Downtown restaurants, merchants say the train has swelled customer counts
Old Chicago is stocking up on crayons and high chairs.
That might sound strange for a restaurant in the heart of the Warehouse District party zone, but young families are starting to hit Downtown in droves on the weekends, eager to ride light rail.
General Manager Brandon Bramscher said the 508 1st Ave. N. restaurant - which is just steps away from the Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue platform - has seen an influx of families.
"We see families come down Saturday and Sunday days sometimes to just check the train out and come Downtown and have a sandwich," Bramscher said. "It's been a challenge for us because we're a location that's not used to having a lot of children. So it takes an adjustment for us to be a little bit more family friendly."
Bramscher said along with its new high chairs and art supplies, the restaurant has recently updated its children's menu. Despite the broadened customer base, he said he's confident the restaurant can wear two hats.
"I'm more than happy to be a nightclub atmosphere in the evening and a family-friendly establishment in the daytime. That works for us," he said.
Since the beginning of the Vikings season, Old Chicago and other nearby Warehouse District restaurants have passed out free LRT tickets to customers headed to the games. Bramscher said his restaurant hands out more than 100 passes on game days.
Near the Nicollet Mall LRT platform, nearby businesses are experiencing similar weekend traffic spikes.
Lydia Mattison, vice president and general manager at Gaviidae Common's Nieman Marcus, 505 Nicollet Mall, has noticed a significant increase in customers since light rail's June 2004 unveiling.
Another surge in foot traffic came after the Mall of America station opened in December.
"The light rail has definitely added a level of convenience for our customers who are traveling from the south. They love the fact that it's next to Nieman Marcus and they're able to just get on the light rail and walk into the store," she said. "It's just really easy for them and they don't have to worry about parking. I have had customers tell me that."
Mattison said she has observed more families arrive by train, particularly during the holiday season for the TCF Holidazzle Parade. While she declined to disclose sales figures, Mattison said Nieman's has seen an increase in sales since LRT's launch.
Andrea Christensen, a leasing consultant who works with City Center and Gaviidae Common, said light rail is drawing in new customers who might otherwise have been intimidated by Downtown.
"I think it's people who don't want to park and some people are afraid to drive Downtown, too," said Christensen, who works for Colliers Turley Martin Tucker. "But I also think it's helping us bring people who are shopping at the Mall of America who wouldn't come Downtown before. For kids, it's fun - it's a ride."
Christensen took the rail from the Mall of America in December and was surprised by the crowds.
"It was packed - you couldn't get another person on it," she said. "It's educated, higher-income people who are on that. That's been huge, and I've seen a lot of families come Downtown."
Long-time caf owner Barry Hamlin, who operates Hamlin's Coffee Shop, a pint-size diner at 512 Nicollet Mall, said he's considering opening on Saturdays to draw LRT riders. Currently, Hamlin's is open 6 a.m.-1:45 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Hamlin said other business owners in the Renaissance Square Building have told him there are many people getting off the train on Saturdays and strolling down Nicollet Mall.
"We can see grandparents and kids and they get off the LRT Downtown and we're the first place they see. So I'm fortunate there," said Hamlin, who recently made his diner smoke-free, four months ahead of the city's March 31 ban.
While some Downtown merchants are crediting the train with a spike in sales, not all businesses are seeing an LRT-fueled increase.
A staffer at the Trieste Caf, a Greek deli in the Lumber Exchange Building at 10 S. 5th St., said business is up among Downtown workers now that LRT construction has ended, but few riders have stopped in for a bite.
Block E General Manager Sue Bonin said the entertainment complex at 600 Hennepin Ave. S. is so busy on the weekends that it's hard to tell if there's been a spike in business from the LRT.
As with other Downtown businesses, Block E sees a swell in customers on Dome or Target Center game days, but Bonin hasn't noticed a dramatic impact from LRT.
Brian Newman, general manager at City Center's T.G.I. Friday's, said the restaurant has also noticed a few customers trickle from light rail on game days.
Newman said he expects the increase to be more dramatic in the summer. In the dead of winter, walking just two blocks from the LRT platform can be a powerful deterrent for some customers.