05/15/06 — Restaurant rumor mill ... unwrapped

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Restaurant rumor mill ... unwrapped

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on May 15, 2006 1:47 PM

They hear it at bingo, in the pews at church or from their neighbors -- and, yes, they are sure.

Ask anybody if they know which restaurants are coming to Wayne County and you will get as many answers as the number of people you ask.

The names are familiar -- and in some cases have been on people's lips for years -- TGI Fridays, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and the perennial favorite, Cracker Barrel.

The only problem is, county economic development officials say, they don't have the stories quite right.

No new deals with a major chain are in the works.

There are two real announcements -- a new restaurant is coming to Berkeley Commons this summer, and an ice cream shop will open Saturday.

Two partners from Havelock are planning to open a Cold Stone Creamery franchise in one of the storefronts at Berkeley Commons. A couple of doors down from there, three partners from Morehead City say they hope to open an Empire Fire Mongolian Grill in early June.

But other than that, other news of openings are just rumors.

Rumors get started about the big national chains because brokers in the retail industry, much like real estate professionals, come to a community to look for a site for a potential client, Wayne County Chamber of Commerce director Steve Hicks said.

After scouting the territory, the broker goes back home and tries to sell that site to companies all over the country.

But by the time the broker leaves town, he has already sparked a rumor.

"We've heard about Cracker Barrel for years, and to my knowledge, that won't happen," Hicks said. "And we've heard about Red Lobster for years."

Olive Garden representatives have come to town and looked on a number of occasions, but Hicks said they are not interested in Goldsboro at this time.

For some chains, the story goes back a few years.

The city of Goldsboro almost had International House of Pancakes years ago and lost it, got it back and lost it again. Goldsboro assistant planning director Jimmy Rowe said the last word the city heard from IHop was about a year ago.

"They were going up next to Ruby Tuesday. They had the plans all ready and backed out," Rowe said.

And sometimes even city officials don't know who is looking.

City planner Randy Guthrie said his office talks all the time with people who say they are interested in finding out if they can put a restaurant on a certain property. But often they are cryptic about who or when -- even with him.

"Sometimes we see what it is, and sometimes we don't until the actual plan is submitted," Guthrie said.

He said the McDonald's on Claridge Farm Nursery Road is the only restaurant he knows of that is putting up a new building. He said he has heard the stories of Long John Silver and TGI Fridays, too.

"We've heard the same rumors about Cracker Barrel, but I have not seen anything submitted from them," Guthrie said.

And just like everyone else, he has heard the Red Lobster story, too.

He said the last time the city heard from the chain years ago, they were interested in the land now occupied by the new Verizon Wireless store. That deal collapsed, Guthrie said.

Wayne County Manager Lee Smith often gets the restaurant question -- and is often lobbied to use his influence to bring a particular chain or type of food to town. The latest is a vegetarian restaurant or The Cheesecake Factory.

He would like to see a Panera Bread come to Wayne County.

Smith said restaurants and other businesses do not just pick communities at random.

They study the population, economic development potential and site availability before even considering a new location.

"They know you better than you know yourself," Smith said.

Other factors considered include schools, the labor force, median household income and traffic counts.

For example, U.S. 70 through Goldsboro has a higher average daily traffic count than I-95 -- a factor that could be attractive to a restaurant client, Smith said.

Companies like Retail Lease Track give communities monthly updates about major chains' expansion plans -- sometimes as far as 10 years in the future -- by tracking retail developers' activities and analyzing what criteria they are using to find places to locate stores.

Retail consultants have a general idea of what will fit in a certain place, and by the time the developers break ground, some businesses have already signed contracts to locate there.

But until the announcement is official, it isn't, Smith explained.

"And typically when it gets announced, that's when we hear it, too," he said. "Even when they are working out details to get water and sewer they talk about 'a restaurant' or 'a retail store,' and they have a potential contract. And you almost don't want to say anything until the name is on the dotted line. These things can fall apart. We get so excited we want to tell, but we just can't."

Smith said competition for the big chains is fierce. For every one company that comes to a community these days, there have been 1,000 visits from potential clients.

And no matter how pleasant that visit is -- or how well they are treated -- the bottom line is still the bottom line when a business decides where to build next, said Joanna Thompson, president of the Wayne County Economic Development Corp.

She works with industrial clients now, but before coming here, she used to work for a commercial developer in Raleigh. So, she said, she knows how decisions are made.

She said some people tell her if this restaurant or that store came to the community there would be more industry.

"Baloney," she said. "At the end of the day, you meet those criteria or you don't. They want to know the hard facts, the demographics. You might be on their radar screen because you're growing, but it all boils down to demographics. They won't go on an opinion."

But that doesn't mean Ms. Thompson doesn't get those rumor questions, too.

"We'll be the first to get that phone call saying, 'I heard so-and-so is coming.' I'd say where'd you hear it?" 'Oh, a cousin's sister's brother.' Then, I'd say 'consider the source.'"