Local Big Businesses

Angela Henderson-Bentley

Locally-owned Franchise Restaurants Do Big Business 

    If you’re looking for a unique, locally-owned restaurant, you’ll find several outstanding ones in Ashland. But Ashland is also home to several extremely successful chain restaurants. In fact, it seems nearly every chain restaurant that opens in the city succeeds. So is there something about Ashland that makes these places thrive?
    “There are obviously many factors a chain considers when choosing a location, such as population, demographics, and traffic counts,” said Katherine Utsinger, acting city planner and economic development specialist for the City of Ashland. “But one thing that I think makes our area so attractive is we have proven that we like to eat.”
    “Ashland tends to give you that feeling like when you’re going to a bigger city and have choices,” said Jessica Patrick from Greenup. “Also for a date night or night on the town with all the lights and people from all around the Tri-State mingling.”
    The ball got rolling for Ashland in 1995 when Texas Roadhouse opened for business. “Texas Roadhouse was one of our first chain restaurants, and they have consistently performed as one of the top grossing locations within that chain,” Utsinger said.
    Texas Roadhouse is known for its hand-cut steaks, made-from-scratch sides, fresh baked bread, and a lively atmosphere. And customers have responded to that. “We enjoy having fresh food with good quality steaks at a place that also has a great atmosphere,” said Patrick, who enjoys dining at Texas Roadhouse with her husband and daughter.
    Utsinger credits Texas Roadhouse with helping to bring other chains to the area. “Their proven success caught the attention of other quick service restaurants that decided to take a chance on Ashland,” she said.
    In September 2006, Chick-fil-A opened on River Hill Drive and eating in Ashland seemingly changed forever. A drive by the restaurant during the lunch or dinner rush will show you its popularity, as the location ranks in the top 30 percent of the chain in sales. Operator Steve Barfield credits the restaurant’s success to more than just its famous chicken.
    “Chick-fil-A is a brand that cares for people,” Barfield said. “We care for the team; the team cares for the guest. We treat everyone here with honor, dignity and respect. We have amazing guests, some who come in daily. They’re not just customers; we treat them like family.”
    Last year, the restaurant underwent a remodel, creating a double lane drive-thru, adding 500-square-foot to the building, and redesigning the kitchen, giving Chick-fil-A team members more space to work. “Sometimes we have over 40 people on the clock during lunch,” Barfield said. “We invest a lot in the experience. Our food is made with love and it’s given with love.”
    Customers, like Mandy Wheeler of Pedro, Ohio, have taken notice. “They really seem to understand the importance of the customer experience and work to ensure it is efficient and positive,” Wheeler said. “The main reason I keep going back there is the consistency and the positivity.”
    It’s not just the city of Ashland that has experienced success with franchise restaurants. Wings Etc. Grill and Pub in neighboring Russell “set the world on fire” when it opened in May 2019, according to owner Ray Davis. Though things have calmed down since the opening, the family-friendly sports bar is still doing quite well.
Davis credits some of the success to the fact that the restaurant is locally-owned and operated. “All the money stays locally,” he said. “We hire local people and we support local schools. People support their own.”
    A resident of Russell since he was six years old, Davis felt that the city needed its own restaurant once alcohol was allowed to be served so he started doing research. “A bar and grill with wings and more is a concept that has lasted through time,” he said. “I started looking at franchises and Wings Etc. was something different that we hadn’t seen in this area. I loved the menu, I loved the concept, and I loved how they got to where they are.”
    Though the restaurant is known best for its wings, there are many other popular items on the menu, including burgers, salads, fish tacos and ribs. “We’re not just wings and beer,” Davis said. “We’ve got something on the menu for everybody.”
    But even with the success of these restaurants and others, not every chain is rushing to come to Ashland, as Matthew Warnock and his business partners discovered when they decided to bring Rapid Fired Pizza, a fast casual pizza chain, to town.
    “After the initial meeting with the franchise development team, they came back with all the ‘issues’ with putting a restaurant in Ashland, ranging from population, median income and traffic volume,” said Warnock, who co-owns the restaurant with Travis Timberlake and Trey VanHoose, as Big Blue Pizza, LLC. “Ashland was not their first choice, but we knew it could work. We held our ground and explained that there is more to a business than what is on paper.”
    Warnock and his partners convinced one of the Rapid Fired Pizza franchise developers to drive to Ashland. “After that day, Rapid Fired Pizza saw the light,” Warnock said. “They saw what truly makes Ashland great – the people.”
    The success of the location, which opened in April 2019, has allowed the Big Blue Pizza team to open another location at Pullman Square in Huntington, West Virginia. The guys hope to continue the momentum from their Ashland restaurant and become a major player in the Tri-State restaurant market.
    But the question remains. What is it about Ashland that makes these chain restaurants so successful? Warnock goes back to that same idea – the people. “It’s not median incomes, car counts and demographic charts,” he said. “Ashland is the people who support local businesses and take pride in what is in their community.”
    Barfield, who has lived in many different places while serving in the military, agrees. “One of the great things about Ashland is that it’s a really good community of giving,” he said. “There are so many things going on to help people, and community members are so generous with their time and their money. And as the saying goes, we are better together.”