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Inside Bulloch Business - Searching for restaurant success downtown
Richard Toms
Richard Toms

With the recent closing of two of downtown Statesboro’s restaurants, Gee Da’s and 40 East Grill I get asked over and over why can’t a nice restaurant survive in downtown Statesboro.  

It is a fair question and one that seems to have perplexed a lot of you. The good news is that the building that housed Gee Da’s has sold to a local entrepreneur with a strong family history of operating successful restaurants in Statesboro. I understand that he is kicking around ideas to reopen what is unquestionably the most beautiful restaurant in Statesboro.  

The owner of the building that formerly housed 40 East Grill is confident that we will see new life brought to that important space soon, also.

Gee Da’s was opened originally as Chop’s by local Northwestern Mutual financial advisor Richard Toms and his wife Jamie. They operated the restaurant for five years before selling their locally branded fine dining restaurant in 2011 and entering the quick serve national franchised Steak and Shake business.  

Toms brings a unique perspective to this question because he has operated two very different restaurants in the same market with very different results and is trained as a financial advisor.  In fact, after graduating from college at Georgia Southern with an industrial management degree, Toms entered the finance world with Merrill Lynch in Macon. He left Merrill Lynch to operate Chop’s in Milledgeville and later expanded the concept to Statesboro.

After working with a developer beginning in 2011 to build Steak and Shake restaurants throughout the southeast, Toms and his wife acquired the Steak and Shake franchises in Statesboro and Pooler in 2015.  

They sold both Steak and Shake restaurants earlier this year to Nekillim Food Service based in North Carolina and Toms returned to his financial adviser career with Northwestern Mutual serving Statesboro.

Jamie Toms brought the restaurant experience to the family after growing up in her grandmother Sybil Lynn’s country cooking restaurant, Sybil’s in Jesup. In 2009, Jamie Toms founded Lettuce Eat catering in Statesboro and continues to operate it today sharing her love of cooking with our community. Lettuce Eat specializes in corporate and event catering.

Together with Richard Toms’s financial background, training, and Jamie Toms’s love of cooking and restaurant experience they have the talent to succeed in most any business, especially the restaurant business in Statesboro.

“We really had an amazing concept for Chop’s,” Richard Toms said. “The Averitt Center and Emma Kelly had brought new life to downtown. Looking back our greatest challenge was creating the local interest to provide the volume downtown that we needed for a restaurant with an average ticket price of $26.” 

“There is a lot to be said with an identifiable franchise like Longhorn whose price point is very similar and continues to be tremendously successful in the market. However, it is also a very popular brand in metro Atlanta, which is where many Georgia Southern students grew up. This built-in identity really helps the brand. Location helps a lot also. After 5 p.m. they basically roll up the sidewalks in downtown Statesboro.”

Moving from a locally owned and branded restaurant to a national franchise in Steak and Shake was a dramatically different model. The location of Steak and Shake off the bypass is in a retail area that is busy after 9 p.m. Also, the average ticket price at Steak and Shake is $6.

“With the volume difference, even at a low ticket price we easily exceeded total revenue for Chop’s,” Toms said. “Statesboro loves a known brand, they want good quality, great service and prefer a ticket price below $10.

“I hear people complaining about not having choices in grocery stores in Statesboro. Many forget that Publix was in the market and was driven out by the introduction of grocery by the low cost leader, Walmart. The basic fact is that if you look at the average household income in our community, primarily weighted by college students, we are a community that wants high quality but are motivated by low prices. To get and keep quality restaurants and stores we have to be willing to pay more for a higher level of service and quality”.

Toms noted that Savannah’s large choice of fine dining restaurant options in relatively close proximity also creates a competitive disadvantage.  

Consistently high traffic count throughout the day continues to be a barrier in getting franchise restaurants and nationally known brands to locate on the Blue Mile and downtown. 

It is a double-edged sword. For businesses to thrive downtown, we have to create a reason for locals and students alike to come downtown and stay downtown. But we need the numbers downtown before we attract the businesses that will make downtown thrive again.  

Hopefully, we will continue to see growth and investment along the Blue Mile into downtown with a variety of businesses that pull larger numbers. In addition, local merchants and restaurants have to continue to work to figure out a way to bridge the gap and pull in people not familiar with them because they are not a known entity like the franchise restaurants. This is a difficult balance that has met mixed success in the past.

It will be exciting to watch as the next two restaurant entrepreneurs move into two great locations and put their formula for success to work downtown.

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