POSTED ON FEBRUARY 6, 2013:
Locally-owned restaurants expand south
Getting up shop in south Tulsa won't make Elliot Nelson a pioneer like when he opened James E. McNellie's Public House in downtown almost 10 years ago.
But with the opening of a second McNellie's in Tulsa set for mid-April near East 71st Street and South Yale Avenue, Nelson said he's seizing an opportunity that comes with having established a local Tulsa brand.
"The people out there have a desire for more unique local businesses, I think," Nelson said. He said that while it's not only chain restaurants in south Tulsa, when it comes to local originals, "I think it's a bit underserved."
His won't be the first Tulsa original to expand from the city's core into a more suburban locale. Another recent example is the opening last October of a second Fat Guy's Burger Bar at 7945 S. Memorial Drive, two years after the first restaurant opened in 2010 near ONEOK Field on North Greenwood Avenue.
The pattern has worked for others over the years, including In The Raw, a Brookside sushi restaurant which opened a second south Tulsa location about nine years ago (initially called Fusion before becoming a second In The Raw location). In The Raw now plans to open a Broken Arrow restaurant. Additionally, McGill's expanded several years ago from just one location in Utica Square to a second near South Yale Avenue and East 61st Street.
Each business will approach things differently, of course. Nelson, chief executive officer for the McNellie's Group of restaurants, spoke about the need to keep the look and feel similar to the McNellie's downtown location.
"I think there are suburban pubs and bars that are very much suburban places, and that won't work for what I want to do," he said. He added: "If it doesn't feel right, it's not going to work. That's always been one of my hesitations about doing something suburban in a newer building."
McNellie's will take over a space previously occupied by a restaurant called Diamond Jack's, a Tulsa original but one that ended last year after the death of its proprietor.
Nelson said he chose to locate the new McNellie's "in a more mature area" of south Tulsa.
Virtual Reality. An artist’s rendition of the up coming McNellie’s South..
COURTESY OF THE MCNELLIE’S GROUP
"We're not out in a shopping center, not out in a hard corner," Nelson said, calling the site "a little more subdued." It will feature "a really nice" beer garden, he said.
Selecting a site for a business often comes down to studying the people who live nearby and deciding if they would be willing to spend on whatever the business is offering.
"I think I come at it from a really urban bias, based on how I got into all this," Nelson said. "I think at some point I have to admit, suburban life is here to stay in America. It is how we've built our country over the last 50 years."
Still, he's banking on people in south Tulsa wanting some of that downtown vibe in a more convenient setting. People "still want that same offering you would get down in an urban area. ... I think that creates an opportunity for us."
Mike Meehan, owner of Fat Guys Burger Bar, said moving south made sense in part because some potential customers still shy away from downtown.
"Downtown can be confusing if you're not down there all the time," Meehan said, calling it "logical" to open something for those in south Tulsa.
Along with new customers, Meehan said he sees some advantages for his operation.
"We've got a lot more space," he said, noting the limitations of downtown.
He's noticed differences in the crowds, like the need for many more children's high chairs in south Tulsa than downtown.
"It's definitely different. People, are they different in behavior? No, they're just Tulsans," Meehan said.
Greg Hughes, owner of In the Raw, a Brookside favorite that eventually expanded to include five sites in Oklahoma, said the restaurant brand can make all the difference.
He recalled how he tried to open a restaurant called Fusion at what is now In the Raw's south Tulsa location.
"It did not work," Hughes said.
Then, he decided to rebrand it with the In the Raw name. After a month, business had doubled, he said.
"It was all about the name. The menu was almost exactly the same," he said.
For the Broken Arrow restaurant, Hughes said he expects it to be very similar to other In the Raw eateries.
"I think Broken Arrow has the same sophistication as Tulsa or Oklahoma City," Hughes said.
Another well-known Tulsa restaurant, Full Moon Café, is also reportedly set to expand into Broken Arrow.
Hughes said moving to a suburb just offers convenience for potential customers, noting that the Broken Arrow restaurant operator for In the Raw, Bill Leet, is a longtime patron of Hughes' south Tulsa restaurant.
"You have that convenience of not having to drive 10 miles versus two or one or whatever the distance is," Hughes said.
Meehan acknowledged that his specialty is a crowded one. In the last year, non-local chains touted for their burgers like Mooyah, 6921 S. Lewis Ave., and Five Guys Burgers and Fries, 9635 Riverside Parkway, have settled into south Tulsa locations.
He said being local makes a difference, however.
"I think that anyone who is a Tulsan would rather spend their money at something that is locally owned and operated," Meehan said, adding, "even if we were in Jenks I think it would make a difference over a chain."
"People want to know that their money is staying here and the person behind the brand is involved with the community," he said.
In the Raw
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