Franchises moving into U community

Kane Loukas

Today, Gray’s Campus Drug store sits empty with its blank windows staring out across the Dinkytown intersection of 14th Avenue and Fourth Street. The humble shop was a local mainstay for more than 50 years, and for community members, its closing is a significant sign of change in the University business district.
Things are happening fast around the University. In recent years franchises and bigger businesses have flocked to campus. And for long-time residents and University faculty members, the newcomers are greatly affecting the village feel and appearance of the University area.
Don Wilson, former owner of Wilson Hardware in Stadium Village and now a local agent for Burnet Realty, said the displacement of home-owning families by students and renters has lessened the demand for small hardware, grocery and drug stores.
“Many of the old homeowners have turned to renters,” Wilson said. “And after World War II, along with the 1978 energy crunch, people changed their attitude about driving to school. The dorms filled up and the shift has filled the campus with students, not families.”
The “staple stores,” as Wilson called them, have moved out while the trendy stores have moved in. At one time, the greater University campus area could support stores like National Camera Exchange, Nelson’s Office Furniture and the Ski Den, a sporting goods shop, but the vast majority of shops taking over are fast food franchises and coffee shops.
“There are a lot of different things going on,” said Stephen Gudeman, a professor of anthropology. “The mom and pop stores are having a hard time competing with the big guys.”
The reasons for the boom in franchise fast-food and the decline in the more family-oriented shops and restaurants is attributed to the changes on campus, not changes inherent in the businesses, Gudeman said.
Off-campus students play a significant part in the on-campus make over. Given the number of commuters, area businesses must cater to their needs to survive. Accounting for the influx of students moving to campus in the last several years, commuters are still the majority. Only 18 percent of undergraduates and 14 percent of graduate students live within one mile of campus.
“This has always been a commuter University, and students have less and less time,” Gudeman said. “Classes are distributed across the entire day. If you’re a commuter, you’re going to do your shopping on your way home.”
During his 27 years at the University, Gudeman has seen Dinkytown lose its village appeal. The rapid growth of fast-food restaurants are great for those looking for a quick, low-cost meal. But it is increasingly difficult to find a place to chat and have a relaxing meal, Gudeman said.
“As a faculty member I like to sit down and have dinner with a student,” he said. “We’re no longer talking about little mom and pop places opening up. This is becoming a 24-hour University,” which he said gives students and faculty members less time to contribute and enjoy the school area.
“The University needs to use its buildings, its capital as much as possible,” Gudeman said.
The school gets the most use out of its facilities by packing as many class hours into their rooms as possible. This, Gudeman said, helps the school cut expenses and reduce the need to build more. But as a result, students and faculty don’t have as much time to spend outside with others.
“There is a cost to this,” Gudeman said, “and it is measured in a loss of the University community.”
However, franchises aren’t necessarily detrimental. “The franchises are assets because they draw a lot of traffic into the area,” said Tammy Henry, the administrative coordinator of the Dinkytown Business Association. “They are well-recognized.”
Their nationwide recognition is owed, in part, to their big-time advertising and, more locally, their large and bright signs. Unlike smaller independent shops, franchise advertising has a broader effect on the look of the campus.
“The big-time advertising is one of the more visible things in Dinkytown,” said Ted Millner, manager of the Dinkytown McDonald’s. “Everybody knows McDonald’s.”
The fast-food chain has been a part of the business community for more than 20 years and its golden arches are just as much a part of the landscape as Goldy Gopher.
Most businesses that serve quick meals at low prices thrive in the University environment.
“Look at the restaurants that are on campus,” Gudeman said. “You can go into the basement of Coffman Union and get the same fast-food as you can around Dinkytown.”
The University, with its long days and tighter schedules, is unknowingly promoting the growth of the fast-food franchises, Gudeman said.
Despite the franchise face-lift, entrepreneurial experts say small, independent business have the best chances of survival in the “violently competitive” restaurant business that is blooming around the University.
Tom Culley, author of “Beating the Odds in Small Business,” said the best advantage a small business has is the ability to provide better service than their franchised competitors.
“If a small business is well managed and well run, it can have a tremendous edge in an increasingly service economy,” Culley said.
Out of 60 businesses within the campus’s 55414 ZIP Code, one-third are franchises. And the numbers are rapidly growing.
Stadium Village has recently received a Tortilla Ria Mexican restaurant and a McDonald’s, with a Wendy’s opening soon at the corner of Huron Boulevard and Washington Avenue. In Dinkytown, a Perkins is in the works.
“Small businesses have an advantage because the owners get to know their clientele,” Culley said. “This helps them focus their marketing and advertising expenditures. The more focused, the less costs.”
For small businesses around the University, there is a high level of patron loyalty. Doug Grina, co-owner of Al’s Breakfast, a Dinkytown landmark since 1950, said, “Business is doing just fine.”
He mentioned that things have changed in the area. One of the more significant changes he noticed is fewer students in Dinkytown these days. He attributes this to the efforts of the Marcy-Holmes community to convert a number of residential units to single-family homes.
Still, Grina said he foresees no major changes in the Dinkytown area. He recognizes the importance of longevity and of building a loyal group of customers. He said he has no doubts in Al’s future success, franchises or not.