AUBURN — Downtown Auburn has experienced a sort of restaurant renaissance over the past decade, especially within the last five years. But what is driving this trend and will it continue?
Jim Daddabbo, owner of Mesa Grande Taqueria, said Auburn's restaurant scene is a "natural evolution" of a general period of growth in downtown Auburn, which started about a decade ago with the opening of the Auburn Public Theater in 2005.
"I think it has to do with all the right people, all the right stakeholders, in the right place at the right time in terms of city hall and private foundations and private developers," Daddabbo said. "We hit the right time where there was a trend in America in general to go back to downtowns. If you look at what's happening in Auburn, it's happening all over the country."
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He and other downtown restaurateurs such as Bernie Simmons of A.T. Walley & Co. and Ed Moro of Moro's Table took advantage of that growth when they opened restaurants in the city.
"People are wanting to be part of revitalization and we've had that in our downtown so when something is good, people catch on," said Stephanie DeVito, the executive director of the Auburn Business Improvement District. "Once you start seeing a lot of activity in a town, people will gravitate toward that because they see that as growth, as wanting to be part of something that is better for the future."
Moro added, "I think wherever there's opportunity, the American spirit will kick in and people will take a chance and get in there."
The three restaurant owners said when they opened their establishments, they were filling a void that existed in the city at the time.
"You've gotta give the people something that they not only want, but that they need," Simmons said of opening A.T. Walley's in 2013. "People were ready for this type of an atmosphere, especially the younger community, the millennials. They were looking forward to something like this."
Moro opened his "chef-driven, upscale-casual" restaurant on Genesee Street in 2010. At the time, he said, people tried to talk him out of opening such a restaurant in Auburn.
"You need a mix of different types of things," Moro said. "One of the reasons we did well is we're a little bit different from the norm. We're trying different things that haven't been here in the past."
Daddabbo had the idea to open a Mexican restaurant in his head for 20 years. When he returned to Auburn in 2008 after living in California, he said he saw demand for Mexican food and that there were few quick-casual restaurants, as places like Moe's and Panera had not yet opened in the area. He opened Mesa Grande Taqueria in Auburn in June 2010.
"When I opened Mesa Grande, it was really out there," Daddabbo said. "A lot of people thought this was exotic food. We certainly caught on quite well and quite quickly. It was one of my instincts that there was a pent-up demand for this."
Auburn's renaissance is also part of a larger, nation-wide trend of people eating out more. According to the National Restaurant Association, from 2010 to 2017, restaurant sales increased by over 40 percent. In 2017, the restaurant industry in the United States drew in nearly $800 billion, while in New York alone, the association projected restaurants grossed about $43.3 billion.
Simmons and Daddabbo both noted that while Auburn is a working-class city, people, especially the younger generation, will pay to go out to a restaurant if the product is a good quality.
"When it comes right down to it, Auburn is still blue collar but people today, the millennials, they're looking for food with integrity," Simmons said. "They're willing to pay for it as long as the integrity of the product is there, whether its a cocktail or a meal."
Daddabbo added, "You have to offer a great product at a fair price with a smile on your face in a clean setting. That's easier said than done, but that's the secret to success."
For the trend to continue here in Auburn, all three restaurateurs agreed that more has to be done downtown outside the restaurant industry, such as adding more retail or tourist attractions. They said the city will not be able to support many more restaurants without other attractions driving people into the area.
"There is a saturation point and that's one thing we have to look at," Simmons said. "With our population, how many bars and restaurants can our population support?"
Moro said Auburn Public Theater and Merry-Go-Round Playhouse have "really contributed" to his business and "make the whole area better.
"I think retail is great but we need more entertainment for adults that's not just a bar or restaurant," he said. "A lot of retail is done online now."
DeVito said another retail shop is coming to downtown in the spring, but could not disclose any more information at this time. The addition of the Equal Rights Cultural Heritage Center to the downtown landscape also will continue to drive growth, she said.
"People want to be part of the growth," DeVito said. "Auburn is a destination and we keep striving to be a better destination."