by Tom Finkel
Residents and business owners had the opportunity to express their opinions on the change at a Wednesday evening meeting of the University City Plan Commission, where board members met to decide whether to give the two restaurants conditional use permits. At issue, according to many of those who stood to offer their opinions, was the character of the Loop, and whether one of its most prominent buildings should be home to franchises.
"The Loop is a very special place," said one resident. "But you're voting against it."
"We're losing the flavor of the Loop," added property owner Mark Gorman, whose building houses Meshuggah Coffeehouse and Subterranean Books, two of the more prominent independent shops in the area. They are right across the street from Streetside.
Loop power broker and property owner Joe Edwards of Blueberry Hill (and the Tivoli Building, and the Pageant) was his characteristically diplomatic self, welcoming the new neighbors while warning of upsetting the delicate balance between indie and chain, between restaurants and retail. Andy Ayers of Riddles Penultimate opposed the arrival of yet another chain restaurant in the Loop. In the past few years, Delmar has seen the opening of Crazy Bowls & Wraps, Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches and Qdoba Mexican Grill. "Why do we have to swap a chain out with a chain?," he asked.
Lew Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl (and RFT opera writer), however, welcomed the new neighbors -- or more accurately, welcomed the assumed demise of his longtime nemesis, Streetside Records. "My business is in its death throes because of this store," he said bluntly. If the commission voted to deny the permit, it would be voting for Streetside's survival -- and thereby condemning Vintage Vinyl to a slow, painful death. The Loop can barely support one record retailer, he explained, let alone two. He added that Streetside isn't a small business; it's part of an 800-store chain called Trans World, headquartered in Connecticut.
Two Streetside managers stood to defend their shop, and it was hard not to feel for the guys. The first they'd heard of the plans, explained manager Darin Lavender, was late last week when they saw signs in front of the store announcing the plan commission meeting.
After all comments were heard, the plan commission voted unanimously to approve conditional use permits for the two restaurants. The next step is the green light of the University City City Council.
The mood was somber at Streetside the next day, but employees were buoyed by assurances from corporate that the company still wanted a store in the Loop. "We're going to do everything we can to relocate somewhere within the Loop," Lavender says. "We are not going to go out without a fight." Some Streetside employees have been with the company for as long as fifteen years.
Although the record store's last day in the building is not yet known, the project is on the fast track. According to Noodles & Company representatives who spoke at last night's meeting, they hope to open in early 2008.
RFT food writer Ian Froeb has praised the offerings at both Chipotle and Noodles & Company. Both are "fast-casual" chains; the latter operates in sixteen states and has four locations in the St. Louis area. "[F]or not much money -- and in not much time -- you get fresh, relatively healthy food that tastes like, well, fresh, relatively healthy food, as opposed to some test kitchen's latest breaded whim," wrote Froeb in an October review.
Then he lamented the fact that he had to drive all the way out to the county to eat it. "It's too bad Noodles & Company hasn't targeted the Loop, South Grand or (gasp!) downtown, where college students and twentysomethings would like to make their food buck go a little further without sacrificing edibility."
Froeb's getting his wish.