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Rise of the 'independents'
Restaurants downtown, on S. Main work hard to attract customers
Georgia Southern University students Casey Murck, left, Cameron Lemieux, center, and Daniel Milinkovic enjoy some afternoon food and refreshments while playing Keno at Gnat's Landing restaurant Monday.

      While the mall area has become the preferred location for national chain and franchise restaurants, South Main Street is Statesboro's "independent's row."
      From the intersection of South Main and Zetterower Avenue to downtown, there are 18 independent restaurants. Without a predetermined formula on which to depend, these entrepreneurs must work hard to provide home grown dining options to the community.
      "I bought Gnat's Landing in 2007," said Al Chapman. "It wasn't doing well at the time, and the owners were looking to close it down. I saw what it could be if the mistakes were corrected, and decided to believe in my ability and take the chance."
      The Downtown Statesboro Development Authority is in the process of constructing a "Welcome to Statesboro" sign on the corner of Gnat's at the intersection of South Main and Zetterower. The organization's executive director Allen Muldrew said this area of South Main really represents the gateway into Statesboro.
      "We just felt it was important for people that are coming into downtown to see a marker for the city that is attractive and well landscaped," he said. "We are looking for ways to support entrepreneurs like Al (Chapman) that have worked hard on upgrading and maintaining their property. This will be a very nice, well kept monument."
      Chapman said he is pleased with the restaurant's progress, but knows the hard work will continue. "Sometimes I feel like I am one man working the job of 100 men, but if you own your own restaurant, and you aren't there all of the time, you won't own your own restaurant very long."
      Across the street from Gnat's is Kbob Kelly's founded four years ago by friends Brian Kelly and David Vaughters. Vaughters serves as the restaurant's general manager.
      "To say this has been a real learning experience is an understatement," said Vaughters. "I guess we thought we could open up a restaurant, and that our friends would come, and that would be enough, kind of like Cheers. It isn't enough."
      Vaughters said that he and Kelly have had to change things around over the years to find a formula for success.
      "There were times that we didn't know if we would make it or not, but we kept tweaking things, and finding out what the customer wanted," he said. "We have a pretty diverse crowd now, and we did put a bar in two years ago. We have evolved, and we learned that you have to stay open all of the time. You have to be there for your customers."
      Daylight Donuts owner Randy Linto said he is looking for South Main to "come back."
      "I really think that eventually more restaurants will move into this area," he said. "It is a great location, and slowly but surely, new housing is coming to this side of town. I think the construction of the large, new apartment complex on Hwy. 301 South is going to be very helpful. We have struggled since the bypass opened. That diverted traffic away from downtown. But, we are making it, and things are going well."
      Several independent restaurants have provided stability to South Main over the years including Snooky's, R.J.'s, and the Beaver House, each with a host of local fans. This isn't lost on Richard Toms, the owner of 119 Chops located on West Main Street in downtown.
      "Statesboro is blessed to have as many independent restaurants as they have," Toms said. "We feel that by being located in downtown, we are part of a community, and we have a stake in it, and we are very proud of that."
Chapman said he believes that local leadership is poised to help the downtown entrepreneur.
      "I really have to applaud the job that the city council has done lately," he said. "I also have to mention what a great job Allen Muldrew is doing. He works constantly for the good of this area. He knows how hard it is for a restaurant to be successful, and he is very supportive."
      The most recent restaurant to open downtown is Lilly's Cafe on East Main and a quick count shows South Main and downtown to be home to five chain restaurants in addition to the 18 independent ones. The mall area is estimated to have 11 independent restaurants and 19 chains/franchises.

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