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  • As printed in The Daily Record

Food: Society's Anchor

How long does it take to build and open a Chik-fil-A restaurant? Judging by the new one on Bass Pro Parkway it takes about four months. In April, Chick-fil-A paid $1,800,000 for a 2.34 acre out lot between Bass Pro and Interstate 30. That’s just a few dollars less than $77,000 per acres. Or, right at $17.67 psf for those of you that keep track of it that way. From May to August, a brand-spankin’-new restaurant building sprouted, sort of like the mushrooms in my yard thanks to all the August rain. By the time you read this column you’ll probably be able to get a hot chicken sandwich after you finish your shopping at Bass Pro.

Chicken eateries aren’t the only restaurants that have come to roost at Gateway Town Center. David’s Burger’s was an early resident of Gateway. They’ve been selling so many burgers that those Chick-fil-A cows had better watch out. They might be what’s for lunch! Dave and Buster’s opened to rave reviews and Pie 5 Pizza is wrapping up finishes for a brand-new restaurant at Gateway. They’ll join a Johnny Rockets located at Outlets of Little Rock and a Hardee’s & Subway co-located with the Love’s truck stop.

Gateway Town Center not only created a regional shopping destination in Little Rock, it shifted the food focus in southwest Little Rock. Ages ago, in the last century even, Southwest City Mall was a focal point in the 1970s and 1980s. As that mall faded in memories and the building became the headquarters for the Arkansas State Police, several restaurants opened down I-30, proximate to a Walmart Supercenter located on Baseline Road near where it intersects Interstate 30. Walmart seems to still be doing fine. As for some of the restaurants around it? Not so well. A building built as a Ryan’s restaurant, long-closed, closed again after a stint as an Asian buffet. It has sat empty many years. Now Dixie Café across Baseline has closed. Word is that there is some sort of deal working there, and that the deal may not actually include the existing building. We’ve learned that another restaurant in that area is contemplating options to close and lease or sell the building. In conjunction with some review for that purpose we observed that the restaurants in that area were devoid of customers at lunch on the 1st Friday of the month, except for drive-through windows. Watch this area and see what the next chapter brings.

Off the food topic but on my mind since it is close to food, there’s some clearing, grubbing and burning happening immediately adjacent to Frontier Diner. I’ve not made time to chase down any details so if you have some please feel free to drop me a line. Other than the clearing and burning, all I know is that the tract is an even 10 acres and sold in April to Stribling Equipment LLC for $1,300,000. The $2.98 per square foot valuation provides stark contrast to that Chick-fil-A sale noted above.

If you travel west on Baseline over to Stagecoach Road, a/k/a AR Hwy 5, over on the northwest corner there is a nearly 30-acre tract zoned PCD. The Planning Commission approved this PCD back in October of 2015 for development of a seven-acre lot with a 40,000 to 50,000 square foot retail building. At the time of the Planning Commission’s approval, the conversation was that the application was for a grocery store. Also proposed was a nine-acre lot, for development of mini-warehouse and a four-acre lot with a future retail center. This comes to mind because I drove past the site last week. The big notice sign that was required to advertise the proposed zoning application was still there; nothing had changed though. No grocery store, no mini-storage, not even any clearing and grading. A call to the Planning and Development Department yielded that the project was not currently expected to move forward due to a business focus change by the proposed grocer.

The grocery market is one to watch I think. Everyone has to have groceries. Unlike when I was bagging groceries and stocking shelves at Dillon’s, the people shopping aren’t expecting their shopping experience to include a social and community news (gossip) component. Back in the 80s there was still no social media, the Internet was still a novelty, and only the jet-setting rich people had cellular phones. All the community news was shared at the grocery store, church and high school ball games. Now all the news is shared (over and over again) on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever else. Some of us recall the failed experiment of online grocery shopping back in the dot-com bubble. Based on that and how long it has been since, I for one thought online groceries were like the paperless office that has been predicted for the last 30 years. BTW, I was reminded last week of business storing files on floppy disks. Brothers and sisters, those things are like VHS tapes. They go bad. Go ahead and throw them out now.

What’s his point you ask? There is one. Grocery stores have long been a staple of retail development and a key part of communities. Untold businesses have relied on locating near, or in the same shopping center as grocers. The proposed grocery on Stagecoach is not the only delayed or canceled grocery store around the area. I understand one in Cabot is delayed and that plans for another in Conway started and then stopped before much momentum was built. Hey, that happens sometimes. However, if tomorrow’s society prefers to sit at home on Facebook or Instagram and order their groceries online to be delivered by car, truck or drone instead of going to the market (or church, or the ball game), then what does that mean for all those businesses that have come to rely on the grocery stores to bring shoppers? For that matter, what does that mean for all of us?

And thanks to my friend Mark Bingman for sharing Coach John Scolinos’ thoughts on why home plates should always be 17 inches. (He emailed me. He knows I’m incompetent at Facebook). You should use the Internet to look up Coach Scolinos. Really. No, really.

Tips and suggestions, well most of them anyway, are appreciated. Hope you found something interesting in the column this month. Check back again next month for the things that didn’t get included here this time and that pop up between now and then.

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