A former Sonic location across from Home Depot in Auburn will become a Salsa Grille in the coming months. Staff photo by Andy Barrand
A former Sonic location across from Home Depot in Auburn will become a Salsa Grille in the coming months. Staff photo by Andy Barrand
Recipe for a new restaurant development:

• 1 available lot
• 1 large population
• Heaping cup of traffic
• Dash of disposable income
• Pinch of available workers

Mix ingredients together with city planning department. Bake until ready.

Cook time will vary depending on community.

Lately, Auburn's got that recipe down. The city is dishing out new restaurant developments nearly as fast as people can swallow the news of the next announcement.

Meanwhile, a few miles away in Kendallville, residents are salivating, watching their neighbors gorge while the development oven at home has been cold for a long time.

Economic development of all types is a game of attraction, with communities trying to court businesses to locate and bring their jobs, goods and services to the area. The challenge is proving to that company, however, that your community has all the right ingredients to fit their plans for success.

Restaurant development is no different, but as compared to a factory making auto parts and selling to a manufacturer, a company in the business of making burritos is looking to sell its product immediately to the general public. And that foot-traffic-based model changes the dynamic of what's most important.

And when it comes to food business, people are prime.

Auburn is currently seeing a boom in new restaurant developments, with the city announcing four major chain restaurants planning to locate right around the city's Interstate 69 exit at S.R. 8.

Burrito shops Salsa Grille and Chipotle are both opening up locations, while the fast-casual McAlister's Deli is also coming as well as the always-crowded and popular steakhouse chain, Texas Roadhouse.

All four of those announcements have dropped within the last few months, making summer 2022 arguably one of the biggest booms in food northeast Indiana has seen in years, maybe ever.

But that prosperity and growth is not shared everywhere. A few miles north, Angola has seen its share of new growth with a Biggby Coffee opened in 2021 and a new Culver's this summer, as well as a handful of local proprietors — like Buck Lake Bar and Grill this week and Lake It Easy Gourmet this summer — opening up recently to add to the city's sizeable lineup of chains and locally-owned diners.

West of Auburn in Kendallville, however, the development scene has been and remains chilled. The last national chain restaurant Kendallville got was an IHOP in 2020, and that in itself was the first corporate development to happen in years. But even on the locally-owned end, new eateries are fairly rare and a frequent topic of desire for residents.

Auburn Mayor Mike Ley contributed his city's recent boom as the fruit of efforts made when he first entered office, in which his administration hit the phone lines and put calls out all over seeking to hook new development.

"We called developers, anyone who would answer the phone," Ley said. "We just started calling like we were salesmen and if you answered the phone, you got a story about Auburn."

That alone doesn't necessarily explain it, however, as Mayor Suzanne Handshoe in Kendallville is no stranger to a phone, email or letter. But efforts over her multiple terms haven't borne nearly the same kind of fruit.

"It isn't government's place to (build) a restaurant, but it is I feel my duty to at least to try," Handshoe said. "I do write letters and we always receive a negative response back or nothing, so we just keep writing."

So what factors are at play?

One of the biggest — traffic.

Auburn's new restaurants are all circled right around the city's I-69 exit and that's no coincidence.

While Kendallville, Auburn and Angola all have similar populations — 9,300 in Angola to about 13,500 in Auburn — and similar household incomes — $46,000 per year in Angola to about $52,000 per year in Auburn — traffic is one big difference between the three communities.

Kendallville and Auburn are peer cities and their east-west state highways aren't even that dissimilar. U.S. 6 in Kendallville has about 16,000 vehicles per day, while S.R. 8 in Auburn isn't too much busier, with about 18,000 cars per day.

But then look at the north-south. S.R. 3, a state highway, brings 12,500 vehicles per day to Kendallville, while I-69 is nearly triple, with 33,000 vehicles per day. Even further north, I-69 still carries about 23,000 vehicles per day in the Ashley area and areas north of the U.S. 20 exit at Angola's doorstep.

Auburn also benefits from its geography and proximity to Fort Wayne. It's 14 minutes up I-69 from the Dupont Road interchange in Fort Wayne, while it takes a driver 25 minutes to travel the state highway to Kendallville from the S.R. 3/Dupont Road intersection.

Restaurants obviously want the immediate stop-off traffic from the highway, Ley notes, but other businesses in Auburn like grocery stores and retailers have also seen big gains in recent years, which suggests that the boom is more than just interstate traffic.

"When you look at Auburn relative to other communities, Auburn is a regional marketplace," Ley said.

"I can go north and probably for the same amount of minutes in the car be in a restaurant or a business in Auburn, so we see that the more and more Allen County spreads out," Ley added.

In Angola, the city sees an effect from Interstate 69, although most of Angola's new development has been nearer to downtown than to the highway, Mayor Dick Hickman noted. While Angola doesn't have the interchange presence that Auburn has, it makes up for it with a big summer lake population as well as Trine University that bring in thousands of students and their families.

"The lakes draw about 250,000 people to their summer homes and not just the ones who are rented. And we have a million, two, in tourists who are enjoying the lakes," Hickman said. "With all the kids here, (Trine has) about 50,000 people per year they draw here. That's quite a bit right there and usually they're not coming and going the same day, usually they're staying a night or two."

Hickman also noted that he's surprised Angola's I-69 interchange hasn't drawn more development than it currently has, although it's obviously a potential hot spot for future growth.

For Kendallville, the city, unfortunately, just isn't blessed with that same kind of geography. People and traffic matter when it comes to dining establishments, and Kendallville just can't put up the same kind of numbers as its regional neighbors.

"Developers look for that. The letters I receive back it's always 'Thank you for your interest but you don't have the traffic counts or population. We try to include ourselves in areas where we know there will be more visitors or a higher traffic count,'" Handshoe said.

Both Ley and Hickman acknowledged how much their geographic and demographic features matter. When asked directly if Auburn would have the same such luck without I-69, or if Angola would see food growth without the lakes or Trine, both mayors flatly answered no. Without those, their cities would probably be in the same position as Kendallville.

Since Kendallville isn't going to just land a Texas Roadhouse out of the blue, nor is it going to find it easy to even get some of the more mid-range and higher-dollar fast casual or sit-down chains that typically locate to high-traffic or high-population areas — like an oft-requested Culver's, for example — Kendallville works a different courting strategy.

Handshoe has instead focused on a strategy of trying to bring in smaller regional chains or encourage mom-and-pop expansion, she said. One benefit to that route is that it can potentially grow an eclectic mix of local specialties as opposed to chain menus people can get anywhere they can find a location.

But even that has its own unique challenges, the mayor said.

"The things we do well here are independent mom-and-pop type places," Handshoe said. "We would love to have a nice Shorty's or an Italian Grille or something of that sort. And I've talked to those owners, but they keep saying, 'I can't do two restaurants as well as I do one.'"
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