CHAPEL HILL - “Reel ’em in,” Tom Scheidler said, pointing one of his employees to a group of teenagers lingering on the sidewalk.
Top This! (“Roast Beef, Burgers & More”) had opened just days before as Franklin Street’s newest place to grab a sandwich. Scheidler, its owner, beckoned to passersby, inviting them to try the roast beef.
“After working for corporate America, I always had this dream of doing my own concept,” said Scheidler, 51, who fine-tuned his vision for a sandwich shop managing and operating chain restaurants such as T.G.I. Friday’s, Bonefish Grill and P.F. Chang’s.
Top This!, which opened Jan. 17, offers roast beef and turkey (“slow roasted in-house”), Angus beef burgers and hot dogs, hormone-free chicken, turkey, salads and black-bean veggie burgers, all priced well under $10. He hopes to take Top This! national, if he can attract the right investor.
Don Pinney, whose breakfast-and-lunch counter at Sutton’s Drug Store shares a wall with Top This!, said his new neighbor will find Chapel Hill unique and challenging.
“What works other places doesn’t necessarily work here,” Pinney explained. “The whole restaurant business [on Franklin Street] has been declining over the past few years.”
A weak economy has hurt all businesses, but Pinney said expansion of UNC campus dining services and the proliferation of franchises like Wendy’s and Chick-fil-A on campus have taken business from local eateries.
“The dining halls on the campus are just killing us,” said Pinney, who works with other downtown restaurants to make sure they offer different menu items, in the hopes of attracting diners without competing for them.
“I would love to see him do well,” Pinney said of his new neighbor. “I don’t think anyone else is doing roast beef.”
National statistics show that one in four new restaurants closes or changes owners during its first year. That rate rises to 60 percent within the first three years, and can occur for various reasons that do not always indicate failure; for instance, profitable restaurants whose owners retire or sell out to someone else.
Scheidler thinks he’s hit on a successful formula. Now, with his flagship location at the former Jack Sprat Café, he’ll have a place to showcase his prototype to potential partners.
He’s added a walk-in cooler, new equipment (including a clamshell grill that can cook a burger in a little over a minute) and flooring improvements. The old ’Sprat bar and countertop are still there, but gone is the stage that held countless open mike and hip-hop nights.
With more than a dozen places to get a sandwich on Franklin Street, Top This! will face stiff competition. But on an icy Friday night, things were looking promising; a full house, and a satisfied diner in John Noto, who dipped his burger in au jus sauce with enthusiasm, and said he especially liked the sweet potato fries.
“It seems like they got a decent model here, but they didn’t ask me how I wanted my burger cooked. I could see that being an issue,” said Noto, who sat at the bar and ate his burger with a pint of Lonerider Sweet Josie Ale.
Scheidler’s years in corporate dining showed him growing pains that can hit restaurants as they add locations; there are problems inherent in franchising, he said, one of which is that you can lose control over the quality of food and services.
Working for the China bistro P.F. Chang’s brought his family from Cincinnati to the Triangle area, where they settled in Cary.
He is well informed on the statistical breakdown of Triangle-area dining, where families go out for dinner about three times a week; about three times as often as the average American family, he said.
According to numbers from city-data.com, a comprehensive web data service, in 2011 Chapel Hill had 121 restaurants, or 21 per 10,000 population. Compare that with Durham, with about 8.6 restaurants per 10,000 population.
Chapel Hill’s 474 residents per restaurant puts it on a par with San Francisco, which regularly boasts the most restaurants per capita among major cities, with 509 residents per restaurant in the city proper (Dallas, Wichita and Madison, Wis. are all near the top of the list).
As the dinner rush subsided, Scheidler said it is too soon know exactly what his ideal investor would look like, or how much money he will be looking for; he said he wanted someone committed to good restaurateuring, not simply ‘money men’ out to make profit.
“You really have to have a proven concept,” Scheidler said. “I didn’t want to be just another burger joint.”
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