Archived Story

Restaurant corner has haunted past

Published 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?’”

  • KLJones

    I think the site would be more appealing if it was easier to get in and out of there.

  • misspriss

    A Culver’s would be nice…

  • Frizzel

    Famous Dave’s BBQ would be great in town.

  • P. Carlson

    For years ( ever since Toppers closed,) we have wished for a Taco Bell on that corner. They are better and cheaper than Taco Johns and after driving 25 mils from out in the country to shop, there’s no way we would drive across town for lunch.

    • Ron Mexico

      Taco Bell may be cheaper but you get what you pay for. You are the first person I have ever heard think it was better than Taco John’s.

      • vikings1

        In and Out burgers resturant would work. They are in Calfornia and Arizona currently.

    • Grayson

      Shopping out of town!!! That sound about right! Since Fergus is so huge it’s a bummer to drive across town! Taco Bell got busted for using Alpo dog food and kanagroo meat!

      Welcome to Taco Bell may I take your order?

      Olive Garden or Buffalo Wild Wings should take over the closed mexican restaurant.

  • Richard Olson

    I know very little about running a restaurant but I do know that if Berger Time and Lakes Country Buffet had served hot food hot and cold food cold, they would have had more and repeat customers.

    • J Mullins

      And if they had ever cleaned up the spilled food on the buffet line or had someone wipe off the tables between customers. Ate there once and wondered whether I should head straight for the E.R. to get checked out for some exotic disease. After hearing the same criticisms from just about everyone who had eaten there, it was obviously going to be only a matter of weeks before they would have to close for lack of customers. As one person in this article commented, you have to keep the community in which you are located in mind. Fergus Falls is small enough that word about poor food or service or unsanitary conditions will spread around quickly, and the parking lot will soon be empty of customers’ cars.

  • citizen_blank

    I still think a Seafood restaurant would thrive as there isn’t one in town.

    Although, I would never eat at one as I hate Seafood.

    I was shocked that to learn from Frizzel awhile back that Wendy’s had once been operating here in town and then closed.

    Wendy’s recently overtook Burger King in sale’s last year, even with almost 2,000 fewer locations.

    How long had the Wendy’s location been here in town and when did it close? Anyone know?

    • Frizzel

      I remember them being there in the mid-80s for a couple of years and that was it. I used to love their stuffed potatoes and Frosties.

    • newsworthy

      The Wendy’s was located where KFC is now, and i believe is the mid-late 80s they closed?

  • newsworthy

    i think the in/out of that lot needs to be fixed to make it more appealing, and i would really think a Wendy’s or a Hardee’s would make a great addition to this town! :)

    • mike weller

      I agree Hardees would be my first pick,then:

      Taco Bell
      Lee’s Chicken
      White Castle
      Long John Silvers
      Captain D’s
      Rally’s ( Checkers )
      I miss all of these and I’m sure there is more if I took more time to think.
      But I’d be willing to be any of these would thrive here.

  • cyberdog

    How could the owners of Lakes Country Buffet know that they would fail? They just needed to open their eyes.

    The first thing we saw at the counter was a guy who was wearing very dirty jeans and a sloppy T shirt. He looked like he just got done cleaning out a barn.

    The next thing was plates which had standing water on them. He didn’t even bother to pour the water off and wipe them dry.

    The next thing was taco shells surrounded by empty containers with nothing to put in the taco shells.

    Then we got to the soup area. There were soup bowls and crackers but both of the soup containers had nothing in them!

    Most of the food was extremely greasy.

    We said we would never come back there again.

  • markcasper

    Like others who have commented I know nothing of running a restaurant, however I know what I like and what I don’t like. Keep it clean, keep it fresh, hot food hot, and cold food cold and make it all taste good. I don’t say all that is an easy task, but its a big part of our decision where we go in town. We went in there one evening and I don’t think even one of those criteria were met, we turned right around and left. It was disgusting. I understand the customer loyalty issue though, its got to be the only thing keeping a couple of places in town open from what I have seen. One place I am thinking of re-uses salsa cups without washing them,(when they come with a crust inside you can kind of tell), and canned chicken in dinners. I have no idea why people don’t get sick there.

    • Frizzel

      That crust you speak of are actually called flavor crystals use to enhance the food experience. Geesh, don’t you know anything ; )

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