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Chain gang comes to F-M: National restaurants step up to plate in area

When it comes to restaurants, Fargo-Moorhead is in chains.

Recent additions to the Fargo "food chain" include Granite City Food & Brewery and Old Chicago Pizza. Long John Silver's, Taco Time and Culver's turned on deep-fat fryers on the cities' fast-food strips last year.

More franchises are slated to add new chain links in coming months, including Famous Dave's and a second Applebee's Bar & Grill in Fargo.

Chain franchises have the budgets and name recognition to set up just about anywhere their market research pinpoints, said Mort Sarabakhsh, a professor in North Dakota State University's Hospitality & Tourism program.

"They are 800-pound gorillas," Sarabakhsh said. "They have big menus and marketing surveys. They have brand names, and we are a brand-name consumer."


They also appeal to the area's relatively timid tastes. Fargo-Moorhead noticeably lacks cuisine often found in similar-size markets, such as a sushi bar, Thai food or vegetarian.

"(Exotic) food can be a very challenging experience for some diners," Sarabakhsh said. "People here love a steak. They love beer. They love traditional American food -- mashed potatoes, gravy, corn."

With their recognizable logos, prominent striped awnings and bigger advertising budgets, Friday's, Chili's and their culinary cousins have given Fargo-Moorhead an all-franchise restaurant reputation.

But while casual-dining chains tighten their hold on the local scene, a few brave independent eateries have also opened for business in the past year.

"It takes a lot of risk, money and commitment," Sarabakhsh says.

Littlefield's, a gourmet bistro and wine bar that opened in March in West Fargo, is getting good buzz. The Cajun Café zydecoed into the former VFW on Broadway, and the Red Bear Grill & Tavern draws diners in Moorhead.

"To me, they are a gift from the owner, investors and staff to the community," Sarabakhsh said of independent restaurants.

The newest gift is planned for a fall opening: The Hotel Donaldson, when refurbished, will feature a one-of-a-kind lounge and restaurant.


Executive chef and Fargo native Andrea Baumgardner, whose resume includes San Francisco and Los Angeles eateries, plans to offer seasonal and regional ingredients prepared fresh from scratch. Menu items will range from light lunches and pub finger food to full entrees.

"I hope Fargo is ready for it," Baumgardner said. "I think there are a lot of people here who travel who have experienced different foods."

The Donaldson promises a classy dining experience, but it won't be snooty.

"We want people to come as they are," Baumgardner said. "We're not going to be pretentious or fussy, but we want them to leave thinking it was something special."

One reason new restaurants seek out the metro area is that Fargoans, like the rest of the nation, are increasingly dining out. Americans eat one out of three meals out of the home and spend 46 cents of every food dollar in restaurants, Sarabakhsh said. That will jump to 53 cents out of $1 by 2010.

"Time is a commodity now," he said. "People don't want to spend their time shopping, cooking and cleaning up."

Sarabakhsh also forecasts an increase in the number and variety of take-out and delivery joints.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Andrea Berninger at aberninger@forumcomm.com or (701) 241-5533

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