Editorial: Can a chain succeed where Pepper’s failed?

Mar. 07, 2013 @ 02:00 PM

It’s a sad statement when, within days of each other, we announce in these pages the opening of a popular chain pizza restaurant in Chapel Hill and the closing of an iconic local pizza place.

But that’s exactly what happened. On Monday night, as Mellow Mushroom celebrated its opening, David Pepper Harvey closed the doors at Pepper’s Pizza on Franklin Street.

We would rather see more choices, not fewer, when it comes to dining options in Chapel Hill. However, realities of the business climate ultimately took their toll on Pepper’s, a mainstay on Franklin for more than 25 years.

Peppers blamed the drop in patronage in recent years on fewer University of North Carolina students venturing off campus for food.

“The biggest thing is that the college kids, they’re trapped on campus,” Pepper told the Chapel Hill Herald’s Laura Oleniacz. “I don’t know if it’s the whole new generation of kids that their parents, they fill up their cards so they eat on campus, and it’s like they’re safer keeping their kids on campus. There’s just nobody down here.”

A good crowd showed for the final night – isn’t that always the way? – and Pepper actually found himself turning people away.

But now Pepper’s, another local institution, passes into history.

Mellow Mushroom’s new location opens, oddly enough, right down the street from Pepper’s. But there’s no guarantee that the national chain restaurant will enjoy any more success than Pepper’s in the current climate. After all, this isn’t Mellow Mushroom’s first foray into the Hill. Back in 2005, the chain shut down its location near University Mall.

Aaron Nelson, president and CEO of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce, said he was sorry to see Pepper’s go. He acknowledged that improved quality of on-campus dining at UNC has hurt restaurants on Franklin Street, especially lunch crowds.

But he’s optimistic that new residential developments downtown, such as 140 West, “will have a positive impact on retail and restaurants downtown.”

We’re not so sure, unless those new homes are occupied by people who work at home or right downtown, as opposed to on campus or commuting to nearby cities such as Durham and Raleigh.

Plus, it’s worth considering that students and others may simply continue taking advantage of dining options elsewhere, either on campus or within easy driving distance.

Last we checked, street parking on Franklin hadn’t gotten any more plentiful, either.

So, as long as patrons lack the choices they want and the convenience they need, we fear the lunch crowd will remain an elusive beast on Franklin Street.