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Site of the Day: Chains vs. Indies in Silver Spring

Ok, here's an easy one: Red Lobster vs. Crisfield's. Slightly harder: Potbelly vs. Adega Wine Cellars and Cafe.
No-brainers: Panera Bread vs. Mayorga Coffee Factory, or Cold Stone Creamery vs. York Castle.

We're talking about the face-off between the invading chain eateries and the homegrown independents (as long as they survive, anyway.) The venue: downtown Silver Spring, though we could be talking about just about anyplace in the American streetscape.

Blogger Andrew Lindemann Malone has spent several years riding this issue, and his verdicts come down pretty reliably on the side of the independents. Of course, we've all been to some indieswhere the food is far more awful even than the worst chains', but even those places usually have other redeeming qualities--a less corporate atmosphere, a crowd of regulars who make for rewarding people-watching, a character or two on the staff.

Yet here we are with downtown Silver Spring going the way of downtown Bethesda and Shirlington, with big chains moving in and the old standbys closing up. A few local communities have made a point of protecting the independents--Ballston and other parts of Arlington have worked hard with landlords to promote price structures that make it possible for small businesses to survive growth. Old Town Alexandria, though under increasing price pressure, has maintained an attractive mix of local and national businesses. But left to the vagaries of the market, national chains have a way of displacing local businesses.

You can call that progress or you can find someplace else to eat and shop. The faint glimmerings of such a transformation are already visible on 14th Street in the District, just moments after the street's gentrification really took off. And the process is nearing its completion in Dupont Circle and, to a lesser degree, Georgetown, where chains have taken over what were once the city's most reliable people magnets, turning them into ever-less interesting places.

The lesson here is that cities and suburbs cannot leave the mix of retail outlets to chance and the real estate market. Developers and governments are learning that they have to work on the balance along the streetfronts almost as avidly as a mall manager controls the mix inside his retail hothouse.

Can Silver Spring be saved from the march of the chains? Probably not in the red-hot heart of the downtown between the Silver Theater and Discovery Channel, but possibly in the back streets to the south, along Georgia Avenue and in the rows of ethnic eateries tucked behind the avenue. That's the next task for county planners and local developers, and time is of the essence.

By Marc Fisher |  January 30, 2006; 7:19 AM ET
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Comments

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Whenever this pops up, I feel obligated to put in a plug for a few of the local businesses that are successfully adapting to the changing environment. Kefa Cafe, on Bonifant St., known for its delightful owners, gelato, and sandwiches, is now hosting poetry readings, almost as an excuse to stay open some evenings.
Da Marco Italian Deli, across from the AFI, which for years closed at 6pm (as did most of SS), now has a full sit-down dinner Wed-Sun, which is succeeding beyond their expectations, for something that was only advertised by word of mouth.

Posted by: Joe in Silver Spring | January 30, 2006 10:46 AM

I grew up in SS and spent many afternoons in Hechts, at the fountain in Drug Fair, and at the many boutiques and small shops on Ellsworth. For years the area was neglected and blighted. Although now the chains may seem to be taking over, at least now people have returned to my hometown. I usually spend at least one evening a week there and it is very gratifying to see all those people enjoying the area. I'm sure the independents will benefit in the long term from having more people in the area than before the chains came in.

Posted by: Anne | January 30, 2006 10:53 AM

My wife, myself and several of our friends used to spend Friday nights playing scrabble, drinking beer and enjoying ourselves at Mayorga. One day, the manager came over and told us that we could no longer sit in the main room and were exiled to the back room because we weren't the type of clientele they wanted. Basically, they wanted the young, upscale crowd lined up to get into the club behind Mayorga. No Starbucks has ever asked us to stop playing Scrabble unless they were about to close. Mayorga will never get my vote or my business again.

Posted by: Jacknut | January 30, 2006 10:59 AM


I don't mind the chains coming in. Downtown Silver Spring is so much nicer with the new buildup. Even though it stinks to see the old independent places go, it was probably due to their losing money more than the new chains coming in.

Posted by: Mike | January 30, 2006 11:48 AM

I and my family will never go to Silver Spring at night anyway, so I guess it doesn't really matter. The reason I won't go there at night is because of the massive gang activity, mostly coming from City Place, spilling out onto the streets. As long-time residents of Silver Spring, we were told on numerous occasions by the Chamber of Commerce that something was going to be done about the gangs and everyone could feel safe - both day and night. Too bad nothing has ever been done and there appears to be no intention of doing so. Eventually, when, again, the gangs are all that are left there, someone will decide that spending all of those millions of dollars on redevelopment was pretty much not worth it.

Posted by: pider1 | January 30, 2006 12:11 PM

I and my family will never go to Silver Spring at night anyway, so I guess it doesn't really matter. The reason I won't go there at night is because of the massive gang activity, mostly coming from City Place, spilling out onto the streets. As long-time residents of Silver Spring, we were told on numerous occasions by the Chamber of Commerce that something was going to be done about the gangs and everyone could feel safe - both day and night. Too bad nothing has ever been done and there appears to be no intention of doing so. Eventually, when, again, the gangs are all that are left there, someone will decide that spending all of those millions of dollars on redevelopment was pretty much not worth it. But I digress - too many chains spoils the broth!

Posted by: pider1 | January 30, 2006 12:12 PM

I understand that many people feel that chain businesses helped build up a once-blighted area, but isn't the point of the original blog to mention that cities can have both types of businesses thrive next to each other? Whereas it seems many people enjoy shopping at chains and appreciate that they opened up businesses in an area that has been lacking...can you also appreciate that without independent businesses we will all soon live in "Anywhere, USA," and that more money will float out of local communities into the chain's headquaters city instead of the local economy? Maintaining a supportive business environment (zoning laws, small business assistance, etc) will create and sustain a healthy business community filled with interesting options and different establishments that make a retail corridor special and have a balance of chains and indies...which was the goal of the Main Street assessment funded by Pepco in the late 90s.

Posted by: Andrea D. | January 30, 2006 12:39 PM

We go to Silver Spring all the time, not real late at night, but past the first movie, and have yet to see 'massive gang activity'. Are we missing something? What I see is many faces of different colors, that doesn't mean there is massive gang activity. As a long-time Takoma Park/Silver Spring resident I feel quite comfortable there. The county is doing a great job of keeping the area policed.

Onto the chain resturants. The most important thing for this redeveloped area is that it be successful. Have you looked at stats for failures of independent resturants lately? Chains are the safest bet. We've all been driving to Rockville for years to go to the Macaronni Grill and Red Lobster, why do we have to apologize now that they've finally come to our neighborhood?

Posted by: Rose G. | January 30, 2006 1:08 PM

Having sampled most of the chains that have come to Silver Spring, my wife and I are finally in agreement about something: the indies are far superior, whether it's Mi Rancho vs. the slew of Tex-Mex joints, Sergio's vs. Macaroni Grill, etc. etc. The new places that we've returned to appear to be of the indie persuasion (Ceviche, the Thai place) or are quite superior to the standard chain fare, for instance, Red Canyon Grill & Eggspectation. Our biggest disappointment was a local chain, Lebanese Taverna, which instead of opening a sitdown restaurant, opted for a fast-food style carryout with a greatly reduced menu and none of the atmosphere found in their places in Woodley Park or Pentagon. As for the "gang" activity, I've been to the new Silver Spring dozens of times and have yet to see anything of the sort, just people of all ages, including many with young children, having a good time. What I have seen, though, are serious traffic/parking problems that need attention, i.e., enforcement.

Posted by: ralph | January 30, 2006 1:43 PM

I also am a regular patron of Downtown Silver Spring at night and have yet to witness this "massive gang activity." I suspect the person that wrote this simply feels threatened by groups of young people whose skin color is different from his/her own. I would also like to second the tips Joe gave in the first reply above. The vibe (and gelato!) at Kefa is great, and the dinner menu at Da Marco is delicious! (I don't think it's open Sundays though. Just Wed-Sat)

Posted by: Junior | January 30, 2006 1:49 PM

To Rose G., I'm glad you're patronizing dowtown Silver Spring, but give your palate a reward and try something other than Red Lobster and Macaroni Grill. Try some ribs at Half-moon BBQ on Georgia Ave., try the new dinner menu at Da Marco (and pick up some home made pastas to take home with you), there is a new Thai restaurant and a new Vietnamese pho restaurant, a great Cuban resstaurant, and much more. We just recently moved from Silver Spring out of the D.C. area and I miss it. Downtown has its issues and the Silver Spring area in general could be safer, but I miss the independent restaurants turning out some really good food for good prices. Trust me, Rose, give your tummy a treat and give Macaroni Grill a rest.

Posted by: CB | January 30, 2006 2:01 PM

Hey Pider 1, is there something you REALLY want to tell us?, gang activity?, I see a lot non-white faces, which is different, how do you make up that equation?

Posted by: Jimbo | January 30, 2006 2:01 PM

Marc:

You've identified a serious problem, one of our most pressing, but take another look around Dupont before you write us off!

Yes, we've a growing surplus of things like CVS's and Starbucks, but our local businesses still far outnumber our chains. For example, witness the continued existence of local-legends like Kramer's Books and Tabard Inn, and such recent welcome new arrivals like Hank's Oyster Bar and Provisions Library, etc & etc. And don't forget, we still have the largest number of art gallerys and artists in the area!

We're fighting, not dead.

Posted by: Mark | January 30, 2006 2:05 PM

>The reason I won't go there at night is because of the massive gang activity, mostly coming from City Place, spilling out onto the streets.<

Wow! You need a reality check. I live and work in downtown SS and have for the past 15 years. I have spoken to the local police and the gang expert for Montgomery County police dept. -- downtown SS has NEVER had a gang-related crime reported. Not one. Ever. If you have a problem with group's of young people (perhaps of brown skin tones?) gathering in number, than yes, please do stay away from SS, we do not need your patronage.

As to the topic of local-grown vs. chain businesses, I urge all those that care to do two things. 1. Make a deliberate decision to choose local over chains for your consumer needs not just in restaurants but for printing, clothing boutiques, books, etc. 2. Get involved with local politics and most importantly ATTEND when the MNCPPC holds hearings about new businesses moving in and the SS master plan implementation.

Posted by: Kathy | January 30, 2006 2:59 PM

The Post did an article recently describing the Austin's Grill in SS. While Austin's is a chain, and I am generally anti-chain in revitalization efforts, Austin's does fill a need in SS for a bar/restaurant with live music, late hours, and happy regulars. I've wondered if filling this need was a conscious decision by Austin's local managers, their corporate office, or just a happy accident.

Posted by: EKE | January 30, 2006 3:08 PM

The Post did an article recently describing the Austin's Grill in SS. While Austin's is a chain, and I am generally anti-chain in revitalization efforts, Austin's does fill a need in SS for a bar/restaurant with live music, late hours, and happy regulars. I've wondered if filling this need was a conscious decision by Austin's local managers, their corporate office, or just a happy accident. SS needs more of the same.

Posted by: EKE | January 30, 2006 3:08 PM

While I absolutely agree with the spirit of Kathy's comments above, shopping local over chains is much easier said than done these days, especially when it comes to clothes. And that's just not a Silver Spring problem, that's the way it is everywhere.

Posted by: Junior | January 30, 2006 3:13 PM

Let's not be snobby. The great unwashed like to eat at chain resturants.

Remember, the community called for a Borders and a Whole Foods. Are those establishments someone more 'OK' because they are cooler, than the Macaronni Grill or (my favorite) Noodles & Co? How come the Takoma-Silver Spring Co-op isn't sitting at the Whole Foods site? Why are you not bemoaning that corporate sell out. Whole Foods just got put onto the S&P 500 - opps - it's mainstream.

From the beginning the community desired something Rockvillesque. It got it, why isn't this a success?

When indepedents can guarantee the rent on places the size of the resturants in downtown Silver Spring for 5-10 years (typical resturant lease) then they will be there.

Posted by: Rose G. | January 30, 2006 4:04 PM

Its great to see the multiple uniform reactions to pider1's post. Hey Pider1, you think downtown SS is bad, check out the NBA!!!!

Posted by: I love you guys/gals | January 30, 2006 4:10 PM

Rose G is right about chains providing a more sure-footed and reliably-funded foundation for a new development like downtown Silver Spring, but CB is right about the need to support independent eateries and other local businesses. How can they both be right?
The development and retail bizes have shifted toward the security and sameness of the chains, but smart developers and savvy governments know that it takes both national chains and unique local businesses to make an attractive and compelling urban magnet. Whatever you may think of Federal Realty's work in downtown Bethesda, the company gets that it's essential to maintain the distinctive personality that prevents a neighborhood from becoming one more mall.
And I agree with Mark's comment in defense of Dupont Circle above: There are still small treasures amid the national chains in Dupont, but they are decreasing in number and endangered. The big crowds at the Dupont farmers' market show that a large audience craves distinctive retailing and eschews the chains--the trick is that to keep the local businesses around, someone has to show the landlords that the easy money from the chains isn't always worth it. Often, that role falls to local government to play, and the District is not exactly great at that. Montgomery County has done better.

Posted by: Fisher | January 30, 2006 4:24 PM

Having moved to Silver Spring nearly two years ago, I'm beginning to wonder if the chains vs. indie debate is overblown. Everyone seems to have wanted the development in downtown SS, but people don't seem to realize that such a development is expensive, so you need companies that can afford to pay the rents (i.e. the chains) to offset the cost of the development. It seems to me that many of the indies are doing just fine, in fact there have been some new additions since SS's development: Jackie's, Mandalay, a new Ray's the Steaks opening in the old Christfield's on Colesville. Tastee diner is always hoppin' on a weekend, and I've always had to wait 30min or more for a table at Mi Rancho.

So, are the chain restaurants really causing problems for the indies? Or will the new development in SS promote further development of both chains and indies?

That being said, I do think that more can be done to encourage people to explore outside the new "downtown" area. I see that some work is going on to improve the streetscape of Georgia Ave. south of Colesville. I think that is a small step and more should be done. The fact that several developments are planned for the area south of "downtown SS" is encouraging.

Posted by: JDH | January 30, 2006 4:42 PM


Pider sees "massive gang activity" and I see teenagers having fun.

Pider are you from IOWA???

I have lived here since 1953 and I am SO happy to see Silver Spring rise from the ashes! It is wonderful to see people of all cultures coming together to enjoy the music, dancing, restaurants, and the beautiful fountain!

We are very,very lucky to live in such a great place!

Posted by: Happy in SS | January 30, 2006 5:49 PM

Hey Pider,
What "gang activity" ?? Where are you from, Skokie?

I'm white and VERY happy with Silver Spring.

Stay in your hole.

Posted by: Happy in SS too | January 30, 2006 9:10 PM

JDH - very well said, all I can do is echo what you said.

Without chains, the renovation would not be financially viable. I do hope people patronize all of the other EXCELLENT locally owned businesses. Mi Rancho is awesome. Kefa is great. Mayorga, while not your Seattle -like coffee house, they try and it's comfortable. I love Lebanese Taverna! Lastly, Stronsniders cannot be beat for service...

The area is very diverse culturally, hopefully that will sustain a diverse business base too.

Well done Silver Spring!

Posted by: 2095 | January 30, 2006 9:16 PM

I tend to agree with the last few comments-- while some of the indie places are clearly irreplaceable, it took the greater capital and leverage of the larger chains to stimulate the revitalization in downtown Silver Spring. As much as I love the smaller venues around here, they would have happily stayed where they were at the same level, while the larger companies moved in and actually helped moved things in a better direction, to the benefit of many local places.

Having lived a few blocks from the new downtown site long before the process started, I can only applaud the change.
And while we're at it folks, let's not overblow the appeal of some of the local places-- Mayorga for instance- while it has excellent coffee, it has probably the worst service and least thought-out business plan for their restaurant/coffee house/bar/whatever-the-heck-it-is that I've ever seen. That's not charm, it's bad business. If the local places can provide good service to their customers, they'll survive and thrive. If not, then they'll sink and maybe be replaced by a business that can.

I say all around it's a good idea.

Posted by: KK | January 30, 2006 10:23 PM

Let's bear in mind that the Austin Grill is a LOCAL chain. All of the locations are in the Washington/Baltimore area. The first one was Glover Park. The owner lives in Montgomery County. Just because they are successful, doesn't mean they are evil. AG pays local musicians 7 nights a week, and has one of the most diverse crowds you'll see anywhere. Black, White, Latino, Asian, you name it, everyone from Silver Spring is there and enjoying themselves. You can't make these sorts of sweeping generalizations -- you have to go and patronize the places and make up your own mind.

Is Jackie's an evil chain now that they've bought (and brought back to life) the Quarry House?

Posted by: Pat | January 30, 2006 11:47 PM

"Massive gang activity"? Are you kidding? I've lived in a lot of places and downtown SS is among the safest of them all, nice family vibe for the entire neighborhood, a heck of improvement over what it was just a few years ago.

Posted by: Oliver Willis | January 31, 2006 2:34 AM

JDH, right on!

There are always going to be people who want edgy, hip, and trendy over safe, clean, and reliable. It's nice to see the residents of any neighborhood get what they've wanted, as civilization reclaims Silver Spring from what it was ten years ago.

If the stadium ever gets built for the Nats, then there might even someday be a grocery store in Southeast. I suppose people will then gripe about the chain restaurants and overdevelopment and the loss of all the poor oppressed indie "establishments" there, from Nation on down.

"Boo hoo! You can't tell the difference between M St NW and M St SE any more."

What a terrible DC that would be.

Posted by: athea | January 31, 2006 8:55 AM

The only gangs I've seen are gangs of 8 year olds chasing each other in that Astroturf park. Perhaps pider1 is a gangbanger him/herself and sees bangers everywhere he/she goes.

BTW, anyone know what's going to happen to that park. I never thought I would say this, but that park rocks. Whoever thought Astroturf could be useful!

Posted by: Jacknut | January 31, 2006 9:40 AM

Jacknut (above) asks what will happen to the Astroturf park. That area will become the new Veterans' Plaza that will be situated in front of the to-be-built Civic Center.

Posted by: Jerry A. McCoy / Silver SpringHistorical Society | January 31, 2006 11:37 AM

re: Is Jackie's an evil chain now that they've bought (and brought back to life) the Quarry House?

Have you been to the "new" Quarry House? Perhaps they were still working out the kinks, but we had one of the worst meals we've had all year there, just before new year's. I was not impressed.

Posted by: Joe in SS | January 31, 2006 12:53 PM

re: Is Jackie's an evil chain now that they've bought (and brought back to life) the Quarry House?

Have you been to the "new" Quarry House? Perhaps they were still working out the kinks, but we had one of the worst meals we've had all year there, just before new year's. I was not impressed. The bottom line with both indies and chains, is that if they are good at what they do, they have a good chance of surviving, if they aren't, they probably won't. And the rest if just blind luck.

Posted by: Joe in SS | January 31, 2006 12:54 PM

I see the glass half full. The new restaurants will blend with those already there and will make them better. The renovated downtown Silver Spring means that now I get everything done in my own neighborhood, without having to travel to Bethesda or Rockville. My daughters really enjoy themselves at Border's, or having an ice cream across the street -two places to choose from-also at the fountain in the summer. Now we are able to choose a movie -two good theaters to choose from-. Silver Spring is alive and awake now. Was it better when asleep -if not dead?
Also, I spend a lot of time downtown Silver Spring with my little ones and I have NEVER felt at risk. I don't know about any "gangs". Was that person really talking about our beautiful and diverse Silver Spring...? I doubt it.

Posted by: Sandra | January 31, 2006 1:05 PM

Here's what I know...from my downtown Silver Spring home I can walk to Metro, two grocery stores, a hardware store, two movie theaters, a used bookstore, a new bookstore, numerous dry cleaners, my kid's school, a wide variety of restaurants, a couple of parks and playgrounds, and, who knows, maybe soon a new Birchmere location. Why, I can even walk up the street to get a tattoo if I were so inclined. Sometimes weeks go by without us having to use our car. If they brought in a couple of clothing stores it would be pretty near perfect as far as I'm concerned!

Posted by: Patty | January 31, 2006 1:53 PM

Clothing in SS:

A couple folks mentioned need for clothing stores in SS - here are a few places to check out, if you haven't already:

- Chaubara Fashion Studio on 8711 First Ave (near the 2nd street USPS) - she has gorgeous Indian finery - suitable for fancy occasions - I can see for a date, as a "mom of the bride" or to wear to the opera -
- store on corner of Fenton & Colesville (opposite Ruby Tuesday - name escapes me right now)- they are an independent fashion boutique and have better quality selection than any mall store I've seen - pricey, but worth a visit and check out their sale dates

On the "chain" side - we have:
- Burlington & Marshalls inside City Place - for all family clothing needs
- Ann Taylor Loft - women's only
- smaller chains in City Place - mostly for juniors like Rave, City Styles, etc.

Worth a note that my 19-year-old cousin from Frankfurt, Germany visited last year and thought City Place clothing stores were nirvana - I think she ended up dropping $300-500 over several trips there in a two-week period - the $10 shoes and $20 jeans blew her away!

But it seems like most clothing stores are at Wheaton Mall and not moving down here anytime soon.

Posted by: Kathy | February 1, 2006 5:30 PM

You make a good point when you observe "A few local communities have made a point of protecting the independents--Ballston and other parts of Arlington have worked hard with landlords to promote price structures that make it possible for small businesses to survive growth." It sounds wonderful. Could you tell more about how they promoted affordable rents, what part of the community took the action, what techniques were used to manipulate rents and what worked, and how the retailers and landlords each benefited?

Posted by: Mel | February 9, 2006 9:58 AM

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