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Brownsville Economic Development Council

Brownsville is one of the best medium-market U.S. cities in which to open a restaurant in 2016, according to a recent report from “QSR Magazine,” which covers trends in the fastfood and fast-casual restaurant industry.

It’s true that the city has attracted a number of new restaurant chains in recent years, as well as expansion by existing franchises. Russo’s New York Pizzeria and Krispy Kreme Doughnuts are among the most recent new arrivals.

Even more brands are eyeing the city with plans to set up shop. The Brownsville Herald asked executives with a few of those companies why Brownsville is lately so attractive.

Tim Markle, director of development for Plano based Mooyah Burgers-Fries-Shakes, which launched a McAllen location in 2012, said the Rio Grande Valley could easily support more Mooyahs in Brownsville, Harlingen and other communities. The McAllen store, in fact, was meant to be the vanguard of a Mooyah invasion, though the economy failed to cooperate and the company postponed further openings, Markle said. Now the McAllen location is doing well and the Valley is back on the front burner, he said.

Mooyah, ranked second among the nation’s best fastcasual restaurant franchise companies by FranchiseRankings.com, has more than 90 stores in 20 states and 14 countries. Dallas, the company’s home turf, contains 25 locations.

Markle said he pitched the Valley to corporate as being perfect for the brand, largely because it’s family oriented and so is Mooya.

“I said the Valley is a wonderful place where people love good food,” he said. “Household size in the Valley is monstrous compared to anywhere else because families tend to stay together. It’s a natural fit down there.”

Markle said that as soon as Mooya finds a suitable franchisee they’re ready to move ahead immediately with locations in Brownsville and elsewhere around the Valley — likely before the end of the year. “We’re exploring opportunities,” he said. “We’re very picky as far as who we look for in a franchise partner.” Markle, who went to high school in Port Isabel and played football for the Tarpons decades ago, said he thinks the Valley has been overlooked by many companies in part because it looks like “a lot of empty land.”

That perception is changing, however, as more and more franchises realize how many people actually live in the Valley — 1.3 million according to the last census count — and that the demographic is ideal, he said.

“We look for a certain combined household income,” Markle said. “Most people would say the Valley is not going to have it. That’s where they miss the boat. Household size in the Valley is so large, the average household size is four people.

“That gives them the ability to have expendable income. It’s a hot spot, and (franchises) are dying to come down there.”

Mark Cairns, director of franchise development for Wisconsin-based Toppers Pizza, said Brownsville is recognized as a “tier city” in the industry, which is why franchises are gravitating toward it. Franchisees are gravitating toward Toppers, meanwhile, which last year was rated the 29th fastest growing small chain in the country by “Restaurant Business Magazine,” he said.

“People are noticing us in a fairly significant way, so we go to markets that are very popular,” Cairns said. “We really serve the younger millennials. We’ve got a cool name and a great product.”

As far as Brownsville’s growing popularity among franchises, it’s likely that the city has reached a tipping point in terms of demographics and population, he said.

“Towns need to get to a point of having some critical mass so you can have multiple stores in a market,” Cairns said. “You might have a really cool town but if it can only support one of something, it’s hard to operate just one.”

Three or four locations in a market is ideal. Brownsville is capable of sustaining that, which is why Toppers is coming, he said, noting that the company recently received an inquiry from a potential franchisee in the city.

Toppers, founded by a former Dominos employee in 1991, has 73 restaurants in 12 states, Cairns said. The only Texas location so far is on the Texas Christian University campus in Fort Worth, he said.

In deciding which markets to enter, the pizza chain uses the services of Fort Worth-based customer- analytics firm the Buxton Company, which conducts demographic and psycho-demographic studies of various markets based on 85 separate measures, Cairns said.

“It’s what people’s behaviors are: how they behave, what kind of cars they drive,” he said.“Do they go to Netflix or go out to see a movie? Do they order food in or go out? Are they empty nesters or up and comers? It’s not just population, age and income. It’s really what they’re doing with their time and their money.”

Cairns said Toppers is coming to Brownsville but doesn’t have a firm timeline, and that it depends on finding the right franchisee.

“Obviously they’d have to be financially qualified as well as operationally qualified,” he said. “We only partner with folks who have restaurant experience or can partner with somebody that has it.”

Lenny’s Subs, a fastcasual Philly-style sub shop headquartered in Memphis, Tennessee, has 107 locations in about a dozen states, mostly in the Southeast, said Bob Ritter, vice president of franchise and market development.

Twenty of those locations are in Texas, most of them in Houston,though SanAntonio has five stores. Ritter admitted it’s tough creating brand awareness in larger markets, though Lenny’s is doing well in Texas and has its sights set on the Valley.

“We’re really looking for a franchise to go into Brownsville and ideally do multiple locations,” he said. “ Demographically, Brownsville would fit perfectly for what we’re looking for and what would make a successful business.”

Ritter said the city’s continuing population growth and demographics, including income level, meet the company’s criteria. Lenny’s was founded in 1998 in a Memphis suburb. Philly-cheese steaks account for about 40 percent of the company’s revenue.

Ritter said Lenny’s is coming to town as soon as it finds the right franchise partner and the right real estate.

“If we could find a franchisee next week and if we could find real estate in the next month, we’d probably be open by August or September,” he said. “It’s all about people and it’s all about location.”

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