The delight in dining: Cape restaurants have their plates full

Tuesday, November 21, 2006
Chef DeWayne Schaaf served his pork tenderloin dish for the AgriMissouri Program contest judges, from left, Buz Sutherland, Frances Hitt and Sarah Gehring, at Celebrations Restaurant in this file photo. (Fred Lynch)

Restaurants not only serve your favorite food, they also put plenty of economic sauce on the business dish. By enticing customers to frequent them, restaurants create many jobs and generate tax revenue.

A recent National Restaurant Association report says one out of five meals consumed by Americans -- 4.3 meals a week -- is prepared in a commercial operation and the most popular meal is lunch.

The Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau has a restaurant guide that lists more than 100 restaurants, and most of them are not fast-foot outlets.

In other words, restaurants are on the move in Cape Girardeau. Some are well established, some are relocating, some are under construction and others are on the drawing board.

It's a smorgasbord out there.

National powerhouse franchise Olive Garden opened along William Street in March. It's located in an area some people call "Restaurant Row." A Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits is under construction nearby and is slated to open in a few months. Panera Bread opened earlier this year.

Gail Wilhoit, service manager at Olive Garden, said business is excellent and she's looking forward to a busy holiday season.

"We always have different promotionals every couple of months, and we'll have some specials for the season ahead," Wilhoit said. "Everything's going great, and we expect to sell a lot of gift cards."

Many customers are from this area, but it's not uncommon for people from Memphis to dine there, Wilhoit said.

"You can walk through the parking lot and see license plates from many states. We had some people from Alaska in here the other day," she said.

At the Cape Girardeau CVB, executive director Chuck Martin said it's not only area residents who dine at the wide variety of restaurants in Cape Girardeau. He said tourists sometimes come to the bureau and ask about good places to eat. He said there's a lot to choose from.

Cynthia Austin, a commercial realtor with Realty Executives of Cape County, who was instrumental in bringing Texas Roadhouse to "Restaurant Row" last year, said the city's demographics are really not that great, and those demographics have to be overcome to bring national franchises here.

"We can overcome those demos with capital expenditures," she said. "We have to make them (franchises) know we have a large regional draw of diners. They look at sales figures of existing restaurants and see if they think they can get a market share. They usually can because Cape is a good place to meet."

Austin said people come from nearby rural areas including Southern Illinois to shop, visit friends or see doctors. She said national franchises like to locate in high visibility areas such as interstates. She said Interstate 55, which cuts through Cape Girardeau, is the most important factor in bringing new restaurants to the area.

Earlier this year, Joey's Seafood & Grill opened on the west side of I-55 in Cape West Business Park. A Sonic Drive-In opened along Siemers Drive this spring.

At Joey's, franchise owner Catherine Mills said business is booming.

"We are actually beating the expectations of what others in the restaurant industry told us to expect," said Mills. "Everything's going well and we get really good feedback."

Mills said the restaurant is busiest in the evenings, but she thinks the lunch crowd will increase when people start shopping for Christmas. And Joey's will be selling gift cards.

Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce executive director John Mehner said restaurants serve a special function -- they are reliable producers of jobs and revenue. He said chambers of commerce and other economic development entities consider restaurants to be substantial economic drivers.

A wide variety of restaurants in a city, said Mehner, results in patronage by many people from surrounding areas. And when people drive a certain distance to eat at a restaurant, "they often engage in other pursuits that result in business activity, whether it's shopping or keeping a medical appointment."

Herb and Marilyn Beloit of Sikeston recently dined at Logan's Roadhouse, which opened in "Restaurant Row" several years ago. They've been there before.

"We like the peanutty atmosphere," said Marilyn Beloit, referring to the buckets of salty peanuts that are given free to customers. "Peanuts and steaks are for us. But we also eat down the street at O'Charley's. And sometimes at Steak 'n' Shake because there isn't one where we live."

The Beloits said they were in town to shop at the mall, which is close to the three -- and many other -- eateries.

Restaurants in other parts of the city are also doing well. Austin, the commercial real estate agent, said Casa Mexicana on North Kingshighway will be relocating into a new building at North Pointe, a commercial subdivision under construction north of the North Kingshighway and Lexington Avenue intersection. A Sonic Drive-In opened in that area last year. Austin said she expects another restaurant to occupy the building Casa Mexicana is vacating.

Pizza Hut also has plans to open a restaurant at North Pointe; in fact, it plans to have as many as three restaurants in Cape within the next two years.

On Nov. 1, Pizza Hut Wing Street opened on North Sprigg near the university and the Show Me Center. According to Pizza Hut regional manager Steve Washburn, the company is hopeful construction on the North Pointe Pizza Hut can begin next fall, and the Pizza Hut on South Kingshighway may be converted into a delivery only store.

"We'll just see how the market plays out and what the needs of the customers are," Washburn said, adding the new store at North Pointe offers a better location.

"Ideally, we'd like to be out on William," he said. "But we couldn't get anything out there. But the North Pointe spot has a lot of perks."

Washburn said owning restaurants in Cape can be difficult at times.

"It's challenging," he said. "There are a lot of restaurants in this town. But we like it here. There's the university, there's a lot of growth. Lots of new homes, new businesses."

Downtown, Nick's Family Sports Pub recently changed ownership, and the interior is being renovated. And there are new owners at Royal N' Orleans and Mollie's Cafe & Bar who plan on keeping those stalwart, fine-dining restaurants serving customers for years to come.

Mollie's co-owner Brian Noto said his is more of a destination restaurant -- people know of it and make plans to dine there. He said the restaurant was closed in August and reopened in September after being spruced up.

"We're really doing well. The Christmas parties are already starting to book up. And we're planning for a busy future," said Noto. "Restaurants in other parts of the cities have their strengths, and downtown we have ours."

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