Wishful thinking: Some national chains have yet to put Fargo on their map

We Fargoans and Moorheadites are powerfully fond of our chain eateries. Within the confines of a few square miles, we support a thriving collection of national brands: three Buffalo Wild Wings stores, 10 McDonald's restaurants, five Taco Bells, t...

Trader Joe's
A Trader Joe's store in California. Associated Press

We Fargoans and Moorheadites are powerfully fond of our chain eateries.

Within the confines of a few square miles, we support a thriving collection of national brands: three Buffalo Wild Wings stores, 10 McDonald's restaurants, five Taco Bells, two Village Inns.

When one local restaurateur pondered whether the area was right for him last fall, he said the sight of three bustling Applebee's restaurants within minutes of one another - two of them on the same straightaway - convinced him of Fargo's affinity for dining out.

"You only have to drive down 13th Avenue to see that people love their chains," says Eric Daueber, who's reviewed restaurants for The Forum since 2004. "People just love those things."

And when they don't have them, they sometimes get a bit covetous. Few things blow up faster on The Forum's website than a whisper about a new arrival, be it an upscale grocery store or a drive-in diner (yes, Sonic, we're looking at you).


Chalk it up to our fiscally conservative inclinations (who can beat those reverse happy hours and two-for-$20 dinners?) or perhaps to a desire to enjoy all of the frills and thrills of larger metro areas. And whenever The Forum's readers catch a whiff of a new something or other, they want to know: Are we going to get it?

That's a tricky question, in part because some chains are tight-lipped about their future plans and in part because the answer is almost invariably "no" until it becomes "yes."

So, in breaking down a handful of popular "wish-list" picks for the area, we steered clear of crystal ball predictions and instead looked at the factors that drive each company's expansion. In other words, we might not know when a store or restaurant is coming, but we can offer some insight into why it's not here yet.

Be forewarned: The outlook isn't always good - in fact, it's mostly bad. The truth may set you free, but first, it'll make you hungry.

Trader Joe's and Whole Foods

This one is of special interest to residents of downtown Fargo, who have been waiting for a nearby grocery store ever since downtown started to fill out again. Specifically, they're looking for a smaller, gourmet-oriented market.

"Until we have a centralized place to buy good food downtown," writes Fargo's Dawn Morgan, "downtown living will never really materialize."

The Trader Joe's rumors in particular have been fueled by a feisty online campaign. The Facebook group "Bring Trader Joe's to Fargo!!" has about 2,500 members. In 2009, The Forum reported Goldmark Schlossman Vice President Jeff Schlossman had talked to the company and said it planned to open here in about five years.


Earlier this month, a Trader Joe's spokeswoman said Fargo is not in the company's two-year plans, and a Whole Foods representative said she'd heard no mention of an upcoming Fargo-Moorhead store.

Those holding their breath on Trader Joe's should keep in mind the company's track record of notoriously slow growth. For one thing, it's allergic to debt and expands only when the balance sheet is flush with cash. And because the store's business model - stocking a fraction of the items of a larger grocery store and moving them quickly - relies on lean distribution networks, the company typically favors locations where it can cluster multiple stores in one area.

In other words, when it's time for us to get a Trader Joe's, we may well get two.

Downtown hopefuls should also know that grocery stores - even offbeat ones - are highly dependent on population density and volume of traffic. Throw in the need for parking, and these stores are as likely to end up in south Fargo as they are to come to First Avenue.

Dave & Buster's

In an area with loads of fun-loving young people and a serious need for indoor entertainment for six months of the year, how could a combo bar-restaurant-mega arcade go wrong? Local fans are convinced the chain would make out here like, well, gangbusters.

Trouble is, Fargo-Moorhead isn't quite grown up enough for Dave & Buster's brand of grown-up fun. The company's market requirements call for

1 million square feet of retail within a quarter-mile, a daytime population of 100,000 within three miles, and a population of 500,000 within 10 miles.


There are a few spots around town that could meet the retail requirement and come close to the three-mile population threshold. But unless the entire state of North Dakota gets the urban migration bug, a metro area of 500,000 (about the size of Portland's metro area) is a long way off.

And ambitious entrepreneurs who are convinced they can make it work here anyway are out of luck: The company owns all of its locations and does not franchise.

Outback and Fuddruckers

File both of these in the comeback category of the wish list. Outback was in Fargo at 401 38th St S. for a decade before closing abruptly three years ago this month. The architect of the 119-member "Bring Outback back to Fargo!!!" Facebook group says he was "awfully upset" when the restaurant skipped town and has been hoping for a return ever since.

Fuddruckers, meanwhile, was in Fargo from 1987 until 2000 at 1111 38th St. S - later the site of the equally ill-fated Timber Lodge Steakhouse.

Both companies recently told The Forum that they're not planning on coming back for a second go-round in the immediate future. One barrier for would-be franchisees (besides the fact that Outback requires $5 million in net worth and $10 million in cash or available credit) is the fact that both companies have "in for a penny, in for a pound" philosophies when it comes to expansion.

Fuddruckers specifies it's looking for "multi-unit operators," while Outback wants a commitment to develop four or more restaurants in a four-year period. That's a stretch even for restaurant-crazed Fargo-Moorhead and would almost certainly require an owner willing to do business in Bismarck or Grand Forks - or another franchisee looking to expand here.

Maybe someday ...


For some restaurants and chains, the outlook isn't bleak so much as it is uncertain. A few places have no good reason not to come here - they simply haven't gotten around to it yet. To name a few reader favorites:

  • White Castle (a polarizing choice in that it's alternately characterized by readers as "an American icon" and a purveyor of "some seriously nasty food") has a presence as nearby as St. Cloud, which is smaller than Fargo-Moorhead and houses fewer college students who can fuel all-night business. The company - another slow, cash-based expander like Whole Foods, told The Forum this month that it doesn't expect to look seriously at the region for another few years, but it's not outside the realm of possibility.

    If nothing else, it's a better bet than another popular reader suggestion, In-N-Out Burger, which has yet to make it farther east than Tucson. Ariz., or farther north than Salt Lake City.

  • Chick-fil-A also says it's not coming anytime soon, but if you're enterprising and have $120,000 or so to spare, the company does license "express" locations in places like college campuses and airports. In fact, all four of the company's approved venues for licensing arrangements - colleges, airports, business and industry, and health care - are reasonable fits here.
  • Panera Bread faces even stricter multi-location requirements than Outback - looks for owners who can open around 15 stores in six years - but has 20 locations around the Twin Cities and has already crept into St. Cloud and Sioux Falls. Reader Andrew Mara pitches it thusly: "Panera ... hits the pastry, bistro, and Wi-Fi sweet spot while brewing a decent cup of coffee."
  • Finally, no restaurant rumor would be complete without assurances that somewhere, sometime, Sonic is coming.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502

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