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BUILDING A ‘FIRE’: Kevin Russell is manager of Sugarfire Smokehouse, a St. Louis barbecue restaurant chain, currently undergoing infill near Springfield Diner on Republic Road.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
BUILDING A ‘FIRE’: Kevin Russell is manager of Sugarfire Smokehouse, a St. Louis barbecue restaurant chain, currently undergoing infill near Springfield Diner on Republic Road.

Made to Order Chapter Fifteen: Close Competition

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Within eyesight of his East Republic Road restaurant, Springfield Diner owner Omer Onder has noticed infill work underway for another eatery in the Southgate Center.

It’s Sugarfire Smokehouse. The St. Louis-based barbecue restaurant chain plans to make its Springfield debut before year’s end.

Two married couples in St. Louis – David and Erin Whitman, and David and Stacey Burke – are the franchisees, and they’re making their first foray into the restaurant business. David Whitman and David Burke both work as distributors for Indiana-based Zimmer Biomet Holdings Inc. (NYSE: ZBH), a supplier of orthopedic medical devices.

Whitman said visiting a Sugarfire in St. Louis a couple of years ago planted the seed in his mind to get involved with the company.

“The first time I ever had food there, it was so good and the place was packed,” he said. “It was an ‘oh wow’ moment for me and has been ever since.”

Onder said he welcomes the new neighbor, even though they’ll be competing for the same dining dollars.

“I’m really happy they are coming for our shopping center,” Onder said. “It’s going to be more crowded. More people are going to be coming here.”

The Sugarfire concept started in 2012 by Charlie Downs and Mike Johnson. Its menu features pulled pork, ribs, brisket, sausage, turkey, salmon and burgers, along with salads and daily specials, Whitman said. Appetizers include pork belly hush puppies and smoked fried artichokes. The eatery also plans to sell beer, wine and milkshakes – with and without alcohol.

The franchisees say they’ve been working with Cade Rogers of HC Rogers Construction on infill for the 4,300-square-foot restaurant. Wilhoit Properties Inc. real estate agent Anita Zimmerman, who is the listing agent for Southgate Center, was hired by Sugarfire to find a Springfield location.

“It felt good, it looked good and was the size we wanted,” Whitman said of the retail center space with room for about 100 seats.

Other tenants in Southgate Center, 1730 E. Republic Road, include Lloyds Dry Cleaners, Breathe Salt Vault and Sun Tan City.

Onder, a native of Turkey, opened Springfield Diner in May 2018, and it’s currently the lone restaurant in the center.

The name will change to Klasik Diner upon completion of a rebranding project with Longitude LLC. Its menu is a mix of American diner and Turkish food, with the rebrand, in part, attempting to emphasize that unique mix to set it apart from other restaurants.

Onder believes his menu has some eclectic options and can draw a different audience from those seeking barbecue at Sugarfire or a steak at Char Steakhouse and Oyster Bar in the French Quarter shopping center down the road.

Mark Price, president of the southwest Missouri chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association, agreed those three restaurants have diverse concepts and appeal to a different consumers.

“Omer is going to be totally different in what he does from the barbecue place,” he said. “They will have an entirely different clientele.”

With nearly 40 years of foodservice experience as owner of Cornerstone Catering Inc., Price said customers seek destination locations.

“It really boils down to culture. That’s what makes every owner a little bit different,” he said. “People like variety. Customers are getting so food savvy these days. They can differentiate.”

Currently, there are more than 650 active restaurant licenses in Springfield, according to Stephanie Pearce, a license inspector with the city. According to the Missouri Restaurant Association, Greene and Christian counties employ a combined 20,295 in foodservice positions, which amounts to around $859 million in annual sales.

Restaurant and foodservice jobs are also significant on a state level, he added, currently accounting for 300,300 jobs, or 10% of employment in Missouri, according to research from the national and state restaurant associations. That employment total is projected to reach 328,100 by 2029 – an increase of 9.3%.

These new dining establishments, Price said, are important to the workforce, as one in three Americans get their first job at a restaurant.

Sugarfire’s David Burke said he expects the Springfield restaurant will staff around 30.

Crews started infill work in August, and the operators say the restaurant could open by mid-December. They declined to disclose startup costs but acknowledged expenses include a $50,000 franchise fee, as well as 5% royalties. They signed a five-year lease with Wilhoit Properties for an undisclosed rate.

For Onder, he sees the barbecue eatery’s pending arrival not as a threat but as help.

“I see them kind of as competition,” he said. “But more competition is good.”

Price agreed.

“It makes us better operators,” he said.

Most consumers, he said, make their dining decisions on convenience, price points and menu variety.

“People are going to eat out several times a week, but they’re not always going to eat barbecue,” Price added.


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