Local restaurants battle big chains in downtown Cedar Rapids

Some owners say downtown restaurant market becoming oversaturated

Nadia Crow
Published: October 31 2012 | 12:45 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 2:47 am in
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Family-owned businesses say big chains are bumping them out of downtown Cedar Rapids.

Several new restaurants have opened in the downtown area in the past few months.  For most diners, that means many more food options.  But some businesses say the oversaturated market is cutting in on their profits.

It's been a roller-coaster for these small cafes and delis.

After the flood of 2008, there were hardly any downtown food options.  Now, everyone's anticipating large crowds from the newly renovated Paramount Theatre and soon-to-open Convention Center.

“Our customer base almost tripled from where we were three doors down. It was unbelievable,” said Little King Deli co-owner Barbara Dauenbaugh, who has prepared for the lunch crowd for the past 11 years.

That was the height of the business before the flood of 2008.  They came back, right along with Austin Blues BBQ in the Armstrong Building just around the corner.

“When I came down here, it was locally owned, locally operated restaurants that were down here, and now the franchises are down here,” said Austin Blues BBQ owner Barb Hartgrave.

Hartgrave says franchises such as Jimmy John's and Milio's, now also downtown, are eating into their customer base and ultimately threatening their livelihood.

“We have no corporate backing," Hartgrave said. "It's just us ourselves having to pay for everything out of our pocket.”

“When they (Jimmy John's) first opened up, the first six weeks our business was cut in half,"  Dauenbaugh said. "We would go from x amount of business to half, and then it recovered, and then Milio’s opened up and our business has gone way downhill again."

But these mom-and-pop shops hope loyal customers like Kjas Long still support them.

“The quality of the big chains isn't usually up to the quality of the local establishments,” Long said.

Long says the solution is simple — bring in more retail stores.

“It would be nice if we could have more retail," Long said. "Thirty years ago, I remember when I lived in Waterloo, we used to come to shop downtown in Cedar Rapids because it was a shopping area."

Hartgrave says she's trying a new marketing push: catering.  She hopes to attract more people who don't live in walking distance of the Armstrong Building.  Dauenbaugh hopes this is just another obstacle she'll overcome, like the flood and other hard times.

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