Outsider food, retail chains keen to have local presence

In the game of commercial real estate and development, there are tire kickers and there are players.

Fresh off landing the Bojangles' chain for a major splash into the Columbus market with three to four outlets, Pete Hart said it appears more and more prospects are shifting into the latter category.

"There seems to have been a lot of players sitting on the sidelines before the election, and I think that since the election has passed they've chosen to get into the arena and play ball," said Hart, an associate broker and co-owner of Jordan Hart Commercial Services in Columbus.

He spoke last week after confirming Charlotte, N.C.-based Bojangles' plans, which include an initial restaurant off Schomburg Road in north Columbus. It should open next spring.

Earlier this year, Hart's company also landed Richmond, Va.-based CarMax, an auto superstore that pulled the trigger in September on the $3 million construction of a showroom and lot at 6463 Veterans Parkway, across from Hughston Hospital. CarMax spokeswoman Michelle Topping Ellwood said the new store is expected to open in the spring and will be its seventh location in Georgia.

"If the vehicle a customer is interested in is not in the Columbus area, vehicles can be transferred to a customer's closest CarMax location," Ellwood said via email, noting the online shopping that helps take the "hassle" out of the process.

The company also purchases vehicles after giving customers free appraisals, she said.

That's just the tip of the proverbial development iceberg, however, with restaurants, ice cream shops, fitness centers and home-care businesses all taking a very close look at Columbus.

"We're going to grow substantially and we're going to grow into your market. That's for sure," said Brett Larabee, director of franchise sales and development for Famous Dave's, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based barbecue chain that has nearly 200 company-owned and franchised stores in 35 states.

"We're all over the place. We've just got the rest of the Southeast to conquer, including the whole Georgia market down there, and especially Columbus. It's a great market and we belong there," said Larabee, whose company is actively seeking franchisees for the concept, which now includes a smaller "shack version" of its larger restaurants.

That's the task before Randy Trotter as well, finding entrepreneurs willing and able financially to buy into Atlanta-based fitness company Workout Anytime, which could have three to four locations at full build-out.

"We like the Columbus market. We call it an underserved market," said Trotter, vice president of franchise development for Workout Anytime, which now has about 50 stores open or in development, with a short-term goal of reaching 100 units. Supermarket-anchored shopping centers are the preferred locations, he said.

"Most people that are looking for franchises kind of fall into the restaurant market," Trotter said. "When they see our model and our concept, they're pretty much blown away because there's so few working pieces compared to a restaurant."

The interest in the Columbus and Phenix City market doesn't stop there.

Sloan's, a south Florida ice cream shop operation has launched an expansion plan via franchising and is targeting locations in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and high-population states such as California and New York. Specifically, Columbus is in the company's sights as one of 200 future locations.

"Sloan's turns the everyday ice cream shop on its head, and what results is a completely over-the-top venue with the best tasting ice cream and candy you can find," founder and owner Sloan Kamenstein says in a promotion of the concept, which includes twinkling chandeliers and pink walls and ceilings.

The development penchant toward places to eat is precisely what Hart is seeing, with the Jordan Hart broker getting a lot of interest from restaurants.

Some have already come to fruition, with Jim Bob's Chicken Fingers moving toward construction completion at Columbus Park Crossing.

Other recent entrants into the market include Wingstop and The Egg & I.

"Typically between Thanksgiving and New Years there's not a lot of work that goes on in the retail industry," Hart said. "But I've got a fair amount of activity going on right now. It looks good."

That probably makes Columbus-area consumers happy, with several food brands on the wish list of local food enthusiasts. Those consistently include Chipotle Mexican Grill, Dave & Busters, Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's China Bistro and Macaroni Grill.

The burgeoning competition in the market, fueled by local consumers' insatiable desire for more variety, doesn't appear to be scaring off very many prospects scouting the city.

"I do know this much, people eat barbecue there" in Columbus, said Larabee of Famous Dave's. "I think that whole (Southeast) corridor down there deserves our product."