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THURSDAY, JULY 26, 2007
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Andrew and Mandy Peyton enjoy lunch at Let's Do Lunch in downtown Decatur on Wednesday.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Andrew and Mandy Peyton enjoy lunch at Let's Do Lunch in downtown Decatur on Wednesday.

Doing lunch downtown
Variety, competition help
eateries pull in customers

By Paul Huggins
phuggins@decaturdaily.com 340-2395

You can almost see the tumbleweeds rolling down East Moulton Street as Shelly Ross describes business traffic when she opened Lagniappes four years ago.

"When we got here, there was nothing," she said. "It was dead."

Today, those tumbleweeds have transformed into customers, enough so that the coffee and sandwich shop is extending its hours by two and remaining open until 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.

Oddly enough, the increase in business, Ross said, came from competition next door and across the street. Instead of stealing customers from Lagniappes, Maria Bonita and The Brick have brought more.

When those restaurants, which opened in February and June respectively, are full, the overflow spills in here, she said.

"We've had a lot of first-timers in here since they opened, especially The Brick," Ross said. "I'd say the street's busier than any time since I've been here."

There are now nine places to eat lunch within the confines of Sixth Avenue Southeast and Wilson Street Northwest. That excludes places such as bb perrin's, Mi Hacienda and Backdoor Gourmet on the east side of Sixth Avenue and Market Street Deli beside Rhodes Ferry Park.

"Every time I go by one, they're full or busy," said Rick Paler, Downtown Redevelopment board chairman. The boost in business proves what he has preached for years.

"Competition just brings more business," he said. "If nothing else, it gets more people to drive by."

The more restaurants and the more variety downtown gets, the more people will make it their lunch and dinner destination, Paler said, and each business can feed off the others.

Paler saw that happened in Huntsville when he opened the Green Bottle Grill in Westbury Shopping Center.

The retail center on Airport Road had rebuilt since tornadoes flattened everything two years earlier, but there were only a few restaurants.

Today, five shopping centers within a quarter-mile radius are home to more than 25 eateries, ranging from Outback Steakhouse to Subway. Diners can find Chinese, Thai, German, Italian, Mexican, chicken wings, delis, seafood and fast food.

Try any of them on a Sunday after church and expect to stand in line.

Downtown Decatur is far from where redevelopment officials envision — Paler said it needs to jump from a lunch to dinner destination — but just the addition of Maria Bonita's and The Brick make it seem livelier.

"Looks like downtown is starting to grow up," said Andy Bryant, a former Decatur resident now living in Orlando, Fla.

He was in town this week as part of his family's annual visit so his parents can see their three grandchildren. They ate at Lagniappes three times and Penn's Hamburgers once.

"It's just nice to come downtown," he said.

At Let's Do Lunch, it was five minutes before noon, but the sandwich shop on Holly Street Northeast already had 15 patrons inside. There was a short, steady line for the next 20 minutes.

"If you leave (work) at 12, you can't hardly get in. These places are so crowded," said Andrew Peyton, who was dining with his wife, Mandy.

He works at Wolverine Tube and she at an accounting firm on Stratford Road Southeast. Downtown is a good halfway point for them to meet. That's why twice a week they'll either be at Let's Do Lunch or The Brick. Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Q is also in their rotation.

"We'd like to see more variety," Peyton said of how downtown can improve as a restaurant center.

Bank Street Deli, about 10 blocks away, won't benefit from the drive-by or overflow traffic Lagniappes enjoys. It has a monopoly on Bank Streets' lunchtime crowd as its neighbor, Simp McGhee's, is only open for dinner.

"It would be nice to have a few more (on Bank Street) to generate more traffic," said co-owner Keith Spivey.

More exposure would bring more first-time customers, he said, but ultimately what makes any restaurant successful is repeat business.

"So your food better be good," Spivey said. "That's all we concentrate on. Really, it wouldn't bother me one way or another if we got more places near us."

Besides the overflow diners, Lagniappes has added at least 15 regular customers from being sandwiched between The Brick and Maria Bonita.

"It's really starting to happen," Ross said of doing the kind of business she and her husband dreamed of when they opened in 2003.

"It's no longer a question of do we go to Sixth Avenue or the Beltline for lunch," she said. "Now there's a third choice."

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