The Hole in the Doughnut

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Here's a riddle:

Take away the fine dining establishments that define Dallas nightlife. Remove the bright clusters of familiar chain restaurants that enliven Plano, Lewisville and Frisco. Close all liquor stores in The Colony and board up Addison's strip.

Do all this and what will you have?

Mull it over a bit, and the answer will come to you, as clear as the center of Homer Simpson's favorite confection: Carrollton.

Call the northern suburb atypical. Dallas claims more restaurants per capita than New York. The strip along Belt Line in Addison produces more tax revenue for the town than any other industry. Lewisville and Plano support sizable restaurant clusters, and two new places open in Frisco every month.

But Carrollton, well, nobody goes to Carrollton.

"Carrollton is not perceived as a restaurant-friendly area," says Tracey Evers of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association. "They have a lot of scrambling to do." Indeed, for years the city stiff-armed restaurants with two onerous city ordinances: a strict smoking ban the city enacted in 1994 and a very strange "alcohol awareness program" dating from 1986. The latter policy forced private club owners--it's a dry town--to place their alcohol service area in a location not visible from the dining room.

"I used to live in Carrollton," says Jim White, host of the popular KRLD Restaurant Show. "The dearth of restaurants is one of the reasons I no longer do. There is a direct relationship between the availability of free-flowing liquor and wine and the quantity--and quality--of good restaurants."

Because the ordinance controlled restaurant design and construction and ignored concept trends, it neatly deflected independent fine dining establishments to Addison or Plano. The smoking ban further solidified Carrollton's restaurant-unfriendly reputation and nearly destroyed the city's remaining table-service establishments. "We lost a fortune when the smoking ordinance came in," says Denny Stack, general manager of Judge Bean's. The restaurant even ended up in a legal squabble with the city. "We lost a lot of customers when the smoking ban went in place," says Bartolino Cacuzza, owner of Amici, the city's only fine dining restaurant. "The first year the ban went into effect was the first year I had zero growth."

Judging from the results, it's almost as if Carrollton deliberately set out to shun the industry. The city of 111,000 lists 124 restaurants within city limits, but almost half are quick-service chains, pizza places and Chinese delivery locations. Names like Arby's, McDonald's, Taco Bueno, Wendy's and Sonic dominate the Carrollton Yellow Pages. Addison, on the other hand, crams 135 establishments into a 4.3-square-mile area, more than 120 of them table-service restaurants. Lewisville offers 191 dining choices for 77,000 residents. While Carrollton supports Amici, a four-star spot, Addison offers Chamberlain's, Lombardi Mare, Avanti Euro Bistro, Sambuca and other destination restaurants.

"You can scare business away from a town, and it will suppress a community," says Joe Michael Ramirez, senior vice president of Los Lupe's. "We had ordinances that should have been changed several years ago." Brad Mink, Carrollton's director of economic development agrees flatly.

In 1998, however, tired of missing out, tired of watching other cities benefit as Carrollton residents drove elsewhere for meals, and unaware that an economic slowdown lurked around the corner, and with the new George Bush Turnpike promising an avenue of high visibility, the City Council rescinded the smoking ban and overturned the odd alcohol visibility rules. The council, expressing a new and more open mood, gave Mink a green light to attract restaurants to Carrollton. They began courting La Hacienda Ranch, a Mexican restaurant operation with branches in Colleyville and Frisco. "La Hacienda Ranch made it clear they wouldn't move into Carrollton without a change in the ordinances," Mink says. The restaurant began looking at locations in Lewisville before the city caved in and rescinded both restrictive regulations. The new ordinances allow visible bars and smoking in separate and well-ventilated rooms. The city remains subject to private club regulations.

"We're back where we should be," says Mink with evident excitement. His office is pursuing an aggressive program to attract restaurant business, including a direct-mail campaign targeting national chains and a tax incentive structure for new establishments. In the Highlands development, for example, the city now offers a tax reduction of up to 30 percent, provided the restaurant meets certain minimum standards.

But in a nearly saturated market and a sluggish economy, does anybody care? "Between Lewisville and Addison, we feel we have the Carrollton area covered," says Jo El Quinlan, vice president of real estate for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide. "Tax incentives are very nice," says Tim Smith, a spokesman for Brinker International, "but any restaurant has to make economic sense. We've already built numerous restaurants around the area."

Mink worries about the campaign's timing and the city's image. "No one has taken advantage of the changes yet," he admits.

Well, almost no one. "I heard a lot of bad things about Carrollton," says Ramirez, "but the city assured me they were trying to bring in restaurant business and would work with us." Surprise still registers in Ramirez's voice when he recalls the city's cooperation. Los Lupe's was the first restaurant to open under the new, more relaxed policies, moving into an existing structure at Josey Lane and Trinity Mills, while La Hacienda Ranch constructed a new facility along the Stemmons corridor. "When we first started we had lines even on a Monday and Tuesday," Ramirez says. "People in Carrollton were really waiting for something." La Hacienda Ranch finally opened last summer and quickly outsold the restaurant's other two locations.

But the new ordinances do not simply throw open the doors for rampant development. La Hacienda Ranch spent $20,000 on construction and equipment to meet the city's new smoking ordinance. "Inspectors test the system every six months," says Ramirez, who spent $5,000 on ventilation work alone. "They light a smoke bomb in the room, and the system has to clear it. Thirty fat guys smoking cigars couldn't make that much smoke."

Restrictive smoking policies, however, deter fewer restaurants than outright bans. "We do a lot of business in Arlington," Smith says, comparing Carrollton's new smoking ordinance to Arlington's similarly strict policy. "We're seeing more of that, and it's not a deal breaker."

Carrollton's new ordinances, however, create a haves-versus-have nots gap between newly opened or redesigned restaurants and those built under the old requirements. Judge Bean's reconstructed its smoking area, dedicating 30 percent of its space to cigarette smokers. "You can't get a seat in there," Stack beams at the crowd. But at Full House Chinese Restaurant, Lili Hsu says, "I think it's a big problem. A lot of people ask for the smoking section, and when they find out we don't have one, some go elsewhere." The stumbling economy threatens to further expose the gap. "If there's a crunch, we'll feel the effects first," explains a manager at Marshall's Bar-B-Q, a no-smoking, no-alcohol location. "If people can only go out to eat one night a week, they'll go to a place that has alcohol and smoking."

Entrenched popular attitudes also block Mink's efforts. A few residents protested when Los Lupe's opened, simply because the restaurant serves alcohol. Sonny Bryan's fought the city over a pickup window because some people feared drive-through alcohol sales. "A lot of people from Carrollton are surprised that we allow smoking," says Heather Edwards, assistant general manager at La Hacienda Ranch. "They say, 'How do you get away with that?' They're just used to no-smoking places."

"Statutes can be modified," muses the ever-observant White. "Mores are harder to adjust. In the case of the former, Carrollton could possibly compete by offering tax incentives to attract restaurant groups. In the case of the latter, head for Addison or Frisco."

Frisco, indeed. More than 25 restaurants opened in Frisco over the past 12 months thanks to rapid growth, a new mall and a couple of highways. Carrollton hopes the newly opened Bush Turnpike will spur interest in the city.

"But," Mink acknowledges, "it won't happen overnight."

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