Food for thought: What Villa Verone’s closing may mean for Elgin and its downtown
By Mike Danahey firstname.lastname@example.org @DanaheyECN on Twitter September 21, 2013 9:16AM
Updated: October 23, 2013 6:13AM
ELGIN — As Villa Verone Ristorante in downtown Elgin recently served its last pasta dish and glass of wine, the spot’s closing raises questions about what Elgin has to offer when it comes to dining out — and if offerings such as higher-end restaurants and a wider variety of places to eat are necessary for the economic development of the city.
Staff at the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Group said that though Villa Verone will be missed, having upscale and/or slightly upscale dining choices are not that important in growing the city’s business community.
“Restaurants are way down the list and not really on the radar,” EDG Vice President Michael O’Kelley said of factors that companies consider when they look at locating in a municipality.
Chamber and EDG staff pointed to a 2011 corporate development site selection survey from Area Development Magazine to back their claim. The survey does not list dining — or grocers, shopping or entertainment — among its quality-of-life factors. However, cultural opportunities were considered very important or important by 42.8 percent of respondents, and recreational opportunities were very important to 52.2 percent.
Staff also offered an Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity facility site selection guide from 2011 that does not include any quality-of-life factors on its checklist.
but still lunch?
“The three-martini lunch is not to be seen anymore,” EDG Director Bob Malm said, adding that business dining is not to the level it was 10 to 15 years ago. As such, Malm and Chamber President Carol Gieske also claimed that more and more companies are catering in when they are feeding clients, holding events or trying to woo potential business.
However, Mike Burns of Elgin, whose family owns and operates Emmett’s Brewing Co. restaurants in West Dundee, Palatine and Downers Grove, said “companies still wine and dine. “We see it all the time at Emmett’s,” Burns said. “Companies rent out our second and third floor to throw gatherings. I see lots of business lunches and dinners, too. I have friends that have manufacturing businesses in Elgin that make the drive to where the restaurants are.”
Brian Richard, assistant director for community, workforce and economic development at Northern Illinois University’s Center for Governmental Studies, noted that there are no studies he could think of that look at any possible link between economic development and the restaurant choices in municipalities.
Still, echoing what Burns said, Richard said that from an economic development perspective, having people leave town to eat elsewhere means tax dollars are going elsewhere, too. And subdivisions become more attractive to potential homebuyers if amenities such as nice restaurants are nearby.
What Elgin does hold is many Mexican-food places; a dozen or so Asian restaurants; solitary Middle Eastern, Puerto Rican and Cuban spots; cafes; places for “pub grub” (Elgin Public House, Porter’s, et al); pizza parlors; a sushi place; some sandwich and/or breakfast places.
The city also has a couple rib joints, myriad ma and pa diners, some hotdog stops, a variety of chains for fast and sit-down eating, and one Italian restaurant similar to Villa Verone: Cafe Roma, which is located in a business park off the northeast corner of Randall Road and Interstate 90. But Cafe Roma is open for lunch weekdays and for dinner just Thursday and Friday nights until 9 p.m.
The city of 110,000 residents also has two higher-end steakhouses — Jimmy’s Charhouse off Randall Road and Buckingham’s at the Grand Victoria Casino. The casino also holds Prime Burgerhouse, Crave Deli and Indulge Show Kitchen Buffet.
More in other towns
A cursory Google search shows what seems to be a broader variety of eateries, ethnic and otherwise, in Aurora and Schaumburg — and closer to Elgin, plenty of competition from surrounding towns. In fact, East Dundee is looking to create a culinary district in its downtown, which already is known for its taverns and beer gardens.
“My wife and I, as well as others in our neighborhood, go out very often, usually two or three times a week, but we all find ourselves going north or south,” Burns said.
According to NIU’s Richard, in places like Elgin, such choices butting up to the city give those adjacent towns a marketing advantage of having reputations as being destinations for dining. By the same turn, it is difficult to overcome a reputation as not having as much to offer.
Further, Richard noted it may be a “chicken or the egg” proposition for Elgin having higher end eateries. That is, it’s not clear whether a customer base has to be in place first or if the place exists, the customer base will come to the spot.
As for the building that held Villa Verone, Downtown Neighborhood Association’s Economic Development Director Don Obenauf said it is still too early to say what might wind up in it.
DNA Executive Director Deirdre White said that Villa Verone owner Pietro Verone will be missed, not only for providing a place for celebration dining and a lunch option, but also for making his space available for nonprofits and for fundraisers.
On the plus side, White noted that the DNA has several grant programs to help restaurants, that “people are starting to dine out again” and that the downtown has a lot to offer.
“I went running downtown last weekend, and there were quite a few people out and about. While there may be perception issues to overcome, those are not the reality. I believe in rediscovering Elgin,” she said.
However, a restaurateur from north of Elgin (who wished to remain anonymous) said, “If you talk to restaurant owners or visit places throughout the suburbs, it’s been slower than usual this September. The chains are hurting, too. That’s why you’re seeing places like Olive Garden running so many ads with specials. People need to get out and support the places they enjoy.”
For Burns’ part, when it comes to Elgin’s downtown, he said, “We are making the right steps with investing in the arts because money follows. Wicker Park in Chicago is a great example along with many other neighborhoods.”
However, Burns feels having higher-end restaurants in downtown Elgin “would need more disposable income within a two-mile radius to make it work. I think there just aren’t the demographics to support such an endeavor here, unfortunately.”
“I would love to see it happen. The impetus to make it work would have to be a place that is so incredibly good and unique that it would make people want to bypass their local places in St. Charles and Dundee. It’s kind of a Catch 22 for downtown Elgin. We need lots of people living in the city center to make it vibrant, but they aren’t coming until there is a reason to live there. It would take a really unique, fun, casual place with an edge to differentiate it to pull people downtown,” Burns added.
As for his family ever opening a restaurant downtown, Burns said, “I think about it every day, but I wouldn’t be willing to take the risk since it would be a safer bet elsewhere. The restaurant business is tough enough without adding a handicap.”