restaurant space is increasing in practically every area of the Valley, including less glitzy communities like Sunland-Tujunga and Pacoima, said Michael Schiff, senior associate with the Sherman Oaks office of Grubb & Ellis Co. There may not be the level of competition for space in those areas compared to Encino or Sherman Oaks, but independent restaurateurs are opening diners and small ethnic eateries in mini-malls and other spaces in those communities. Schiff noted that there are still many restaurant sites in the Valley in upscale areas and in lower-income communities which remain empty due to factors such as poor parking or visibility. The city of San Fernando has seen more interest from restaurateurs in 1998 than in many years, said Scott Schmidt, project manager for the San Fernando Chamber of Commerce. He said that there have been six inquiries from restaurant companies about opening new locations there since January, compared to three in all of last year. He said that most of interested parties are corporate chains, though the sole company so far going ahead with plans to build is a Sylmar-based independent Mexican restaurant called Casa Torres. He said that San Fernando’s regulations on the granting of alcohol licenses, which are more restrictive than those of Los Angeles, have discouraged some companies’ plans to set up there. The city in coming months plans to review the law to possibly relax the regulations to allow more eateries to serve spirits, he said.