Saturation point: Too many restaurants on the Downtown Mall?

Seventeen years ago, when Bill Hamilton and his wife, Kate, opened Hamilton's at First & Main on the Downtown Mall, it was a big risk.

"At that time, a seasoned local restauranteur advised us that he would not drop a dime on a Downtown Mall lease," says Hamilton.

Today, of course, you're lucky to get a downtown lease. 

By a reporter's count, there are now 48 full-service restaurants on the Mall. That's not counting 6 coffee places, 3 ice cream/frozen dessert places, 10 lunch spots, 3 bakeries, 5 grocery stores, and 2 pizza places, bringing the total number of eateries to 77. All this within a little over 2 million square feet, or the approximate size of the exhibit space in the Las Vegas Convention Center.

"Every year since we opened," says Hamilton, "competition has increased and dining dollars have elastically followed to the worthy."

Some restaurant owners, however, worry that the Mall dining scene, if left to the whims of the market, could become the victim of its own success.

Indeed, the sheer number of restaurants, as one owner says, has diluted the market. As a result, many restaurant owners are seeing their profit margins shrink every year. What's more, the high cost of downtown space makes opening a new, untested concept all the more risky, which could eventually diminish the variety of places we see on the Mall.

"Blazing a new trail is even harder than re-branding or taking over an existing establishment and opening anew," says Mall restauranteur Stu Rifkin. "Adding new establishments, and there seem to be more and more coming, dilutes the business for everyone."

"I think the amount of restaurants we have on the mall is reaching its saturation point," says Brookville Restaurant owner Harrison Keevil. "At this point we're in a good place because there are still differences between all the restaurants on the mall. But if many more keep opening up we'll start to see many of the same restaurants and those differences will disappear. "

Still, Keevil contends that competition can be a good thing.

"You can't get away away with selling mediocre food and service," he says. "You need to bring it 100 percent every night to survive. And I personally relish that pressure because it forces me figure out ways to set Brookville apart without resorting to kitsch ideas and couponing."

"My attitude is that all your competition is from within," says Rifkin, who has interests in The Nook and the Blue Light Grill. "While I wouldn't want Denny's to open next door to The Nook, we would still have our core customers, and my job is to keep them coming back."

Hamilton would agree. "Robust competition raises everyone's game and creates more value for customers," he says. "Of course, the downside is increased churn among businesses, but we all have to adapt and work harder to earn our market share."

Rapture owner Mike Rodi has certainly been working hard to capture his share. He agrees that the growing number of restaurants has diluted "already-shriveled margins."

For Rodi, the recent suggestion by vice mayor Kristin Szakos that the meals tax be increased to help cover a school budget shortfall, shows a lack of awareness about the precarious situation in which many restaurants find themselves. 

As for the number of restaurants, the City appears content to let the market determine the flavor of that corridor.

"The City's desire is to see a healthy and vibrant downtown," says City director of economic development Chris Engel. "What that looks like in terms of the number and type of uses is a factor of market forces related to supply and demand."

Indeed, Neighborhood development chief Jim Tolbert says he's "never even heard a discussion" concerning the number or variety of restaurants on the Mall, never mind any concerns about it one way or the other.

In the end, what becomes of the downtown dining scene lies in the hands of those with the vision to push it to new heights.

One restaurant owner interviewed for this story, who wished to remain anonymous, claims there are not enough restaurants in Charlottesville, at least not enough good ones. He says he would like to see more restaurants competing on a much higher level such as New York City's West Village.

"That's what I want for our town," says the owner. "We need more restaurateurs and chefs to aspire to greatness. I have now lived here for 20 years, after long periods in New York and Los Angeles. I prefer this town to those. But I would like to see the food community get where those guys already are."


5 grocery stores ? What are you talking about? Market Street Market and the Country Store, what else?

I agree with the last commenter, Charleston this is not. The high end restaurants are expensive and so so . The
only one worth the money is Tavola and it's in Belmont.

Yea, well I say your lucky to have that many restaurants that are not chain restaurants in one location.
Where I live in Wisconsin, we don't bother going out to eat, the food is bland and predictable. So we cook at home, we do save a lot of money and eat well but wish we could go out for a decent meal from time to time.

There's nowehere to eat in this town :P

"You can't get away away with selling mediocre food and service,"

HA! most have been doing just that for 30 years. the waitrons mostly provide worse than mediocre service, with a snarky attitude, ignoring you and being later than late. then they want you to tip them (and write letters to the weekly rags demanding it) according to their 20% formula because they have a bad job that they have chosen.... one in which the industry decides not to pay them even a fair wage while the government allows the fuzzy math to include expected tips.... so the too high prices for not enough food becomes even more expensive if you honor the age old tipping game. but if you ask the owners, the mutual admiration society becomes active, as they all think they are soooooo grand. interesting. when a restaurant is the ticket, the real deal - it doesn't matter how many there already are. there is always room for them to succeed and for the dearth to go out of business, or not.

and as for the politicians and their revenue sucking ideas.... you are already collecting fees in real estate taxes, business taxes, existing sales taxes, and what ever else you can figure out how to graft. to many of the people who go out to eat, it is not a luxury to be preyed upon, and they don't have kids.... but you think that is good idea to make them pay more for the people who do have kids? can't you figure out a fair way to make the people who use the service more (or in this case any), pay for it themselves?

We love all the diversity of restaurants and while we have our favorites, will go to others from time to time. I am, however, surprised by the statement that there are 5 grocery stores on the Downtown Mall - names, please? Other than the Market on Market Street (not actually on the Mall) I don't know where these are.

As a sort-of recent arrival from Roanoke, I can't tell you just how fantastic the options are in this town for food. I despise the chain restaurants like Outback, Applebees, Fridays, etc... and am happy they are generally all up the 29 corridor where I never spend a dollar.

The one thing I wish we did have was a steakhouse that was more middle-of-the-road. There are plenty of places that have steak, and then there's Aberdeen Barn which features steaks at twice the cost of grilling it yourself.

Ooo, and a good Ethiopian restaurant would be a nice add.

We have an embarrassment of riches in this town when it comes to food options. Try getting a decent bite to eat next time you are in Roanoke. It can't be done.

Yep. Stretches credulity to complain about food in Cville. And service has gotten much better. Anyone working to push our small town into the realms of upper west side, which if I am not mistaken is surrounded by very large building FILLED WITH RICH PEOPLE is pretty silly. We have good creative food options, and very good medium priced options as well. Parking downtown is really not that tough, at least compared to Barracks or Stonhenge.

It's Schadenfreude...and I'm (high pitch yodeling voice) LOVING IT! BTW, Jim T. never met a frenchfry he didn't like.

We're very lucky to have the food scene we do, no doubt about it. But why don't we have more great reasonably priced fare?
I've been to a lot of cities that would seem to have a saturation of eateries, and many are able to keep prices substantially lower than what we typically see here.
I'm sure rents here aren't cheap, but I'm not sure why so many places here are priced like the West Village, because rents ain't that steeo!
But again, on the whole, very lucky to have what we have.

If the restaurants want to increase overall spend, then they should band together to get city council to do something about the vagrant/pan-handling problem on the DTM. It is a nuisance, public safety issue and undoubtedly keeps people away at night. Also, more cheap parking please:) the username.

P.S. Kristin Szakos is the worst - never heard her propose anything worthwhile. She lives in fantasy land completely detached from modern day business.

@buzzbomb...Is Frankie Rowlands gone from Roanoke?

I don't think "restauranteur" is a word. A "restaurateur" is a restaurant owner.

What the anonymous owner really means when s/he says "aspire to greatness" is that the food should equal the astronomical prices. $15 for a plate of pasta costing no more then 75 cents to prepare?? Give me a break. Half these places will and ought to go broke in the next several years.

@ reader - read a dictionary...both are words....same meaning

I love the diverse restaurant options in this town. I moved from NYC 3 years ago and can't believe the amount of quality restaurants there are to choose from here....all varieties at all price points. We are very lucky.

@Deny. Tell me again about the .75 cent plate of pasta. Cause you dont know what you speak of.

The Downtown Mall has become a food court. Downtown Charlottesville consists of a public library, some Confederate statuary, banks, a court house, a million lawyers, and a zillion psychotherapists.

If a downtown resident wants dinner, she can walk over to the food court, or drive to the Emmet Street Kroger. Hellooo? Is there a city planner in the house?

Dear No Sir
Maybe you spend too much time in the psychotherapists office (I'm on the mall quite reglarly and had no idea there were any) but you apparently never noticed the multiple bookstores, including a couple of world-class used book sources, nor the many art galleries, craft stores, movie theaters, mini-discovery museum, etc.
This is a great resource for locals as well as tourists, and I'm sorry you've been missing out.

@ No Sir - and 2 music theaters, an outdoor events/music venue, shops, bars, a hotel (soon to be 2 hotels?), street performers, a park, a farmers' market, etc.

what else do you want? It really amazes me how people will gripe and point out faults with nearly everything. Good lord...

There are more good resturants in 1\2 mile radius of the mall the all of tidewater, most of Richmond and any where else in the state expect certain parts of NOVA. Most of you may have a point about pricing but in terms of competition and quality this area is a small metro area foodies dream.

Wait till Stonefield gets fully opened and let the blood bath begin! Any city councilors that thinks now is the time to raise the meals tax is clueless and in serious need of a refresher course in freshman economics

The very worst Virginia whine seems to be people in this town are those who have no idea how good they have it.

Maybe Kristin Sztaxos should tax by the whine... but then she would end up paying more....

@Here's the good News has it exactly right: you people complaining about the food around here and the prices haven't got a clue.

We are unbelievably blessed, for such a relatively small population, with a true wealth of higher end restaurants. Richmond has some nice places, but it's a far bigger market. Roanoke is bigger, and cant' come close. Ditto bedroom communities like Manassas and Fredericksburg. We bat well above our average, and the prices, while higher than other markets our size (in terms of population), are often considerably lower than you find in markets with fewer good options. I spend a fair amount of time in DC, but also in SF, NYC and Chicago, and yes, they are "real" cities with some better options - but only a few at the really high end, and in general the "comparables" in those places are much more expensive than here, in terms of quality and quantity.

"You can't get away away with selling mediocre food and service," he says. "You need to bring it 100 percent every night to survive."

Maybe in his place, and that's great if they abide by that because it's how it should be, but apparently other restaurants on the Mall didn't get the memo based on the service we've experienced at various downtown eateries over the years. Note to downtown Cville restaurants: If you're going to hire college students to be your wait staff then give them a good kick in the pants and some actual *training* for how to be a decent server. Don't allow them to be slow, clueless, and quite obviously bored, apathetic and indifferent, which is what we've experienced at several places over the years.

What I experience as an issue is lunch. In my opinion there's no saturation issue when it comes to lunch spots, that's for sure. At the good spots (Eppie's, Rev Soup, Mkt. St. Mkt., Bodo's, etc.) it's gotten to the point where it's just not worth the frustration/annoyance. Shoot- its begiinning to feel embarrassing (these places are good, for certain, but standing in long lines and vying for seating has just become too wearisome- and I tend to go after 12:30-1.) I want to continue to frequent these spots (been my favorites for years now) b/c I live/work d'town and they're healthier options, so if anything I wish there were more options for lunch...there's obviously a market for it (though I get that from a biz perspective it has it's challenges.) Oh- just want to add that I really wish the self-centered idiots in some of these spots wake up a bit... On any given day you can go in and, as you await your food, you'll invariably see some folks who have clearly finished just sit there (as others hover hoping for seating) just talking and talking like no one else exists. Now don't get me wrong- it's of course fine to sit and chat for maybe ten minutes post-meal in places like these, but stretching it to 15-20 or more while others are obviously looking for seating is f'ing absurd. Take it to Starbucks if that's your thing.

I love the variety of restaurants on the Downtown Mall. Without the competition, we would settle for medocrity and not even realize it. With the town's various financial levels and ideas of what "good" food should be, I think just about everyone is covered. I think we're really lucky to have such fantastic restuarants here in Charlottesville. About the prices, there's something at every pricepoint. The $$$$ restaurants aren't meant to be frequented weekly. They're supposed to be special treat places.

The service at most downtown restaurants is absolutely dreadful.

People of Charlottesville, learn what good service truly is and learn how to tip (or not tip) for it. There are deductions to be made for service errors. Being a downtown restaurant patron doesn't mean you are a bloody philanthropist. Tip for good service, don't tip for bad. Show these self entitled hacks that they have to work for their tips. You know who you are.

Right on "Seriously though" pay for the goods and tip on the service.

@ Seriously Though

One of the only downtown restaurants I've stiffed on a tip was at W___ M____. (realize I better blank it out of the mods will delete the comment.) It's not on the Mall itself, it's nearby and in the downtown area, but still, close enough. We'd gone there quite a few times prior, but after being "waited on" (if you can even call being ignored being waited on....) by some apathetic college brat we stiffed, and never went back. Being that I've waitressed at numerous places in my younger years that was a big deal for me to do that. At best I've been prone to leaving say, a $2 tip if the service is subpar, but never a full on stiff. But there was no excuse for what happened to us that night. To say we slipped through the cracks was an understatement. We were deliberately ignored, they did not care. There have been other places around downtown where we've been waited on by clueless apathetic college age kids, which in general seems to be the norm for many Cville eateries. The owners don't seem to realize the negative impact that bored, indifferent college brats can have on their business. How many people have stopped going to certain restaurants like we did because of atrocious service? How many eateries have come and gone in Cville who were probably wondering "Golly gee.....what went wrong?!" When you hire apathetic college brats and don't give them proper training then gee, yeah, your restaurant could very well go out of business. Get a clue, restaurant owners.

The reality of those servers is much different than your ideal. They dont train instantly and it does take an investment. An investment in someone who, if not happy with their employment will move on down the road. then of course there are the stupid diners. The ladies that dont stop yapping until the waiter arives and then expects the waiter to stand still and wait for them to pick up the menus and THEN start to see what they want for a drink. The group thatmakes the waiter repeat the choice of veggies to each person and the choice of dressing to each person. Well, that table just took up a whole lot of wasted time and energy because, well they must think it is exciting and joyous to be on your feet until the butt crack of dawn dealing with the slight inebriated and worse. And if you are a water drinking, chicken eating, park your butt for 1.5 turns at a peak time, you may just be getting a message.

No question you can find bad service in this town, although for me, it is rarely seen. And we eat out all the time at all the joints (no chains tho..) and get well taken cared of consistently. Waiter comes and we order our drinks and apps from left to right so it is easy for him/her to track. Get our drinks, review menu and when the apps come we order the mains. We dont let the waiter leave until everyone has asked for whatever extra they want to prevent the wasted trips. Tip strong and be remembered. Zinc, C & O, Tavola, Local, MAS, Ten, Bang, Escafe, etc etc. Never a problem.

Did I mention I waited tables through college?

The restaurants pay their servers almost nothing. So the servers work primarily for the customers who have no legal obligation to pay them any set amount of money. If the servers understood who they were working for they would give better service and their customers might not feel so disinclined to tip the expected amount.

Supply and demand. Simple equation. In my experience, if your getting bad service it is more often on you than the waiter plus your choice of restaurant.

The downtown restaurants often look empty to me.

48 restaurants? Are you insane? a 'reporters count...' sounds official.

@Matt visited each one and counted it. If you've got a more fool-proof method, let us know.

@Dave. How far off the mall did you go? Did you include places like the delis in the old FUEL or stuff like X lounge?