Friday, April 18, 2008

Fallen Star

On February 18th, the Lone Star Steakhouse and Saloon closed in Columbia. This once popular restaurant had been in business for about 12 years.

I was involved in bringing this particular chain restaurant to Columbia. My former business partner and I “discovered” Lone Star while on assignment for another client in Fayetteville, North Carolina. That began a long courtship that eventually resulted in the company purchasing four acres of land in the Columbia Corporate Park on McGaw Road.

The restaurant enjoyed great success when it first opened. It was not uncommon to have to wait an hour and half to get a table; much like it is now at the Cheesecake Factory in Town Center.

That was hardly the case in recent years. Some lay the blame on the fact that it was hard to get to but that did not seem to deter those early patrons. The visibility of this site was so strong that it generated the following front page story by Dan Morse in the Sun back on January 12, 1997:

Business lament: Site unseen; Columbia: As bigger, brighter signs appear on the eastern edge of town, merchants feeling invisible in older areas argue for more wattage.

“Sign envy is gripping Columbia.

Listen to saloon owner John Heyn, who for years has tried to make a go of it in this tidy planned suburb that boasts some of the strictest sign restrictions in the nation.
Every day, residents drive past his Last Chance Saloon -- buried in the courtyard of a neighborhood retail center -- without knowing it's there.

Some residents even walk through the courtyard itself without noticing his bar.
Life, for Heyn, has no neon. And so as the barkeeper crested a hill along Route 175 on Columbia's eastern edge two months ago, he was shocked to confront -- a half-mile away but very much in his face -- the words "Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon" illuminating the side of his new competition.

"Damn," Heyn remembers thinking. "What a great sign." He's not alone in his admiration -- or his envy.

Throughout Columbia, merchants are turning green over Lone Star's beacon.
For the new town's almost 30-year history, they've been restricted to tiny, often hidden signs.
Heyn says he can't even plug in a simple "Open" sign and hang it inside his window.
The sign envy -- though hardly a fatal condition -- underscores tensions felt by merchants in Columbia's downtown and neighborhoods as they try to compete with the growing number of chain restaurants and warehouse-style retailers cropping up on the community's eastern edge.

"Clearly, there's a double standard," says Bill Miller, co-owner of the Today's Catch seafood shop buried in Columbia's Wilde Lake Village Center.

By contemporary standards, the Lone Star sign is hardly spectacular.
There actually are three of them -- on three sides of the restaurant. They measure about 18 feet across and 8 feet high.

And they're actually smaller than what the 205-outlet western-style steak giant first proposed, says Thomas Brudzinski, a design director for the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.
If the signs were along U.S. 40 or Ritchie Highway, "Lone Star" would undoubtably fade into a haze of halogen.

But this is Columbia, designed in the 1960s to allow residents -- in the words of its founder, James W. Rouse -- to "feel the spaces of nature."

And so for nearly three decades, the Rouse Co.'s criteria for signs essentially have been to subtly post small ones. A favorite spot has been behind the town's many berms, or man-made grassy knolls.

For the most part, Columbia residents seem to enjoy the uncluttered look. Lone Star also should be pleased -- for its star shines brightly against the subdued suburb's relatively dark backdrop.

But those merchants with sign envy want to know: How'd the steak king get permission for such a bright sign?

Lone Star officials wouldn't discuss their new Columbia outlet, other than to say they followed local sign restrictions. The steak chain -- based in Wichita, Kan. -- makes no bones about wanting to be seen, though. "If they're driving and are making a dining decision," said John White, Lone Star's chief financial officer, "we want to be part of that decision."

Officials at the Rouse Co., which controls signs on the Lone Star property and other commercial areas in Columbia, say the Lone Star sign is no big deal.
They say they're allowing other new businesses and restaurants on the town's eastern, largely commercial edge to post these larger signs.

And even the most envious of central Columbia merchants concedes this is appropriate to some degree. After all, that area is not adjacent to Columbia's neighborhoods. But no other restaurant in that area is perched on such a conspicuous hill above a major thoroughfare.
So no other sign is more visible to drivers entering Columbia from the east -- particularly because huge spotlights are trained on it.

And in Columbia, some residents, particularly some longtime residents, take a dim view of any bright lights. Just last year, for example, some neighbors of Columbia's Oakland Mills High School erupted when educators hung a relatively modest, but lighted marque outside the school -- the only such sign in their neighborhood.

As for that Lone Star sign, "James Rouse would roll over in his grave if he saw that sign," says David Reynolds, who lives in Columbia's Town Center. Reynolds jokes that the Lone Star sign is so bright that pilots flying at 12,000 feet could use it to land in the middle of the planned city.

But now that Lone Star has set a new community standard for candlepower, many Columbia merchants want more of the same for themselves. Fred Paine, a former Rouse commercial property manager who now manages Hunt Valley Mall, agrees. For years, he says, he tried to get his bosses to allow bigger, brighter -- but tasteful -- signs in Columbia's older core. "If I was a retailer," he says, "I'd just be livid."

At the Fresh Choice restaurant -- hidden without a road sign in Columbia's downtown, a large parking lot away from the nearest road -- manager Denise Antinnucci is close to livid.
She says she'd have more customers if drivers were informed a restaurant was nearby. "If they have a sign like that," Antinnucci says of Lone Star, "I should be able to have a little sign" by the road.

Similarly, at the nearby Silver Shadows nightclub, its owners say lost patrons constantly call them from their cellular phones and must be guided to the club by bartenders -- much like air traffic controllers.
Even some Columbia residents say the brighter and bigger, the better.

Which brings us to east Columbia resident Robert Thomas, a relative newcomer to the town who is perhaps not imbued with its original ethos.
Says Thomas: "These Columbia purists, they're back in {the '60s}. I don't think that sign is big enough."

A local developer recently purchased the property for $2.95 million. The new owner is apparently receptive to a new restaurant taking over the building.


Dave said...

Wow, this is news to me. I used to go to this place all time for years, even as far back when you could throw your peanut shells directly on the floor.

To be honest, I am much more saddened by this place closing than I am about "other favorites" Bun Penny or Produce Galore shutting down. But I will say that in recent years, the number of people in the restaurant when we would go was greatly diminished and it does not surprise me they could not survive. The fact that it has been closed for two months and I was compeltely unaware of it shows how little I have been going myself....

Anonymous said...

"Reynolds jokes that the Lone Star sign is so bright that pilots flying at 12,000 feet could use it to land in the middle of the planned city." That was EXACTLY what I thought the first time I flew back into town at night after it was opened and actually saw it from thousands of feet aloft.

I believe the 90-minute waits the Lonestar enjoyed for years could have been, not from the over-illuminated signs, but rather from the mere fact that it was a steakhouse, a novelty at the time for Columbia. But now there's Outback, Longhorn, Greystone, Jordan's, Famous Dave's, (some of which do their pitching to consumers with TV ads that reach cocooners, not just commuters) and probably some others about, too. Meanwhile, Lonestar, not being in a "power center" or a village center, truly fit its name - lone.

These days, between vehicles' and phones' GPS abilities and many online and printable map & direction sources, there's less and less need for proliferating commercial beacons in the night for people to find the locations they intend to visit. So, I don't think brighter and brighter and larger and larger nighttime signage is a necessary attribute of a resilient business. Instead, ongoing success can be found in giving the public something that's enjoyed, and that isn't done equally well (or better) by umpteen other more convenient businesses in the same market.

Nottingham's is back there, too, and continues without resorting to moth-to-the-flame-signage along a roadway. And, that roadway is now "Jim and Patty Rouse Parkway". Shouldn't there be some standards applied for ensuring roads called "parkways" retain park-lined vistas? East Columbia's parkways should certainly be kept as aesthetic as West Columbia's.

Anonymous said...

It's August, and I just noticed Lone Star was closed. We used to go all the time, but stopped going years ago as service got more and more bad. Memorable low-lights: one evening the family ordered soda and normal meals, and the waitress yelled across the room, "Want to trade with me? This table is cheap!" Another time we ordered alcoholic drinks and an appetizer...and 45 minutes later we were still waiting for the waitress to return with either those things or to complete our order!

Amy Pickwick said...

Looks like the former Lone Star is getting a front porch put on, if I'm looking at the right building when I drive by in the mornings. Anyone know what's going in there?

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