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Fast-casual restaurants expanding again in Jacksonville

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Fast-casual restaurants, which went into a holding pattern during the recession, are expanding once again in Jacksonville, factoring into the growth of commercial real estate as a whole.

Fast-casual restaurants, which went into a holding pattern during the recession, are expanding once again in Jacksonville, factoring into the growth of commercial real estate as a whole.

At least eight fast-casual chains opened new stores in 2013, and nine have either filed permits or said they are seeking new locations in the region.

Carrie Smith, a commercial broker for Franklin Street who has represented chains such as Newk’s Express Café and Tijuana Flats, has seen the shift in pace.

“During a recession, very few retailers were actively doing deals,” she said.

But now, recession or not, restaurateurs have discovered fast casual is a business concept that’s working, she said. “2013 was a great year for retail, and the fast-casual market was a big part of that.”

Fast-casual restaurants are chain restaurants that don’t have staffed table service, but generally have better quality food and dining atmosphere than fast-food restaurants. The price point, at about $8 to $15 a plate, falls between fast food and sit-down dining.

A restaurant industry bright spot, fast casual in 2013 posted $34.5 billion in sales nationally and grew at a rate of 11 percent, much faster than the overall industry rate of 3.2 percent.

At the top of the pack was Panera Bread, with estimated sales of $4.1 billion, according to industry analyst, Technomics Inc.

The fast-casual concept owes its genesis to real estate pressures, according to Don Fox, CEO Firehouse Subs, a Jacksonville-based chain.

Free-standing real estate became prohibitively expensive in the 1990s, he said, so people had to look at alternative models.

Companies turned to inline stores in strip malls. To make people want to pull into such locations, restaurants had to be compelling in their menu offerings and price points.

“What was proven in the late ‘90’s and early ‘00’s was if you delivered on the product and the services, business could thrive in this format,” Fox said. “And that really led to the explosion of fast casual.”

It seems true for Firehouse, which opened its first restaurant in Mandarin in 1994 and now operates 760 restaurants across 41 states.

Compared to other markets, Firehouse’s growth in Jacksonville has tracked about average, Fox said, suggesting the city’s recent up tick in fast-casual stores may simply be reflecting a national trend.

Strong markets for fast casual in this area have traditionally included the Southside and the Beaches, Smith said, but now companies are also seeking deals in Riverside, and have opened stores in Mandarin and Bartram Park. OakLeaf Plantation, which was harder hit by underwater homes than most places, is also now attracting deals.

One change the recession has wrought, according to Smith, is stores are talking more about right-sizing to a smaller footprint.

“When you think about it, dropping down from 2,000 square feet drops the overhead dramatically,” she said.

For Firehouse though, the right size appears to be moving in the opposite direction. The company has increased its store footprint from an average of 1,400 square feet to 2,000 square feet over 10 years, Fox said.

“What we found is people prefer to dine in that take out,” he said. “It’s just a better experience for them.”

Who’s driving the growth?

Fast casual restaurants picked up the pace in 2013. Here’s who built stores in Jacksonville last year:

• Chipotle Mexican Grill

• Newk’s Express Cafe

• Tijuana Flats

• Jimmy John’s Gourmet Subs

• M Shack

• Zoe’s Kitchen

• Panera Bread

• Firehouse Subs

Who’s coming soon?

At least nine chains are hoping to open new stores over the next 18 months:

• Jimmy John’s Gourmet Subs

• Panera Bread

• Chipotle Mexican Grill

• Zoe’s Kitchen

• Burrito Gallery

• Moe’s Southwest Grill

• Smashburger

• Five Guy Burgers and Fries

• Firehouse Subs

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