Local restaurants continue to weather economic storm

October 9, 2012 10:10:23 AM

Sarah Fowler - [email protected]


Last week, USA Today reported that 21,000 jobs are created each month in the restaurant business, one of the few fields that seems to have continually defied the economic woes that have slowed job growth across the U.S. 


Locally, the economic impact of the restaurant industry seems to mirror that national trend.  


Five new eateries have opened in Columbus since the beginning of the year with one more set to open next week and yet another restaurant breaking ground this month.  


Jimmy John's, a sandwich shop franchise opens at its location on the corner Highway 45 and Lincoln Road on Oct. 16, promising patrons the "best sandwich ever."  


It will soon be followed by a Longhorn Steakhouse, which will be located on Highway 45, next to Belk's Department Store and in front of the Hyatt hotel currently under construction. Longhorn spokesperson Erica Jeater said the popular steakhouse should be up and running by the first of the year.  


"We plan to hire 80 to 100 people," Jeater said.  


New employees are typically hired five to seven weeks before the restaurant opens. 


While the owners of the new restaurants are excited about their latest business endeavors, restaurant owners who are established in the community said business in Columbus is flourishing.  


Bill Cunningham owns Bojangles restaurants in both Starkville and Columbus and said business has been booming in recent months.  


"It's honestly a great business," he said. "We serve breakfast all day so that makes us different but we're just thrilled and happy to be in Columbus. We look forward to many years." 


Cunningham opened the Bojangles location in Columbus in early January, with a workforce of 30 employees.  




'Eat Mor Chikin' 


Chick-Fil-A opened restaurants in both Columbus and Starkville this year. Both stores have reported brisk, steady sales. 


"Itas been awesome,'' said Freda Kyle, who owns the Columbus franchise. "It's very good and better than projected." 


Kyle said she isn't worried about other fast food restaurants opening up. Instead, she sees it as a positive sign for her business.  


"My theory is, the more places you have, it helps me out,'' she said. "The more business and restaurants just makes more people come to the area. It makes it better for all of us." 


Chick-Fil-A employs 50-55 people at each of its stores.  


Japanese restaurant UMI, Pig Out BBQ and Krispy Kreme also opened in Columbus this year to rave reviews and large crowds.  


Krispy Kreme opened in late September and a long line of cars can still be seen at the drive-through window every morning.  


While two fast food restaurants have closed this year-Krystal and Dunkin' Donuts-experts say it's just part of the ebb and flow of the restaurant business. 


Brenda Lathan handles economic development for the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link and said without a doubt, Columbus is big enough to support such a strong supply of restaurants.  


"Believe me, they've done their research," Lathan said. "Demographics show that we are large enough. Plus, we pull from west Alabama." 


Lathan attributed the growth to industrial development. 


"Restaurants follow industrial development,'' she said. "It's evidence of the primary jobs that are being created." 




Existing stores thriving 


John Bean is the President of Eat With Us Group, a local restaurant company that owns Harvey's, The Grill, Peppers and Park Heights in Tupelo, he also credited the Link as the key reason for the recent boom in restaurant growth. 


"More restaurants in Columbus were inevitable with the economic development that's going on," he said. "Retail follows jobs and as the Link continues to do the job that they do we're going to see more retail of all kinds coming into the community." 


Bean said that his restaurants, which have been a mainstay in Columbus since the early 1980's, are prepared to compete with the newest eateries. Bean also owns Harvey's, The Grill and Peppers' restaurants in Starkville. 


"We just have to compete," Bean said. "I'm in a competitive business. You just have to roll your sleeves up and compete and we're looking forward to competing with the new businesses in town." 


Bean said he isn't worried about the encroachment of large, new chains.  


"The strong will survive," he said. "If you run a good operation and fill a niche in a market, you're going to be OK in the long run." 


One potential concern, however, is gas prices. 


"Gas prices really affect our business," Bean noted. "Gas prices go up and people have less disposable income to spend. The first thing that people cut is entertainment dollars. The first thing they cut in entertainment dollars is eating out." 


The Eat With Us Group employees approximately 750 people.  


Lamar Ware is a partner in the much-anticipated Donald Lee's Beef O' Brady's restaurant in Starkville. Ware handles operations of the venture which is being fronted by NFL player Donald Lee, who is originally from Maben. The project was set to break ground in September but due to internal issues, Ware said the restaurant opening has briefly stalled. 


"As of right now, we are in the midst of revamping our plans but we're good to go," Ware said. "Within the next six weeks, we should be turned back around." 


Also set to come to the Starkville area is Firehouse Subs, representatives announced on Friday. Scheduled to open in late 2012 or early 2013, the sub shop will be located in Middleton Court. Owners William Craig and Denton Rogers also hope to open a second location in Columbus, although no date has been set.

Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.