WATERTOWN — From farming and residential to commercial to restaurant row and big box shopping, population growth fueled by Fort Drum has redefined the two-mile strip of Arsenal Street that bridges the city and town of Watertown.
A census conducted by the Watertown Daily Times and NNY360 found 28 of the top 50 grossing restaurant chains in America either on that strip, or nearby. Another big name is sniffing around, begging the question how much fast food can one community handle?
Amber Deremiah recalls the scattering of small shops, fast-food and family restaurants — like Ann’s Stand — and mostly barren plazas of Arsenal Street years ago.
The Salmon Run Mall, Price Chopper and Walmart served shoppers, but options for eateries known by the out-of-town traveler were limited.
“It used to be just Pizza Hut and McDonald’s,” she said.
In Watertown, there are now 28 of the top 50 fast food, fast casual and sit-down restaurants, ranked by Restaurant Business, a food industry publication. There are Texas Roadhouse, Olive Garden, Applebee’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill and Buffalo Wild Wings. At least one more chain eatery has been exploring the Watertown market, which could bring the top 50 restaurant count to 29.
Overall in the Watertown-Fort Drum area on which the New York State Department of Labor keeps employment statistics, there were 278 restaurants or bars in 2018, the last year of available numbers. That’s up from 237 in 2000, when the average annual employment of that sector was 2,696. In 2018, the Department of Labor reported 3,469 employees.
In the same 18-year period, average wages for the largely part-time jobs grew from $10,000 annually to $17,000, and the total paid to restaurant workers nearly tripled from $27.3 million to $60.5 million.
The economic and population growth fueled by Fort Drum have provided a foundation for developers including Patrick M. Donegan to attract national eateries with household names like Five Guys Burger and Fries, Chipotle and Sonic. Though Ponderosa Steakhouse, Ruby Tuesday and Friendly’s have closed, they were quickly replaced by Tully’s Good Times, Red Robin and IHOP.
The Watertown-Fort Drum area had a combined population of 116,567 in 2017, according to Data USA.
Mr. Donegan, Alexandria Bay, said the Watertown restaurant market would look very different without the post, which has nearly 20,000 soldiers and as many more family members.
“Fort Drum was a huge part of it,” he said.
Golden Corral is seeking a franchisee to open somewhere in Watertown to capitalize on its population and regional draw, said Van Ingram, vice president of franchise development. He said the market could support an 8,400-square-foot restaurant, the smaller of its two typical footprints. It would offer a full menu, including fried chicken, sirloin streak and shrimp trio, fried fish and pot roast.
An average eatery employs about 100 workers. It features rows of tin hot plates and trays filled with hundreds of buffet items, marked with labels like “Family Favorites” and “Fresh Catch,” separate from rows of table seating and sometimes benches surrounding a central fireplace adorned with a metallic “GC” in a circle.
Mr. Ingram said the Raleigh, N.C. chain has not yet identified a particular location or franchisee, but has considered housing it in a subdivided section of a former anchor storefront in the Salmon Run Mall.
Golden Corral, which has 494 locations, opened one in Syracuse earlier this year.
Mr. Ingram said the company hopes to expand its upstate New York footprint with possible eateries in Ithaca, Buffalo and New Hartford.
According to Golden Corral’s website, a prospective franchisee must have a $2.5 million net worth, which includes $500,000 in liquid assets, and pay an initial $50,000 per restaurant franchising fee, 4 percent of gross sales for royalty and a 2.4 percent minimum of gross sales for advertising. The franchise agreement will last 15 years and allow for two, five-year renewal options.
“We would love to get a new franchisee immediately and come to the market, because the opportunity is there,” Mr. Ingram said. “We’re certainly looking at that and other options in the area.”
Restaurant patrons polled by the Times were mixed on whether they would dine at Golden Corral. Ms. Demeriah said she liked their options that cater to consumers on the ketogenic diet by offering a variety of meat and vegetable dishes. Others, like Garrett Justice, Fort Drum, and Maryellen Blevins, Watertown, expressed less interest. Mr. Justice said he did not like buffets.
Popular chains exhibited modest growth in 2018, but were held back by high rents, rising labor costs and increased competition, according to Restaurant Business. The outlet reported that these factors forced many household brand eateries to look inward by enhancing existing locations.
Linda Kavanagh, co-founder of the New England Culinary Group, said national chains, particularly those with fast-casual service models, have been able to bolster operations by responding to new consumer needs for transparency and healthy options.
“McDonald’s is not the way we remember McDonald’s growing up. Calories, ingredients; it’s a whole new world,” she said. “Now consumers can actually see their food in front of them.”
Finding homes for new restaurant locations has also become easier for chains because developers and landlords aim to make entering a market easier to attract them, Ms. Kavanagh said. Cities and towns needed restaurants to satisfy consumer demands to thrive, which supports the real estate market.
When exploring areas to open new establishments, Ms. Kavanagh said chain restaurant companies seek locations with universities, a “strong corporate presence” and sizable or growing populations with demographics that align with their average customer base. Rather than operating their own eateries, however, corporate offices of restaurant chains will recruit franchisees to operate them, which can be more cost effective. Having multiple sizes for locations is also common, she said, with many trying to scale to meet market size.
Two cities that boast housing most, if not all, of the top 50 restaurants listed by Restaurant Business include Connecticut cities of Milford, population 55,000, and New Haven, population 130,000.
“They’re not going to market in Timbuktu,” she said.
While smaller markets may welcome more chain restaurants as market trends support growth, Mr. Donegan, who helped usher a wave of them flowing into the area years ago, is skeptical about Watertown bringing any more.
The number of chains that have flocked to Watertown have now oversaturated the market, Mr. Donegan said, leaving little room for new ones like Golden Corral, without another one closing, which happened to Ruby Tuesday. One or two may open here or there, but Mr. Donegan said Watertown will not witness the boom it experienced about five years ago.
“Unless something amazing happens like the base doubles in size … or Amazon builds a factory,” he said. “Not all of those chains are doing great right now in Watertown. Some are seeing a decrease in sales.”
The Alexandria Bay developer also blames recent state regulations establishing more hurdles for restaurants, including minimum wage hikes, paid family leave and more.
“New York state and (Gov. Andrew) Cuomo have made it very difficult for the food industry,” he said. “Businesses have lost a lot of profit.”
The growing presence of chain restaurants can benefit communities by providing jobs with training, standard operation procedures and benefits, Ms. Kavanagh said. The marketing expert, however, said she wonders whether communities that boast a large number of nationally recognized eateries have room for full-scale establishments.
“Is there room for some of the more elevated (restaurants)?” she said.
Some people like Mr. Justice hunger for meal options from more national chain eateries. The Fort Drum man said he would enjoy having Chick-fil-A or Zaxby’s in the area, as well as more popular chains from the southern U.S. such as Bojangles and Cook Out, which specializes in burgers, barbecue food and milkshakes.
“There are several fast food places down south that you don’t have up here that I love,” Mr. Justice said.