Where’s the eats? That is the question

By Kelly Terpstra, kterpstra@charlescitypress.com

What’s for dinner?

Dine in, carryout and delivery are some of the restaurant options Charles City residents have at their disposal, but are there enough? 

Could this community of roughly 7,500 residents use a new restaurant or two?

The answers may vary,  but one thing is certain — there’s no shortage of discussion about the topic.

With the recent closure of Pizza Ranch, which opened in Charles City in 2000, just where does Charles City stand in terms of what is available for dining patrons who don’t want to cook at home?

Mark Wicks, community development director, said restaurant recruitment has been discussed at task force meetings and it’s a top priority.

“There is potential and need,” he said, but differences of opinion on what kind of restaurant is desired.

“Do we want a Wendy’s or a Burger King? Do we want a soup and sandwich place?” asked Wicks.

“Everybody says we need restaurants, but what kind of restaurants do we need? What kind of restaurants do people want and what kind of restaurants can we support? There’s a huge difference in those,” said Wicks.

Wicks said there has been significant interest from outside parties about setting up a restaurant in Charles City.

“There are people looking. They’re looking all the time. It’s just a question of, is the timing right? Is the financing right?” said Wicks.

Currently there are 16 eating establishments in Charles City — Aroma’s (limited items), Cedar River Pizza Co., Comet Bowl, Dairy Queen, Dave’s Restaurant, Hot Shots Billiards and Grille, Hunan Buffet, Hy-Vee Chinese Express, Hy-Vee Kitchen, Lucky Dragon, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Plaza Mexico, Subway, Taco John’s and The Pub on the Cedar.

Hot and cold offerings are also able to be purchased at Buy Low North, Casey’s, Hy-Vee Gas, Rush Stop and two Kwik Star convenience stores.

Wicks said Wildwood Golf Course and Cedar Ridge Golf Course also have kitchens. They are not member exclusive. They do offer food and a very limited selection of food items that are only available during tournaments or for special events.

David Swenson, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, was straightforward and to the point about the chance for a new restaurant to succeed in a town that isn’t a major tourist destination.

His answer is that it’s a zero sum game. In other words, any new dining establishment’s success would more than likely lead to negative fiscal consequences for the existing restaurants.

“Your economy can only sustain so many dining options. So, if a new dining option emerges, it takes away business from other places,” said Swenson, who has been a forthright expert on the subject for many years in the state of Iowa.

It comes down to a numbers game, according to Swenson.  

“The bottom line is your restaurant owners are in intense competition for only so many mouths in your community,” he said.

Dave Holschlag, owner of Dave’s Restaurant, agreed, to a certain extent.

“You also have to remember, you can only cut a pie into so many pieces. Each piece has to be big enough to satisfy everybody,” said Holschlag. “If you get too many businesses similar to each other, than it’s going to be hard on each other.”

There’s a flip side to that coin.

“But it also sharpens each other up to make sure you’re doing a good job,” said Holschlag.

Holschlag opened his restaurant in Charles City in May 1991, 27 years ago.

He’s seen a lot of businesses come and go in that time.

“Some people surprised me they didn’t make it and some people surprised me that they did,” said Holschlag.

His restaurant first started out as Brooks, which opened in the mall and sustained itself for 12 years before moving to its current location on South Grand Avenue. He said his menu offers approximately 100 items on it with a buffet that changes its meat item every day.

He offers breakfast and lunch seven days a week, plus he also caters and sets up at events around town. His hours vary as he closes at 3 p.m. on the weekdays and is open until 9 p.m. on Friday. On Saturday and Sunday he closes at 2 p.m.  

How about that special occasion for a birthday, wedding or anniversary? Does that mean patrons are heading outside the Charles City limits to get that experience at a steakhouse or seafood restaurant?

Holschlag understands if they do, but his question is why not spend the same amount of money in Charles City.

“One hard part is why will people go out of town and think it’s okay to spend 15-20 dollars for dinner. But when they stay in their hometown, think that 15-20 dollars per person is ridiculously expensive,” said Holschlag. “That’s human nature, that’s our mentality.”

Joel Biggerstaff moved to Charles City from Sioux City 10 years ago. Joel and his wife, Gillian, both worked at pizza places in college and they always wanted to open one.

They did in January 2016 — Cedar River Pizza Co.

Biggerstaff said business has been good.

“It can always be better,” he said with a smile.  

Biggerstaff, who said 80 to 85 percent of his business is carryout, said he wouldn’t have a problem at all if a new restaurant came to Charles City.

“There’s room for more restaurants,” said Biggerstaff. “This is me as a consumer also — I go out to eat. It would be nice to have another option or two in town. I would welcome that. I wouldn’t be afraid of any of that.”

He said the restaurants along the river — The Pub on the Cedar and Hot Shots — play off each other very well. That brings in even more business because of their locale and proximity to each other. He believes they only benefit one another.

“I feel like we’re in a little small group that kind of supports each other,” said Biggerstaff. “If I get a customer that comes here once a week, but they go to the Pub once a week and they go to Hot Shots once a week — or they rotate — there’s enough to go around.”

Swenson said that grouping of restaurants together is called an agglomeration.

“That’s where certain kinds of restaurants locate next to each other because that’s just where everybody kind of drives on a Friday night,” said Swenson. “So you ended up having something of a restaurant strip.”

If there’s been one staple in Charles City when it comes to good food and a great time, it’s been the Comet Bowl.

Comet Bowl co-owners Mark Barry and Peggy Sweet kept the business in their family after they took it over from the father, who bought it in 1972. Comet Bowl was built in 1960.

The sibling owners currently have the 18-lane bowling alley for sale. Barry is in his 34th year of managing full-time and he said a potential buyer for his bowling alley would more than likely keep it as such.

Barry offers daily specials, but he eliminated the ribeye because there is a “threshold of pain” on what his price-point menu can sustain. Sirloin, fish and tenderloins are all high on the list of entrees that have kept people coming back for more. The fish and tenderloins are all hand breaded. Barry and Sweet don’t offer barbecue, if nothing more because of the space and equipment requirements.

“We try to do the things we’re good at and stick with that, instead of trying to do something we’re not,” said Barry.

Barry has heard the same things a lot of other owners have heard regarding whether or not a new restaurant could make it in Charles City. His mood on the subject tends to change periodically.

“The groups of us that have talked about it — one time you have a very positive attitude toward it and then you don’t have a very positive attitude. One side of me says the more options there are … that competition isn’t a bad thing,” he said.

Getting reliable help to run all facets of a restaurant can at times be challenging, Barry said. It can sometimes be the difference between a restaurant making it or breaking it.

“It comes down to — I’m not going to speak for all of them, but I hear from all of them — help is the toughest gig in the restaurant business. Keeping them happy,” said Barry. “It’s a team thing.”

Joe Hull is the owner of Hot Shots, a pool hall that he opened as a bar on the bank of the river in September of last year. Prior to Hots Shots opening it was Tori’s Bar and Grill.

Hull opened the kitchen this past May, where he has been successful with his menu of signature burgers and other dishes like the Cedar River Sludge, which consists of fries, sauteed onions smothered with brown gravy and topped with onion rings. A prime rib philly, grilled cod sandwich or tenderloins are just some of the sandwiches Hot Shots features on its menu.

Hull doesn’t offer steaks.

“It’s tough to sell a steak every night of the week. That’s more of Friday, Saturday type of a meal,” said Hull.

Hull agreed that current competition can help his business thrive, but he also understands that saturation of the dining market can make it hard for new businesses to excel.

“With competition it actually does help things,” said Hull. “For what Charles City is — the size, the area and the people here — I think there’s plenty. Wanting something new doesn’t mean that we can actually support something.”

Wicks was quick to point out that fine dining that features seafood and pasta — like Charles City’s 3C Bistro — can make it in town. 3C Bistro operated in Charles City for more than six years, but the business closed in September 2016.

“3C Bistro, they cut a path in this regard,” Wicks said. “3C was great food, people were really taking a shine to it. They showed that a fine dining restaurant, that there was a demand for it. It filled a niche and it filled a need. People really liked it.

“There were various factors why 3C is no longer here,” he said. “Restaurants are the hardest business to start up and maintain, period. That doesn’t mean you can’t succeed.”

Wicks said all businesses are volume based, particularly restaurants, because of their thinner margin of profit.

“The smaller the community, the more support is needed. Not only from the community, but from around the surrounding area because you need that volume,” said Wicks.

Wicks said the one of the most important things to keep in mind if a person thinks that the community they live in doesn’t offer enough food options is to be vocal about it, and not just on Facebook.

“What people need to do — this is my recommendation for the public — public input is vital. But you need to do more than complain about it on social media,” said Wicks. “You need to go to talk to your local restaurants … and let them know what you like. They may be able to offer it.”

They say variety is the spice of life, which led Biggerstaff to pose this million dollar question.

“Is it better to have one of the world’s greatest restaurants in your town, or is it better to have 10 options? I don’t know the answer to that,” said Biggerstaff. “If we have the world’s greatest restaurant, it must be pretty darn good. You should never go anywhere else.”

Charles City will just have to wait and see.