Scott Ressmeyer certainly has respect for chain restaurants and the people who operate them. But he rarely eats at one, preferring the flavor of local cuisine.
The problem, he concedes, is that fewer independents, or “mom-and-pops” as they are known, are opening their doors. And the ones that do open often find it tough to survive, much less thrive, in a sour economy.
“I don’t know of anybody that’s got anything on the table right now trying to open up a new one,” said Ressmeyer, a partner with Jim Morpeth at Country’s Barbecue, a 33-year-old Columbus restaurant company that, yes, has dabbled in and still has a half-dozen franchise outlets — in essence a very small chain. There are three companyowned stores in Columbus.
“It’s going to be a little difficult right now with the times being the way they are,” Ressmeyer said of independent startups. “It would be scary to open up a new restaurant right now or a new concept.”
That leaves it to the chains, with their regional and national culinary offerings and brand identity, to grow the local dining market. And there are more on the way, from full-service establishments to those of the fast-food, or quickservice, variety.
A second Houlihan’s is in the works, as is another Shogun Japanese Steak House. Ever heard of Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches? You will. The Midwest-based chain is in a major growth spurt and has one store, and possibly more, planned for Columbus. Ditto for Baskin Robbins, the ice cream parlor that is returning to the city after vacating it several years ago.
Not all make it , however. Backyard Burgers on Airport Thruway became history earlier this year, abruptly closing its doors, while Gibbs New York Style Subs on Broadway couldn’t attract enough of a following to stay in business.
The slumping economy and inflated gas prices aren’t doing the chains any favors, either. Darden Restaurants Inc., one of the nation’s most popular dining operators, earlier this week forecast that profits will be softer than expected during the balance of this year.
Darden’s menu includes Olive Garden, which posted a scant 2.4 percent gain in sales during the last quarter at restaurants open at least a year. But that was better than its Red Lobster brand, which saw a 3.7 percent decline, and LongHorn Steakhouse, which dropped nearly 5 percent.
Clarence Otis, chairman and chief executive officer at Darden, in a recent earnings report, said his company is “navigating a chall e n g i n g c o n s u m e r a n d c o s t environment.”
‘Everybody’s got to eat’
Columbus is still attracting the attention of restaurant companies, said Pete Hart, a real estate broker with Jordan Hart Commercial Services in Columbus. But some are cautious because of the impact rising fuel prices are having on both businesses and consumers.
“There’s certain restaurants that are a little more recession-proof than others, but everybody’s got to eat every day,” Hart said. “And if you can provide a product at a reasonable price, then I think there might still be some that would go ahead and make a commitment. But restaurants that are a little on the upper end, I think, are probably much more cautious right now.”
The Columbus market, at this point, doesn’t appear to be oversaturated by dining establishments, Hart said. Ressmeyer at Country’s Barbecue agrees, even with the proliferation of chain outfits setting up shop here in the last few years.
“Everybody keeps saying they want more, they want more, they want more,” Ressmeyer said. “But there will be a point that you oversaturate for sure and, unfortunately, some of them won’t make it when that happens.”
Most also would agree that consumers flock to the chains because they trust the brand and the consistency in service, the menu and the quality of food delivered to the table.
Daniel Grier, who has owned the Chick-fil-A on Wynnton Road since it opened five years ago, said diners tend to shy away from mom-and-pop eateries when they are traveling because of the unfamiliarity.
“People get comfortable with a brand,” Grier said. “I think with brands, people trust that they’re doing the right thing and they’re serving quality products that are safe and not going to make you sick.”
Even Ressmeyer, who keeps his taste buds local virtually anytime he eats out in Columbus or on the road, admits the chains have a place in the restaurant sector and are only going to grow in numbers. That’s especially true with today’s time-starved, twoincome families in which purchasing a meal often trumps cooking at home, he said.
“They’re very successful, so obviously people do like the chains for sure,” Ressmeyer said. “They have they’re place and it’s consistent. You go in one in Columbus, and you can go in one in another town, and you’re pretty much going to get the same thing.”