In sea of independent shops, York welcomes regional chain

Isaac's, a Lancaster-based restaurant chain, opened a store this spring in downtown York. It serves breakfast and features a new dining concept called Isaac's on the Fly. - (Photo / Amy Spangler)

When diners bite into a Ruffed Grouse sandwich at Isaac’s restaurant downtown York, they probably aren’t focused on capital investment, economic stability or business retention.

But downtown York officials are.

Good things can happen in a central business district when a national or even regional chain sticks its flag in the sidewalk and opens a new location.

For example: because a chain is usually part of a larger corporation, it can often sign a longer lease than a locally owned, single-site business — often, a year’s lease compared to month-to-month — said Silas Chamberlin, CEO of Downtown Inc, a York City economic revitalization organization.

He and other downtown York leaders said they have been seeing positives in the nearly three months since Isaac’s Famous Grilled Sandwiches, the regional Lancaster-based restaurant chain with sandwiches named after colorful birds, opened on West Market Street.

A familiar-looking place to eat or shop can reassure infrequent downtown visitors, Chamberlin and others in his organization said.

Independent stores often bring a unique flavor and an energy to a central business district, he said. Many, maybe close to all, of downtown York’s shops and restaurants are non-chain independents.

But at a time when local retailers in cities resist larger chains trying to move in, Chamberlin and others with Downtown Inc said there are advantages to having the right chain retailer or restaurant.

Chamberlin pointed out that the retention rate of a small business is often much lower than that of a corporate chain. So if you’re a landlord, having a longer lease can bring stability, he said.

Corporate chains also have capital to invest in a space that a smaller or independent business may not have, Chamberlin said.

Many people who support a downtown’s independent retailers might question having a chain come in, pointed out Meagan Feeser, Downtown Inc’s chief marketing and development officer. Downtown Inc attracts new businesses and works with existing ones over a 26-square-block area of downtown York. It estimates that more than 50 eateries and more than 75 retailers are in the area.

Amy Spangler

But a chain can bring more business into a community overall because of its name recognition: “Someone who maybe hasn’t been to downtown has been to an Isaac’s in West York, East York or Lancaster. That’s a name they recognize,” Feeser said.

And helping other local businesses has been one of the goals for Isaac’s as it opened the new York location, its president and CEO Mike Weaver said. It is the 34-year-old chain’s 19th restaurant, and its fourth in York County.

“We are intentional about connecting with our community,” Weaver said.

Isaac’s gets the bulk of its food products from York food distributor Ettline Foods Corp., soft-pretzel rolls from neighboring restaurant York City Pretzel Co. and a “Market Salad” based on the availability of fruits and vegetables from York Central Market, Weaver said.

“We want to make a place for them to be selling their products,” Weaver added.

The downtown York Isaac’s opened in late March, moving into the former Weinbrom Jewelers site at West Market and South Beaver streets. It offers both a breakfast menu and the chain’s “Isaac’s on the Fly” fast-casual concept.

“Isaac’s has really made that space their own, putting a ton of investment into it,” Chamberlin noted. “Not only does that make it a really welcoming, inviting space, it also means they’re not as eager to walk away from it … since they’re here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.”

An economic official in Lancaster city noted that a chain, in the right circumstances, can be a plus to a business district.

“I don’t think there’s anything that says you shouldn’t ever look at a regional or national retailer or restaurateur in your community,” said Randy Patterson, Lancaster’s director of economic development and neighborhood revitalization. “Everybody brings a little bit of diversity … and that’s a good thing.”

Lancaster doesn’t have many national brands among its restaurants or stores, and what franchises it does have are locally owned and operated, he said.

Jim Lewin, owner at The York Emporium, which sells used books, antiques and related items, admits he hasn’t felt Isaac’s impact on his business yet — the Emporium is three blocks west — but he is glad to see the new restaurant.

The Emporium has been around for more than 30 years, and while there are independent retailers that resist having chains come into their towns, Lewin isn’t one of them. “The more that is going on in downtown, the better it is for other businesses and everyone else.”

David O'Connor
Dave O'Connor covers York County, manufacturing, higher education, nonprofits, and workforce development. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at doconnor@cpbj.com.

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