By Walter Hickey
The final addition to Tribe Square, Mooyah, a chain primarily based in and around Texas, was announced last week. The burger joint joins The Crust, Pita Pit and Subway Cafe.
Baker’s Crust has six locations in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Mooyah has more than 30 restaurants and Pita Pit has at least 90 locations nationally. Subway Restaurants have more franchises than any other restaurant company, with more than 33,000 restaurants internationally.
Where is the local flavor? Williamsburg is — strangely enough, I know — a great town for restaurants. The strong tourist presence and college flavor has resulted in Williamsburg being a veritable oasis for great food in a desert that spans from Richmond to the shore. If Tribe Square is looking for pizza, why go with a chain restaurant’s experiment when there is so much to draw from locally?
Whatever the selection process entailed, it went awry somewhere, and we’ve been given a spruced-up Marketplace 2.
It just doesn’t have local flavor, which is lamentable, since many of the local restaurants are independently owned and could have brought a lot of character to Tribe Square. The places that were selected aren’t even that original: a burger joint, two sandwich places and a pizza place. There’s no ethnic food, or independent bars, or even establishments that aren’t restaurants. After all, students do more than eat food. The William and Mary Real Estate Foundation, which selected the tenants, just took an easy way out, going with national, unimaginative, American food chains.
None of this means that Tribe Square will be unsuccessful, nor does it mean I won’t be there. To the contrary, it seems impossible for the restaurants not to succeed. These places are going to succeed. It’s just a shame, because when that happens, the national restaurant chains will be taking business away from local restaurant owners.
The local restaurants do much more for the community than one would expect. Many of the restaurants buy local produce, which has both positive environmental and economic implications. National chains use national distribution mechanisms. Local restaurants support many of the events that the community puts on: the farmer’s market, the Greek festivals, the Arts festival, Homecoming events and several of the charitable 5k races. These places have roots here and a stake in the community, whereas the big guys just see a market.
Worthy of praise is The Crust’s decision to make students an integral part of its business. While the details of the plan aren’t widely available, I’ve personally seen that The Crust has made a major effort to hire students and evidently has selected several students as managers. The Crust is probably the most local of the chain restaurants, for what it’s worth. Baker’s Crust is a Virginia company, after all.
Can the same be expected of Pita Pit, Mooyah and Subway Cafe? I can’t see it. I can’t see these companies staying open later than contractually obligated, and I really would be surprised to see any of them serve alcohol. I was worried that Tribe Square’s commercial real estate would simply be a second Marketplace.
While I will have to wait to see if my fears are realized or shot down, what I already know is that the William and Mary Real Estate Foundation decided to ignore local talent and instead pursue national, chain restaurant bids, which I think is altogether lamentable.
What is entirely commendable, however, is the absence of a pancake house in Tribe Square. Williamsburg already has enough of those. Thanks for that.