Restaurant wars: Too many national chains Downtown?

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April 30, 2002 // UPDATED 1:18 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Some say the franchise boom reduces urban cachet; others ask what's so bad about more choice for diners?

Not too long ago, Downtown's stretch of Hennepin Avenue was lined almost completely with local, independent restaurants. Now, the street boasts such national franchises as Copeland's of New Orleans, TGI Friday's, Chevy's Fresh Mex and, soon, Olive Garden Italian Restaurant and all the restaurants in Block E.

"It seems like there's been a surge of franchises or corporately owned restaurants Downtown," said Julie Steenerson, co-owner of Sapor, an independent restaurant at 428 Washington Ave. N. in Downtown's North Loop neighborhood.

Independent restaurateurs believe the chain invasion could cost Downtown its urban cachet. Some even utter the s-word: "It's like bringing suburbia Downtown," Steenerson said.

As franchises proliferate, several long-standing Downtown independents such as the New French Caf and Chez Banana's have closed their doors. However, no firm numbers exist about whether corporate giants are elbowing out independents, or merely filling a growing Downtown market without cannibalizing their smaller cousins.

"I think we have plenty of restaurants Downtown right now. I thought we did five years ago, and there continues to be an influx of more and more," said Tim Murray, owner of Murray's Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, 26 S. 6th St.

Franchise managers say they are Downtown for the same reason independents are: a lucrative market of 150,000 workers, 20,000 residents and countless visitors.

"It's good for us to capitalize on the lunch business and all the different events," said Randy Erickson, general manager of the City Center TGI Friday's, 100 N. 6th St. "Friday's definitely likes to have a location in a large urban or downtown setting. It usually works good for us."

While restaurant owners assert that their particular restaurant -- chain or independent -- is preferable, many customers say they dine at both.

"I'll go anywhere as long as the food tastes good," said Downtown worker Chad Heinle.

Others said that the occasion usually dictates their restaurant choice.

"I usually prefer non-franchise restaurants for special occasions," Downtown employee Scott Basche said. "Non-franchises are typically what I go to for social occasions or for a more enjoyable dinner."

Downtown worker Stacy Sommerhauser concurred with Basche, often visiting a chain for lunch, such as D'Brian's. However, she added, "When I'm Downtown for dinner I usually have a little more time to spend. It's like a night out -- something I don't do often. So I like to try to go to places I've never been. I like to got to restaurants that aren't chains."

Banding together

Independent restaurateurs acknowledge the national franchisees' right to be Downtown, but 12 of them have organized a group to combat the chains: Twin City Originals, a chapter of the Council of Independent Restaurants of America (CIRA). The group seeks to raise people's awareness of independent restaurants.

"It's not an organization against chains, but to remind the public of the difference in quality and experience that exists in dining in an independent restaurant versus a chain restaurant," said Wayne Kostroski, a TC Originals member and co-owner of Goodfellow's, 40 S. 7th St.

Kostroski said that he thinks Downtown restaurants should reflect the area's character, not a corporate concept easily planted anywhere.

"I think it's embarrassing that Downtown is gaining so many chains," Kostroski said. "Downtown is supposed to be the heart and soul and main blood flow of a metropolitan area. When a traveler comes to Downtown Minneapolis, they're looking for the culinary culture of this city."

Kostroski admittedly has a vested interest in promoting independent restaurants. But he says he's also concerned with the slippery slope effect that more and more chains have on not just Downtown, but the country.

"If the public wants to have just a few choices from which to dine when they go out to eat, then they should let all the chains take over. Basically what you'll end up with is ten menus covering every single dining experience across the country," Kostroski said.

But why exactly is independent better than corporate? Independent restaurant owners say the reasons are many.

"Independent is better because we're flexible with who we hire, how we put out our food and who we buy from," said Mitch Omer, co-owner of the new Hell's Kitchen, 89 S. 10th St.

Said Kostroski, "[Our] menus are created on-site. The ingredients that are used are more likely to be thought through on a local level. You're probably going to get more pre-processed stuff in a chain. The quality level is generally better because it's not part of a large semi [truck] order."

But independents say one of the most important reasons for dining in their restaurants is the personal treatment. "A lot of customers [at Sapor] know me by name and I know them by name. It's just an intimacy," Steenerson said.

"I think we put a lot of care into what we do," Murray said. "I'm not going to slam what chain people do, but I think I put a love into my business that some of those people aren't capable of putting in."

Chains: criticism unfair

Chain restaurant workers say the independents' criticism is unfair and often untrue.

Chipotle, 50 S. 6th, is one chain restaurant that takes exception to the criticism that chain restaurants aren't fresh. "You will not find a can opener, a microwave or a freezer," said spokesperson Sara Jane Wickoren. "Everything at Chipotle is fresh."

And besides, the chains like being corporate.

"The support we get from corporate and the [TGI Friday's] name are a huge benefit for us," manager Erickson said. "We're better able to advertise in different media venues because we're corporate -- the revenues are available."

Suzy Buresh, assistant service manager at Copeland's of New Orleans contended that chains help, not hurt independents.

"We just draw more people Downtown, whether they're going to eat at our restaurant or a locally owned restaurant," she said. "Even if they were to eat at Copeland's because they've heard of us, on their way they may see the other little restaurant and decide to eat there next time."

Different tastes

While out to promote themselves, some independent owners realize that chains have their place Downtown. Omer compares Americans' loyalty in restaurants to their beer tastes.

Said Hell's Kitchen's Omer, "You've got people who drink Summit and you've got people who are always going to drink Budweiser, no matter what. To me it's the same thing with restaurants."

Of course, Downtown isn't all mom-and-pop businesses, so why should its restaurants be? The franchise explosion has coincided with the latest development boom of huge office towers and giant retail/entertainment developments such as Block E, 600 Hennepin Ave. S. That complex will boast such chains as Hard Rock Caf, Gordon Biersch Brewing Co., Shaw's Crab House and Big Bowl.

Kostroski believes mega-developments and franchise restaurants don't have to go together, but often do. He said developers often try to get a local independent restaurant as an anchor for a new office building. "Developers generally talk first with local operators," Kostroski said. "But [developers] have a pretty big nut of an investment to cover. So they often will turn to more chain-related operators because those chains will pay a higher rent for a good location."

Kostroski said Block E is a special case because its national chains are the marketing strategy.

"E Block in some ways is shaping up to be a suburban building plunked in an urban setting," Kostroski said. "You've got a Hard Rock Caf. Yeah, that's an established name. It's a good name. But I would say that it does very little to drawing someone Downtown. Like the Olive Garden is coming Downtown. Well, that's a yawn for a lot of people."

Then again, that may be customers opening their mouths for another franchise meal.