Restaurants focus on students to keep in business

In the past four years, 38 restaurants have closed in Lawrence and 39 restaurants have opened, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture Food Inspections.

The restaurant business in Lawrence is so volatile due to oversaturation and a low average income in the community—in 2012, the median was $50,184, slightly lower than the national average of $51,371.

According to Lawrence restaurant owners, the high degree of turnover can be both positive and negative.

“Anytime a restaurant closes I would say that is a negative because people are losing their jobs,” Tim Barnes, the manager of Jefferson’s, located at 743 Massachusetts St., said. “Whoever made that investment and put their money in to open up that place, they failed in that.”

He said there is a positive side to the turnover as well.

“It is always nice to get a different type of restaurant, some new flavoring around here,” Barnes said. “It also shows people want [to] be a part of the restaurant market in Lawrence.”

Some of the better-known restaurants to close in Lawrence during the past four years include Three Spoons Frozen Yogurt, Freebirds World Burrito, Spangles and Tapas Mexican Restaurant. According to articles in the Lawrence Journal-World, Three Spoons most likely lost business due to the opening of TCBY right down the street, Freebirds simply wasn’t making enough money and Tapas lost their lease after being open only a year. The reason behind the closing of Spangles is still a mystery, considering they were a thriving business for more than seven years in Lawrence.

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Pedestrians walk by the future site of BurgerFi in Lawrence on Sunday. The burger chain is setting up in the former site of the Chinese-Indian Diner on the 900 block of Massachusetts Street. James Hoyt/KANSAN

Bob Schumm, previous owner of Buffalo Bob’s Smokehouse and city commissioner, said the volatility stems from a low adjusted gross income (AGI) per capita.

His restaurant will be replaced by another Biggs BBQ location in the fall.

“We have about a $36,000 AGI in Lawrence, where Manhattan is about $10,000 higher,” Schumm said. “On top of that our cost of living is much higher. People only have so much money to spend on food, so you have to keep the price within the reach of as many people as possible, and in Lawrence that means a lot of college students.”

Schumm and Barnes both stressed how important college students are to the success of a restaurant in Lawrence. Marketing a business towardsUniversity students is a good way to stay alive in the rocky Lawrence restaurant business.

“You need to always stay in tune with what your market wants,” Schumm said. “The market is so well-served that special offerings and promotions are a constant necessity.”

Schumm also said the restaurants that tend to stay in business have a minimum price point and are able to follow food trends—the recent increase in the desire for healthy eating or locally grown food are two examples.

Barnes knows first hand how hard it is to have a successful restaurant in Lawrence.

“Even Jefferson’s, which is pretty much an institution as far as Lawrence restaurants go, has closed and reopened within this four year time frame,” Barnes said.

According to Barnes, Jefferson’s has become very active on social media to connect with the student body. In May, their “Retweet for a chance to win free wings for a year” contest received more than 2,000 retweets and almost 150 favorites.  become very popular on Twitter.

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“Social media is typically a younger kids’ game,” Barnes said. “With the majority of our sales coming from college students we give out promotions on Twitter such as free fried pickles if you come in today or discounted food during stop week.”

New restaurants that have opened recently in Lawrence include Pueblo’s Mexican Restaurant, Limestone Pizza and Mass Street Sweet Shoppe.

Students have multiple new restaurants to look forward to in the fall of 2014. The new restaurants include a chain burger restaurant, BurgerFi, to replace Chutney’s Indian Diner and Ladybird Diner to replace the Dynamite Saloon.

  • Updated Jun. 15, 2014 at 4:38 pm