Campustown draws chain restaurants

By Stephanie Lulay

Serving as the gateway to Champaign, Campustown’s number of restaurants is continuously growing and expanding into a different kind of restaurant market.

The Campustown area has long been home to several locally-owned restaurants and national chains. But more recently, it has attracted a few family-owned and smaller franchised businesses that originated outside of the Midwest.

Jill Guth, president and CEO of Campustown 2000, a project started in the late 1990s designed to increase the number of businesses in the campus area, said she thinks the University area has become a more attractive destination for national restaurants. She said that, based on a business’s model for expansion, Champaign is an attractive destination because of the population: the University boasts a population of 40,000, the area of Champaign-Urbana is around 100,000, and Champaign County has a population of about 180,000.

“National chains look for large community populations where they’re franchising,” Guth said. “Only certain communities can support them.”

The University Campustown has attracted several smaller franchises such as L&L; Hawaiian Barbecue, which opened at 402 E. Green St. during fall 2004.

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The restaurant, featuring authentic Asian and Hawaiian dishes, has reached considerable growth through franchising. But most of the chain’s restaurants – about 100 – are based in Hawaii and California, and the franchise is moving to open up more locations in the Midwest, West, and New York. The Champaign restaurant is their first in the Midwest.

Another new Green Street business, Antonio’s Pizza, opened in February at 619 E. Green St. Of the four restaurants operating under the name, all are based on college campuses: Texas A&M; in College Station, Tex., Brown University in Providence, R.I., and University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass., the first location for the restaurant company that opened in 1991.

Mohamed Dardir, the general manager of Antonio’s Pizza, moved here from the Massachusetts location with an entire crew of employees to open up the University location.

Dardir said he believes that owners were attracted to the campus because “there are lots of students on campus and we’re made for a younger crowd.”

Antonio’s Pizza is different from most campus restaurants because it is not locally owned, nor a franchise national chain. It is a family-owned operation that is continuously expanding into other areas of the country.

Because it’s not a national chain and wasn’t recruited to the area, certain challenges were posed to the business in opening a location on Green Street.

“(Opening up) takes a lot of time and effort. It took (us) three years to get here,” said Dardir. “It took one year to find a location, then we had to go through inspections and construction.”

Dardir believes that Antonio’s Pizza is attracting a lot of business from the University because the restaurant was designed for a college atmosphere.

“Our business here is pretty level to our other businesses. We have an excellent product and a fun service,” he said.

Dardir also credits their location on Green Street with some of their success.

“Lunchtime walk-ins are great and we’re on Green Street, which means a lot more visibility,” he said.

Because of their success on this campus, the business is looking to expand to the University of Michigan and other Big Ten universities.

Being located near the campus has proved successful for other small franchises. Silvermine Subs has been located on campus for a considerable time, longer than the two new businesses.

The business originated in Colorado in 1996, expanded to Arizona and has continued to expand through the Midwest and West. They have two locations in Champaign, one near campus at 612 E. Daniel St. and one off-campus at 905 S. Neil St.

Chad Wilkins, dayshift manager at the campus location, said the company decided to open two restaurants in Champaign because of the number of students and the diversity of the campus.

“U of I campus has a lot of students and we offer quick delivery,” he said.

Besides the large population of the Champaign-Urbana area, Joel Smith, area supervisor for Silvermine Subs, said the owners were interested for another reason – loyalty.

“The owners of the corporation graduated from here,” he said.

Smith also said he believes that it made sense for the business to expand here because people in the area eat out a lot more than some other cities of its size.

“You can tell that by the number of restaurants, they’d rather go out and spend money than cook at home,” he said.

Wilkins also said the restaurants operate in a way to fit the needs of the population of the University.

“There is a difference, we do a lot of platters for fraternities and sororities, more big orders,” he said. “(And) our late night hours, we deliver until 3 a.m.”

He also said their campus location has a lot more walk-ins than the Neil Street location.

Laura Weis, director of commerce for the city of Champaign, said the University serves as an anchor for commercial activity in Champaign.

“Much of the business growth (in the city of Champaign) is attributable to the University,” she said.