Powers struggle 

New independent eateries reheat hope for underdogs in chain alley

click to enlarge Frankie Patton preceded the chain restaurants to Powers Boulevard and has managed to compete since their arrival. Frankie's turns 25 in June. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Frankie Patton preceded the chain restaurants to Powers Boulevard and has managed to compete since their arrival. Frankie's turns 25 in June.

It's not exactly 2Pac vs. Biggie, but let's admit that a subtle tension continues to simmer between the east and west factions of Colorado Springs.

Many downtown, Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs residents can't be bothered to rot at red lights up and down Platte and Constitution avenues for an IMAX flick. Likewise, some of those living near Powers Boulevard won't make the stop-and-go commute west for, say, a meal at a downtown restaurant.

We're effectively two cities in many respects. And just as the Big Mac Index has served as an international economic reference point, the locally owned restaurant seems an easy symbol of our own east-west divide.

"When I first opened out here, I felt like I was cheating on my regulars downtown," says Porky's and Oscar's owner Phil Duhon. "Until I got to know the people out here, and they're good people, too. They're a different breed, but that doesn't make them better or worse."

Duhon, who opened Porky's on Omaha Boulevard just east of Powers a little more than a year ago, presents the conundrum as such: "If a Chili's opened up downtown, it wouldn't do that well. Downtown is owned by the locals. If you're a franchise, you struggle. The opposite can be said about [the east side]: This is owned by the franchises, and if you're a local, you struggle. You don't have the ability to ride [the lean times] out like the corporates do."

click to enlarge Phil Duhon rides the fence, with loyal client bases both downtown and 20 minutes to the east. - BRIENNE BOORTZ
  • Brienne Boortz
  • Phil Duhon rides the fence, with loyal client bases both downtown and 20 minutes to the east.

But that's not stopping a few locals from trying. Over the last four months, even as the economy has become more and more unforgiving, three independent restaurants have opened up shop in the Powers corridor: Schnitzel Fritz, Stevie Ray's Eastside Grill and Arharn Thai.

Rocky ventures

Even in better times, this is where indie dreams have gone to die. In the past two years, Powers has seen doors close at Cathy's Deli (6 months in business), Palapa's Surfside Island Dining (just over six months) and San Jose Family Mexican Restaurant (14 months). And after having operated for roughly two years as Hola Southwest Bistro, the more upscale Fuse New American Cuisine, under the same proprietors, only managed 10 months in business.

"Our small, family-run bistro has struggled to make a name for itself among the many large chain restaurants along Powers Boulevard," owner Julia Lane told the Indy October 2007.

Meanwhile, parking lots at Chili's, Texas Roadhouse and plenty of other chains have remained swollen, sharing the spoils of a corridor that sees between 60,000 and 75,000 cars per day, according to the city's traffic engineering statistics. (The only busier road in the Springs is Interstate 25.)

Without being privy to the books or proprietors' personal stories, we can only speculate why the indies couldn't make it. (Neither Lane nor Cathy Anderson returned calls this time around, and San Jose's co-owner did not wish to discuss its closure.) For Fuse, it may have been parking and its location deep inside the Cinemark 16 plaza; sandwiches at Cathy's Deli might not have been different enough from those available at nearby chain diners; and as for San Jose, well, let's face it — Tex-Mex is everywhere.

One man willing to reflect on his dream deferred is Palapa's junior partner Victor Matthews, who remains dean of Paragon Culinary School and chef-owner at Green Mountain Falls' high-end Black Bear Restaurant.

"I have to admit, Palapa's was a stretch," Matthews says. "It was really cutting-edge — I was asking people to not only support an indie, but a big restaurant with overnighted seafood as the base."

But, he adds, "We were full some nights, with 100 people from the Powers area having a blast."

Matthews says Palapa's woes really went back to the loan on the building, though that building's location — a block off Powers on South Carefree Circle, tucked behind a Village Inn — surely didn't help visibility. And then there's Matthews' opinion that "the majority of Americans tend to go with something safe that they know.

"The mindset of Colorado Springs is going to have to change," he says. "[Powers Boulevard] is a war zone. It's a battlefield. Because people have all those options ... people are going to have to wake up and forcibly demand a change — demand independent, creative, safe, delicious, real food."

Chain of chains

Consumer habits aside, one of the biggest threats to independent restaurateurs is food costs.

Matthews says independents tend to set prices as low as possible to compete with the bulk-buying chains, "which cuts our own throats, because our margins are so tight that if we run into any kind of fluctuation, it annihilates you."

Even Frankie Patton says he's struggling — and come June 1, his Frankie's Bar and Grill will have been in business at Galley Road and Powers for a quarter-century.

Patton can speak for the era when Powers was a two-lane road turning to dirt north of the Constitution intersection, when the nearest food was a grocery store on Murray Boulevard. He attributes much of Frankie's success to his proximity to military infrastructure. Though he's south of most consumer action on Powers, he's able to pull in people from offices like those at Patriot Park.

"Twenty-five years ago, I was the dumb idiot on the block," he says. "Now I'm Einstein."

But the game is much different today from when Patton got into it. Within four miles to the north, where there once had been dirt, today you find Chili's, Texas Roadhouse, Mimi's Café, Red Robin, Wahoo's Fish Taco, SmashBurger, Panera Bread, Qdoba Mexican Grill, Rock Bottom Brewery, Indigo Joe's, HoneyBaked Ham, Quiznos, Village Inn, Outback Steakhouse, Chick-fil-A, Jamba Juice, Garlic Jim's ... the list goes on. Meanwhile, Patton's rent has doubled.

"For a small-businessman to open a business on Powers today is extremely difficult," says Patton. "It takes a lot of money."

Not only do independents compete against major marketing dollars, they suffer alone with a bad month — unlike corporate stores, which can afford to float an underperforming location for a while.

Patton says he's seen "better days by far," but he holds hopes for continued commercial development nearby. And he doesn't sound resentful of his chain neighbors.

"Anytime something new opens up it will affect your business, because everyone's gotta try it," he says. "But nine times out of 10, they work their way back. We make our own soups and green chili — we're more home-cooking. People still like that."

Changing colors

If anyone has a unique perspective on chains vs. indies, it's Steve Link, owner of Stevie Ray's Eastside Grill (see "Goodbye, Ruby Yesteryear," April 16). Link operated a Ruby's Diner in the prime real-estate spot (roadside, just south of South Carefree) on which his slick, newly independent eatery now sits.

"As a franchisee, my hands were restricted on the menu," Link says of his decision to go it alone. "And as a diner, I had a fair amount of competition out here. ... Now, we're having a blast with the menu and making changes we feel like making. It allows us to react to what customers are asking for."

And that's at the heart of why he feels an independent can make it out east, even though "restaurant seats are just oversaturated on this side of town."

"They can 'break the chain,'" he says, "and offer things the chains don't."

Things like a cuisine missing from the scene.

Link, Matthews and everyone else interviewed for this story say Arharn Thai (see "Eastern promise") and Schnitzel Fritz (see "Schnitzel blitz," Feb. 19) will succeed on Powers, for one particular reason: Nobody else is dishing authentic German or Thai plates in the vicinity. It's seemingly the same reason that Moon Star Chinese and Monica's Taco Shop — both indies — have been able to anchor themselves solidly just off Powers, on Palmer Park Boulevard.

As for how the locally owned Ultimate Buffet (opened October 2006) has managed to compete with Golden Corral? Perhaps it's the Asian offerings and sushi, ribeyes and crab legs, somehow offered for roughly the same price as you'll usually find pot roast, soups and fish fillets.

"I think there are a lot of people over here that will support an independent," says Schnitzel Fritz owner Anke Verburg. "They want something different ... 95 percent of our customers say they're glad to have something else besides a chain."

Verburg, who also owns Elke's German Deli in Fountain with her husband Mitch, says she has an added advantage because the Springs is home to many German families and many military personnel who've served in Germany and crave her food. But she also has friends on the west side who won't visit her restaurant because it's too far away.

"Some west-siders, it seems like they're blindfolded," she says. "They have ideas about having to support only locals on the west side."



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