Downtown the place to dine in increasingly competitive field, restaurant owners say

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In the restaurant world, fast food places have their niche.

But for fine dining, for exquisite service, for something special -- in Cape Girardeau anyway -- downtown is the place to go.

Locally owned restaurants are holding their own in other parts of the city, but restaurants make the downtown area a dining destination.

"Locally-owned businesses downtown don't work together or collude, but they still have the same goal -- to bring people to the downtown area," said Brian Noto, co-owner of Mollie's Cafe and Bar, 11 S. Spanish St. "Each place has something different to offer."

Brandon Ray, one of the new owners of Royal N'Orleans, 300 Broadway, said he would find it helpful to get together informally with other downtown restaurant owners to share information.

He said restaurants downtown have the unique advantage of vying for many of the same customers, but each offering those customers something special.

"I would say the more downtown restaurants the better," Ray said. "It brings more people down here if we have more quality places. Then people will start to realize downtown is a place to go if you want fine dining and great service."

Downtown may be a nice destination for special occasions -- or for any occasion -- but the fact remains, there is more competition than just other downtown restaurants.

Franchise restaurants make it tough for independently owned restaurants to compete, says Mark Dirnberger, owner of Bella Italia, 20 N. Spanish St.

"A franchise can absorb loss quicker," he said. "We don't have their multiple strengths when they do advertising; our advertising comes from individual stores. It's tougher."

What individual restaurants do have is customer loyalty. In Dirnberger's case, that loyalty showed itself after he rebuilt Bella Italia following a fire that destroyed the building.

"When we rebuilt, our business has been better than ever before," he said.

"We give a lot more personal attention," Dirnberger said. "They (franchises) are store trained; they're given a monolog for greeting. Private owners have a little more advantage to reach the individual guests a little better."

Independent downtown restaurants would have a better advantage if there were other venues bringing people into down town. The traffic flow isn't as heavy as on the west side of town where other attractions are.

Noto of Mollie's says he doesn't consider franchises to be competition to worry about because they don't offer the ambiance of a fine dining restaurant.

"We all have something a little bit different to offer in terms of music, atmosphere, or fine service, " he said.

Rather than competing with franchise restaurants, Noto says he believes the independent downtown places share customers. He and his wife often eat at other downtown restaurants and see Mollie's customers in those places.

"We say 'hi' and I see them a couple of days or a week later" at Mollie's, he said.

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