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Downtown Restaurant Association?

Downtown Restaurant Association?

Postby Happy Mom » Sun Apr 24, 2011 10:52 am

Reeling in customers

Restaurateurs teaming up to promote downtown

Heidi Prescott Market Basket

6:51 a.m. EDT, April 17, 2011

Downtown South Bend is being hammered by Grape Road, Main Street and Eddy Street, where independently owned, franchised and chain restaurants are pulling customers away from the central business district.

And those area diners who might be inclined to travel four, six or eight miles, largely from the north- or south-sides of the county to dine downtown, may pass 30 restaurants on the way -- any one of which may lure them inside.

Mark McDonnell describes this scenario, and paints this picture, only to matter-of-factly state that he is going to put an end to it.

"I told everybody that we need to get together and create reasons for people to come downtown," says Mark McDonnell, founder and proprietor of LaSalle Grill.

By "everybody" he means any downtown restaurant owner who wants to collectively promote their venues.

"We want to create a level of excitement about downtown South Bend that draws people from throughout the region," says Herb Wilson, owner of Trio's Restaurant and Jazz Club.

McDonnell has received interest from nearly two dozen restaurants, including Tippecanoe Place, which opened in 1980, to Sangrias wine bar and restaurant, which just debuted last year.

That's a great start, considering discussions started in earnest just last month.

These restaurants are planning to form a downtown restaurant association, whose goal is to increase awareness of their establishments through marketing and special event planning.

The first promotion being discussed is called "Eat. Drink. Downtown South Bend." Between June 27 and July 9, participating restaurants, depending on their price point, are talking about offering three courses for $25, or two dinners for $25.

Additional events and monthly specials are also being discussed by the members that comprise the future association's executive committee, so far, at least.

McDonnell is quick to point out that the association has not yet been formalized or even named. Downtown South Bend Inc. has not yet announced its potential involvement with the group, other than calling itself " a supporting partner."

Some of the other restaurants whose owners have expressed an interest in being part of the association are Ciao's, Carmela's at Macri's, The Vine, Le Peep, Noma and Siam Thai.

Rob DeCleene, executive director, South Bend/Mishawaka Convention and Visitors Bureau, is thrilled to be involved in the discussions, because downtown South Bend, as a whole, he says, is an attraction.

Restaurant owners are integral to its positioning. "This association," DeCleene says, "and restaurant week is the first step of really branding the collective restaurant scene in downtown South Bend as a destination."

And as a destination, McDonnell and others hope to not only promote downtown as a dining district, but also as a place for the arts.

"The idea that you can come downtown, park once, and spend an entire day visiting the museums and galleries, seeing a play or ball game, having a great one-of-a-kind meal and enjoying some live music is very exciting," says Carol Meehan, co-owner of Fiddler's Hearth.

Some people may view downtown as old, decrepit and tired, and believe the misconceptions that the central business district has high crime and nowhere to park, says McDonnell, who also operates Club LaSalle and Events with Style Catering. So the group has informally discussed using directional signage as well as local media and billboard campaigns to communicate a message.

The message in the ultra-competitive restaurant sector, McDonnell says, is this: Downtown is a distinct entity, a district where a lot of independent restaurants are focused, and an arts and entertainment center.

"We're opening restaurants far beyond our capacity population-wise, to access and fill them all," he explains. "So we have to create a better identity for downtown. If you want something distinct, come here."

Sherri Huffer, general manager at Tippecanoe Place restaurant, believes it is imperative that business owners and managers look at the efforts to create a restaurant association as a way to help revitalize downtown.

"I love the fact that the restaurants are coming together to bring business back to the area and not looking at each other like competition," Huffer says. "We have to combat the competition from Grape Road and the chains, and promote our businesses collectively as a team." ... 625.column

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