Every year, the number of chain restaurants in the Harrisonburg area continues to grow.
In 2019 so far, the city has seen the addition of a Potbelly Sandwich Shop and BurgerIM, according to business licenses from the Harrisonburg Commissioner of the Revenue’s Office. In spring 2017, the long-awaited Olive Garden Italian Kitchen debuted at East Market Street and Burgess Road, a few months after Krispy Kreme opened its first shop in the city.
Construction on a Longhorn Steakhouse will begin in 2020 after demolition of the strip mall that used to house Sears adjacent to Interstate 81 and East Market Street.
City staff said on Thursday that a building permit had been issued for a fourth Dunkin Donuts in the city, which will be at 1085 Port Republic Road.
Several restaurant chain giants, such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell, have multiple locations throughout Harrisonburg.
But there are also some major chains that don’t have any presence in Harrisonburg — such as Denny’s and Panda Express.
Old-fashioned drive-in spot Sonic, known for its carhops on roller skates, has no presence in Harrisonburg. The closest one is in Waynesboro.
Ice cream behemoths Ben and Jerry’s and Baskin-Robbins do not have locations in Harrisonburg, though residents can find most of their products in the frozen dessert aisle of many area grocery stores.
Brian Shull, the economic development director for Harrisonburg, said he regularly hears from residents about what chain businesses they would like to come to town, such as Trader Joe’s — a grocery store known for all its workers wearing Hawaiian shirts.
But the decisions chains make come down to formulas with measurements such as income levels and the number of rooftops in a certain radius, Shull said.
“Quite often, these decisions are based on metrics used by each individual company,” he said.
The city provides some information to chains looking to start locations in Harrisonburg, but it is mostly commercial real estate agents who work with chains, Shull said.
“The majority of time [chain businesses] are reaching out to us to come to the market,” said Jeff Robb, the senior vice president and assistant broker of commercial real estate firm Lee and Associates. “They know what they want.”
The strength and diversity of the workforce in Harrisonburg and Rockingham is a major draw for chains, he said.
Some chains look at areas to set up new locations for multiple years, Robb said, but they may face difficulty in finding the right space for the right price.
And not every chain that comes to Harrisonburg is guaranteed to succeed — locations of Bob Evans, Long John Silvers and Which Wich Superior Sandwiches have come and gone in the Friendly City.
The Golden Corral on East Market Street had been serving customers for more than 40 years when it closed earlier this year.
Over those years, the chain buffet became a regular meeting place for local civic groups such as the Kiwanis Club and Vietnam Veterans Chapter 1061.
Shull said the high number of young people, due in part to multiple colleges in the area, and proximity to Interstate 81 are also major factors in chains’ decision to locate in Harrisonburg.
While many local restaurants are able to succeed downtown, chain eateries tend to gravitate toward the interstate, he said.
“It’s nice to have that healthy mix in a community,” Shull said.