A sign for Twisted Taco located at 3433 Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road in Suwanee.
SUWANEE -- Suddenly it seems, there's an influx of dining options in Suwanee.
Since October, when Moondance Restaurant and Lounge brought an upscale American menu and a nightly entertainment atmosphere, the city has seen a steady rise in restaurant openings. The city council is expected to vote on alcohol licenses later this month for the latest eateries, Gulf Coast Grill and Suwanee Pizza Tavern. That means there have been eight restaurants that have opened or are under construction since October.
While the city of Suwanee doesn't track restaurant-specific trends, anecdotal evidence speaks to a growing trend. City Planning Director Josh Campbell said loans for businesses like Tilted Kilt, Twisted Taco, Hammerhead Seafood, Movie Tavern and others are becoming available.
"The encouraging sign is someone is able and willing to get a loan to do this," Campbell said. "People have been willing all through this (economic downturn). It's encouraging to see people continuously try to do stuff throughout the downturn in the economy. Now that people have continued to try, we're seeing people able to move forward."
Along with restaurants that are new to the area, some like Corralejo Mexican Flair and Tequila Bar have closed and reopened with a new menu. And earlier this summer, the council approved a re-zoning request for a Jimmy John's.
While some point to a slow recovery in the economy as one reason for the uptick, the city of Suwanee has also adjusted its alcohol license policies.
Financial services director Amie Sakmar said her department hopes to finish an update to the alcohol ordinance and procedures by the end of the year so the council can vote on it.
But already, the city allowed new businesses to prorate fees on a quarterly basis, marked by the time of year that the business opens. Previously, a business owner who opened a location in November complained that they would be required to pay a $5,000 alcohol license -- a full year's worth -- twice in three months.
Sakmar said discussion of policy changes began when former Mayor Dave Williams talked about business license and taxation.
"He was intent that we were friendly to businesses, and not getting in the way of businesses," Sakmar said.
From a holistic view, several of the restaurants replaced previous restaurants, so Sakmar said she sees the new restaurants as replacements rather than additions.
Twisted Taco went into a building previously occupied by a Chili's; Hamerhead Seafood replaced Antigua; Gulf Coast Grill is in the same location as American Ale.
The building that previously occupied the Chili's sat vacant for more than two years, and Twisted Taco franchisee Gavin Abadi said "favorable lease terms" and having a previous restaurant occupy the building helped make his decision to open in Highland Station.
Gas lines, kitchens, bars and other equipment that already exist are often cited as helping a new restaurant make an easier transition.
"It is a lot easier to build a restaurant where one had been before, rather than start out from scratch," Abadi said.
The city doesn't actively recruit restaurants, said Denise Brinson, director of economic and community development, but it follows up on referrals from employees and friends to see if a business is looking for an additional location.
"We absolutely will make phone calls (and say), 'Have you ever thought of opening another locaton?'" Brinson said.
After a pleasant experience in a restaurant outside of Suwanee, it's common for a city employee or council member to drop their business card in case the owners are looking to add a location.
Brinson said the city's philosophy is to create events and activities that make Suwanee "a cool place to live."
"People more than ever can choose where they work," Brinson said. "Often times, it's based on where they want to live."
At least two of the restaurants filled a niche that the city previously didn't have. The seafood market was filled by Hammerhead Seafood, and the movie theater void was erased with the addition of Movie Tavern, which offers a full menu and first-run movies.
Previously, residents had to travel to the Mall of Georgia or Discover Mills, and Brinson said decision makers at Movie Tavern did plenty of demographic homework to learn that Suwanee could support a movie theater.
Brinson used the economic development term "adaptive reuse" when she described the Movie Tavern building, previously occupied by a Publix grocery store, which loosely means finding an opportunity to fill a vacant building asset.
The Movie Tavern addition helps existing businesses in the Horizon Village shopping center, Brinson said, and makes the area more appealing to those who would look to move in.
"I was so excited that first night I saw a parking lot full of cars," Brinson said. "It makes that whole shopping center stand out now."
One type of restaurant Suwanee doesn't have as much as some residents would like is a locally owned restaurant like Aqua Terra Bistro in Buford. While city staff and others have informally reached out to owners of Aqua Terra to consider opening a location in Suwanee, Brinson said the city doesn't offer financial incentives for local restaurants.
The city's pitch is its Town Center Park area, events, park system, national publication rankings and surveys of residents who consistently give high marks to the city.
"If you can get (a business owner) from inside the perimeter out here they're usually shocked in a good way," Brinson said. "(They say) 'I didn't know this existed.'" People really like living here and like what's offered. We encourage people all the time to locate here, particularly restaurants."