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Some popular chains aren’t in city — yet

Madison Mathews • Jun 26, 2012 at 6:37 AM

Johnson City might have more than 130 restaurants, offering everything from Indian and Asian cuisine to old-fashioned Southern meals, but that variety doesn’t include many other eateries located outside of the Tri-Cities.

Nowhere in Johnson City will you find a Ruth’s Chris Steak House, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, T.G.I. Friday’s, Cheesecake Factory, Buca di Beppo, Steak ‘n Shake, Firehouse Subs or Jack in the Box.

But just because those restaurants aren’t here now doesn’t mean they’ll never bring their dining options to Johnson City.

A little more than two years ago, Mellow Mushroom planted itself in Johnson City, followed by Bonefish Grill last November and Longhorn Steakhouse, which just opened its doors. Work is under way on Buffalo Wild Wings in Hamilton Place off North State of Franklin Road, which is expected to be open by August.

The number of national restaurant chains in Johnson City keeps growing, which speaks to the stability outside developers see in the local economy.

“Some of the chains that have settled here in recent years and even recent months speak to the viability of this market to attract and retain high-profile chain restaurants,” Washington County Economic Development Council Director of Marketing and Community Relations Jeff Keeling said. “We hope and expect it is just a matter of time and continued growth of Washington County and the Johnson City metro area before additional chains that people see in other metro areas settle here.”

With a population of a little more than 63,000 in Johnson City and a local economy that’s driven by health care and education, the market is an attractive place for people who want to do business — be it local or otherwise.

“We’re a regional diversified economy that when a restaurant or a business locates here, they know they have a great chance to be successful and do business because of our regional diversity,” Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gary Mabrey said.

The Chamber and the Economic Development Council work hand-inhand with local and out-of-state developers on recruiting new businesses to the area.

When it comes to new restaurants, Mabrey said it all comes down to bringing something different to the already varied places Johnson City has.

“They want to be somewhere where they can be dominant in the market and they also want to be somewhere where they can bring a very unique staple of foods,” he said.

That very thing was evidenced when Tupelo Honey Cafe began considering Johnson City as a future home of the popular eatery based in Asheville, N.C.

Officials with Tupelo Honey Cafe visited the Tri-Cities in April after the area won a social media campaign in which the restaurant asked its hungry fans to vote for the next town that would house the next Tupelo Honey Cafe.

Tupelo Honey Cafe operates two locations in North Carolina, including the original cafe in downtown Asheville. The restaurant recently opened its third location — and the first in Tennessee — in Knoxville.

While representatives with Tupelo Honey are still deciding where to put their fourth restaurant, the group was impressed with what Johnson City had to offer.

Economic Development Council CEO Robert Reynolds said they are still actively working Tupelo Honey as the restaurant works toward a decision.

The regionally and locally owned restaurants are just as important to the market as their national competition.

Although a number of local independents have closed within the last 30 years, Johnson City has continued to offer a strong mix of local restaurants, particularly in the downtown area with establishments like Taste Budz, The Battery, Main Street Pizza, Mid City Grill, Freiberg’s and One12 Downtown.

“Johnson City has had good success relative to other places with respect to the establishment and support of local restaurants over the past decade or so, and that’s a trend that seems to be continuing,” Keeling said. “As we have become more culturally and ethnically diverse, those local offerings have included ethnic restaurants, which is also a positive.”

As the downtown area continues to see development, more and more restaurants could begin to see the potential in opening up in Johnson City.

Ryan Brown, general manager of Moe’s Southwest Grill, operates the quick-serve burrito restaurant in Johnson City, as well as a location in Asheville. In working in both places, Brown said the Johnson City market is similar to that of Asheville — minus the wide variety of local restaurants, which makes the North Carolina town such a heavily traveled tourist destination.

“Johnson City seems like a smaller Asheville. I think it comes back to tourists. I think if Johnson City had a little bit more of a tourist destination that those restaurants would probably thrive a little bit more. That’s one thing Asheville is known for ... but I’ve eaten at some great local places here, like Scratch and Mid City Grill, that seem to be doing really well for themselves on the local end of things,” he said.

Things are looking up for the future of Johnson City, especially as the city and the private sector work to renovate the downtown area. That’s exactly what Brown thinks Johnson City needs in order to make restaurant market even better than it already is.

“It seems to be on the edge of something big going on. There’s lots of talk of revitalizing downtown, and I think that would be a great thing if they get some people down there to open it up,” he said.

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