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Johnson City is jam-packed with choices for dining out

Madison Mathews • Jun 26, 2012 at 6:22 AM

Within the 16-mile drive that spans portions of Boones Creek Road, Roan Street and State of Franklin Road, there are more than 100 restaurants.

That includes casual dining spots like Cheddar’s, Chili’s and Red Lobster; fast casual restaurants like Barberito’s, Five Guys and Panera Bread; fast food joints like McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell; as well as a handful of ice cream parlors, yogurt shops and local eateries like Cootie Brown’s, Cafe Lola and The Peerless.

And when you hop back on Interstate 26 toward downtown, you’ll find even more restaurants — mostly local establishments — like Scratch, The Battery, Taste Budz, Freiberg’s, One12 Downtown and Main Street Pizza.

While Johnson City certainly has variety when it comes to dining out, there was a time when it wasn’t always like that.

Tom Seaton, owner of The Firehouse Restaurant, which has been a Johnson City tradition for more than 30 years, remembers when very few chain restaurants made their home in Johnson City.

It was 1980 — only a few years before establishments in Johnson City could offer liquor by the drink.

By the mid-1980s, Bennigan’s, which sat where the newly opened Longhorn Steakhouse now sits, and Red Lobster were among the first restaurants in the Tri-Cities to do so.

“After that the floodgates opened and there has just been one after the other,” Seaton recalled. “Over the years, it did weed out a lot of the independents ... but now what you’re seeing is a lot of independents that are coming up and the stronger ones that have staying power.”

As the landscape of Johnson City itself began to change shortly thereafter with the construction of State of Franklin Road, which now acts as one of the major corridors for travel and business in the city, so did the dining scene.

“At the time 32 years ago, this side of town was a completely different place,” Seaton said, pointing out of his West Walnut Street office window. “State of Franklin Road wasn’t there, so we were way off the beaten path. This whole side of town was not developed the way it is today, so it was a little more, for lack of a better word, rundown. Now, you see a vibrant surge of growth over here. This State of Franklin corridor is just busting with potential.”

And it’s true. If you take a drive down Walnut Street toward East Tennessee State University, you’ll pass a number of restaurants — both local spots and national franchises — along the way. Once you begin to travel north on State of Franklin, it’s easy to see how much has developed in the last 30 years.

Why has Johnson City seen so much development in terms of restaurants setting up shop?

In short, it’s an attractive area with the kind of demographics business owners and developers like to see.

Twenty years ago, the influx of national restaurants would’ve worried Seaton, but for a place that still serves plates to customers who ordered fresh barbecue when the business was located at the edge of the university campus, that worrying is long gone.

“It just makes you better. The more of them that come in actually creates a much better dining experience for the people that are here, because if you don’t do a good job, you’re not going to last in this market,” Seaton said.

Much like the corridor between ETSU and Johnson City Medical Center has plenty of room for growth, the dining market has a great deal of potential, too.

Within that nearly two-milelong stretch of road, about 10 eateries have opened up just within the last two years. And there’s bound to be more opening with the development of Millennium Park’s Lot 8, which will house the city’s second Starbucks location, an Orange Leaf frozen yogurt shop and another fast-casual restaurant.

The corridor’s proximity to the university and the hospital make it a popular place for developers. That’s the reason Moe’s Southwest Grill set up shop at Innovation Park Plaza next to The Fresh Market, which opened at the beginning of the year.

“Pretty much, we had been looking at the Tri-Cities for a while, and obviously Johnson City is the biggest out of the three, and we had been researching Johnson City for a long time. When this location opened up here, that was sort of the thing that let the owner know we couldn’t let this site go by,” Moe’s general manager Ryan Brown said.

When Chick-fil-A and Walgreens opened up in the same shopping center, Brown said they were good indicators the location was a piece of prime real estate that would give them both the daytime and nighttime traffic needed to sustain a business.

Before Moe’s opened up, Johnson City only had one quickserve burrito business — Barberito’s. That number has increased to three with the opening of Hot Head Burrito near the university, and while the area doesn’t yet have a Chipotle Mexican Grill, Baja Fresh or Qdoba, Brown said the city could still use some more restaurants of that kind to help crank up competition.

Like many restaurants that have opened in Johnson City before expanding to Kingsport or Bristol, Brown said Johnson City’s demographics were too good to pass up. Although they have only been open for about five months, Brown said the success of Moe’s in Johnson City has already laid the groundwork for an expansion to somewhere else in the Tri-Cities.

“The good thing is that once you get settled and your name gets out there, people get tired of driving 20 or 30 minutes. After a while, you can put up another location in one of those smaller communities without hurting yourself,” he said.

The promise that the people with Moe’s and its other business, Yobe Frozen Yogurt, saw in Johnson City is what countless other businesses have seen in making a home in the area.

“One of the nice things about our market is ... we’ve got a fairly diversified yet stable economic base that’s predominantly influenced by health care and education. We’ve historically seen those grow at a fairly steady rate — not a fast rate, but a fairly steady rate — and you may have some season cycles, but year over year those have been pretty steady with a little bit of positive slope, so it’s been a great market to stake a presence in. We haven’t been hit like other markets with major employers leaving and industries closing. We’ve been a great market,” said John Speropulos, development partner and president of Mitch Cox Realtor Inc.

Mitch Cox Realtor has brought in a number of restaurants over the years, including Chili’s, Chuck E. Cheese’s, Panera Bread, Menchie’s, Pizza Hut, Hot Head Burrito, Domino’s, Fuddruckers, Ruby Tuesday and Cook-Out.

The number of restaurants that are in Johnson City work to keep the local economy stable, which is a positive attribute all businesses like to see when thinking of expansion opportunities.

And that kind of stability will only help Johnson City get more and more restaurants added to its already varied offerings.

“We have all those things in place that bring in more retail and just create some synergism, as well as a cooperative economical effect to help us draw on a much larger market area to impact restaurants that in years past wouldn’t have come, but now they will,” Speropulos said.

Speropulos said his firm is constantly talking with potential clients about having a presence in Johnson City. One of the most recent additions is Frosty Parrot Yogurt Creations, a frozen yogurt shop that plans to locate in the Earth Fare shopping center.

The constant addition of new places to eat, whether it’s a local business or a national chain, shows Johnson City has continued to improve in terms of economic development. And as long as that continues, Johnson City will remain an attractive place for business.

“If we had a lot of closures and high unemployment, we wouldn’t be nearly as attractive as we are. That’s economic development,” Washington County Economic Development Council CEO Robert Reynolds said. “Economic development isn’t just about announcing 100 new jobs at a factory, it’s about the spillover of those 100 jobs. True economic development is about the spillover and the money that brings into the community and how many times those dollars roll over.”

With everything from doughnuts to delicacies, Reynolds said the area’s variety continues to be one of its main strengths.

“That’s what you want to see — a good mix of restaurants — you don’t want to be a fast food stop on the interstate, so we’re excited about that,” he said.

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