Olive Garden, Pizza Hut, Don Pablo's--you name it, Prince William has it. But what about the smaller mom and pop restaurants? They don't have the advertising, the name recognition or the space to pump them up to potential customers. So how do they find enough clientele to stay alive in this already tough market?
Medina Kabob, a small restaurant serving Pakistani cuisine, is one of those trying to make it. Remzan Haq, the owner, is banking on his unusual cuisine to fill a niche that generally is unfilled in Woodbridge. Most of the customers are local, Haq said, and only about 10 percent of his customers are Pakistani.
He plans to use his menu to attract new customers and keep them coming back. Instead of the common food at local chains, Haq prides himself on original, authentic dishes that can't be had elsewhere.
Haq opened his restaurant just eight months ago but said he's had a steady stream of customers, including some of his competitors, looking for a break from the bread sticks. "The owners of the other restaurants, they come over here and eat," he said. "They enjoy my food."
Haq said he has about 40 customers a day, with more on weekends. His sons and wife all help, and he has two part-time employees. The small restaurant prides itself on fresh, authentic food and good customer service, something that may give it a bit of an edge over competition from chain restaurants.
Sometimes area chains can be good for business of non-chain restaurants, said Karen Kraushaar, spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, based in the District. Chains moving in to a particular area can make that neighborhood more marketable. "It becomes a dining destination," Kraushaar said. Would-be diners suggest areas to dine in rather than actual restaurants. "They just say, 'Let's go to Woodbridge and see what we can find, what looks good,' " she said.
But sometimes attracting business is not that easy. Kathy Anderson, general manager of Bar J, with branches in Woodbridge and Alexandria, said the chains can cause a lot of headaches. Unlike Medina Kabob, Bar J in Woodbridge has been around since 1981, so Anderson has a solid core of regular customers on which to rely.
"We just try to stay very consistent and friendly to the customer," she explained. "Thank God for our regulars who have been coming here for years."
But the chains have had an adverse impact on her business. "Our lunches aren't as busy as our dinners. We have a hard time competing with the chains for lunch," she said.
So Bar J works on marketing to a different crowd and a different dining time and offering specials. Among other things, "We have happy hours--try to have some fun," Anderson said.
She said the restaurant has 80 to 100 diners a night during the week and 200 diners a night on weekends.
Bar J's competition stems from Potomac Mills and the restaurants around the shopping center, Anderson said. "As soon as those places open, the customers check those out. But they keep coming back to us," she said. "We know the customer by name; we even know what they're going to order. They are as consistent with us as we are with our food."
But Kraushaar said chains shouldn't be seen as the bad guys. "Even though it can look like the chains are taking over, many are still taking in under half a million each year," she said. And most are still single-unit operators, meaning chains are often owned by an individual, just like non-chain restaurants.
According to Technomic, a Chicago-based food-service consulting company, the top five "casual dining varied menu" U.S. chains had a total of $5.6 billion in sales in 1998, including local favorites Applebee's, pulling in $2 billion; T.G.I.Friday's, $1.1 billion; and Ruby Tuesday, $700 million.
Medina Kabob has brought in about $90,000 in sales in its first few months of operation. Haq is projecting $140,000 in sales for his first year. That first year is tough, he explained. "But for the first year, we're doing all right," he said.
Kraushaar said a restaurant's style of ownership has less of a bearing on its success than mere quality. "The key thing: No matter if they're a mom and pop or a chain, if they're consistently providing good food, good service, good value, they have nothing to worry about."
Haq thinks she might be right, as evident from his takeout menu: "Conveniently located across from Potomac Mills Mall, behind Olive Garden."
CAPTION: Ashan Haq serves Winston and Patti Hammerud at Medina Kabob, a small Pakistani restaurant in Woodbridge that tries to compete with the area's abundance of chain-owned restaurants.