Restaurant corner has haunted pastPublished 11:27am Thursday, April 4, 2013
It’s had a number of names, owners and managers, but only one thing has been for certain as of late: Nothing seems to last on the corner lot at 601 North Frontier Dr. most recently the home of Lakes Country Buffet which closed in March.
That site has a long history in Fergus Falls, but has come to be known for the number of businesses that have put up shop only to leave within a few years at best.
Restaurants have found their way to the spot since the late 1970s, when an A&W diner first opened its doors.
From that time through the mid-90s, the building hosted several successful restaurants, including Botts Beef, The Butcher, the Baker Family Restaurant and Toppers. But a recent string of short-lived ventures, including TCBY Treats, Blimpie, Tios Mexican and Burger Time has brought a stigma of failure to the building.
For two restaurant and business owners and operators from Fergus Falls, the spot’s troubles are puzzling and certainly frustrating. Solutions, however, are not as far off as some might think.
Pat Connelly, owner of Dairyland and former owner of the Toppers restaurant at the location, said it should have an advantage for successful business if guided right.
“It seems like since 1995 the business model for the restaurants there have just been to try and get the interstate traffic,” said Connelly. “A better model might look at Fergus Falls residents as the meat and potatoes and interstate people as the gravy.”
That focus on the local community is something that Connelly said is critical for the businesses to thrive in areas like Fergus Falls. With a vested interest in the area, operators create long-standing relationships with customers and the business becomes something residents care about. That relationship, however, works both ways.
“If our community is not invested in them, they’re not going to turn around and reinvest in us,” said Connelly. “One or two restaurants will open in a community, and one or two restaurants will close. That’s a scary thing for long term business operators.”
Another factor that contributes to struggling businesses, no matter where they are located, is how difficult it is to start a restaurant from scratch. Dana Barringer, who has been involved with her family’s ownership of local businesses in the area since the late 1960s, including Toppers before Connelly, said many aspiring business owners underestimate that fact.
“A lot of people think it’s easy to open in retail or a restaurant, that if you know shopping or how to cook it’s something you can do,” said Barringer. “I hate to say that, but I do believe something can be successful there.”
Barringer also said that a chain restaurant might have the best chance to survive for the long term in the spot because of the appeal to travelers on the interstate and the financial stability in its beginning. While there is certainly a lot of competition surrounding the area near I-94, Barringer said that fact should encourage future development of the lot.
“When you cluster restaurants together, it brings business to your own restaurant as more and more people come by,” said Barringer.
Of course, success and failure is what every person faces when they decide to enter the world of business, and Connelly and Barringer have had their share of both. If the community doesn’t want to see grand openings every several months that are only followed by closings, stigma and negative labels should be replaced by support and encouragement.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than closing down a restaurant,” said Connelly. “There’s no one who has skin thick enough to say that it doesn’t get to them.”
While the loss of businesses is frustrating for the community as well, the continued interest in bringing shops and restaurants to the site is an encouraging sign. Even if the location’s past is marred with failure, time may provide the perfect fit for the city’s next success story.
“There’s definitely a call for something to go there,” said Barringer. “When someone finally figures it out, people are going to say, ‘Why didn’t we think of that?’”