This week’s question comes from WDET listener Faisal Hussain. Click on the audio player above to listen to the story.
“Why isn’t there a Taco Bell downtown? Why aren’t there any fast food places in general down here?”
“I think Taco Bell is one of the contributing factors as to why I moved to America,” Faisal Hussain tells me over the phone, shortly after getting off work.
He explains that it wasn’t the foremost reason. But he claims his love of the American taco chain, which he discovered while visiting family in Bloomfield, was part of the reason he applied for a job at Quicken Loans from his home in London, England.
“So, it was a bit of a shame to see there wasn’t one down here in downtown where I work,” says Hussain.
My task is to answer his questions: “Why isn’t there a Taco Bell downtown? Why aren’t there any fast food places in general down here?”
Fast Food Desert?
To get started, I meet with Maureen Krauss, senior advisor for economic development at the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce. I want to find out what the current situation really is.
“How much fast food is there downtown right now?” I ask.
“Not as much as people would want, I guess, is really the broad answer,” Krauss tells me, from the 19th floor of the downtown skyscraper where she works. “Fast food is almost like a service to the people who are down here. It is a business but it’s almost like having a post office and drug store nearby, having that option for eating.”
Hussain only gets a 30-minute lunch break but he says that would be plenty of time to grab his favorite chicken quesadilla from Taco Bell if there were one downtown. There is a Taco Bell in Wayne State University’s student center. But a trip there would require Hussain to find parking and actually get out of his car. For most people, exiting a vehicle defeats the purpose of getting fast food.
Please Pull Up to the Second Window
“Most of the traditional fast food brands do about 70% of their business in the drive through,” says Sam Oches, editor of QSR Magazine. “QSR” stands for Quick Service Restaurant – the industry term for “fast food.” Because of the importance of the drive-thru for sales, Oches says fast food owners want locations that get a lot of car traffic. Taco Bell’s magic number is an average annual daily traffic count of 25,000. In other words, before they build out a franchise site they want to see that an average of 25,000 vehicles pass by it every day.
Scanning through a regional traffic count database, I’m hard-pressed to find any numbers in Taco Bell’s desired range for downtown Detroit. Most of the numbers I find are under 10,000 – less than half of what the chain would like to see.
But when I check intersections in the suburbs, the numbers sky-rocket. I see several intersections in the 25,000 plus range. Some are even over 35,000. These suburban locales could potentially host a Taco Bell.
Foot Traffic vs. Vehicle Traffic
This data isn’t surprising to our industry expert Sam Oches.
“In most major cities across the United States the traditional fast food brands really are not in urban locations in a very big way,” says Oches. “The fast food restaurant industry just makes a lot of sense outside of the urban core around the country where people are primarily driving to work or driving to wherever they need to be.”
Oches says, once people get downtown they tend to travel on foot. While this might be a problem for traditional fast food it’s actually a good thing for a certain type of quick service restaurant: “fast casual,” which I like to call “fast cas.” These places offer pricier products that appear to be fresher and healthier than, say, a beefy cheddar crunchwrap slider, selling for a dollar right now at Taco Bell. Fast casual refers to the Paneras and Chipotles of the world.
“They tend to be more in urban areas where there is foot traffic because these are brands designed around more of a younger demographic, around people who are more educated,” says Oches. “They tend to have more disposable income and those people tend to be the sort of downtown workforce type folks.”
Oches thinks downtown Detroit is poised to get an influx of fast casual restaurants. Indeed, in recent years, the area has seen the addition of two sandwich chains, Which Wich and Potbelly. Ethnic fast casual options like Sy Thai and Falafill have also opened in Midtown.
The B Dubs Benchmark
Maureen Krauss, again, from the Detroit Regional Chamber, says these establishments don’t just represent new places to eat – they’re benchmarks.
“If you look historically, there aren’t many chains downtown – as we started out this conversation – and part of the reason is we weren’t hitting those numbers, there wasn’t enough traffic down here, there weren’t enough residents.”
Krauss says the turning point was a corporate sports bar centered around chicken wings that opened up downtown in 2012.
“When Buffalo Wild Wings came to town everyone was excited because it was a new option. I was excited because, for me, it meant that for someone who drives their locations by formula, we were all of a sudden hitting a formula,” says Krauss.
The formulas are different depending on the chain. We may not be hitting the Taco Bell formula in the downtown area yet but there are other fast food chains.
Growing with the City
Nicole Wilski opened up a Checkers on the corner of Forest and Woodward in 2014 and seems very pleased with the location.
“Oh my gosh, the traffic is amazing,” says Wilksi.
Her Midtown burger joint gets about 60% of its business from drive-thru customers, says Wilski. But they also get a lot of walk-ups from nearby hospitals, Wayne State, and the Woodward bus line.
Wilski is 33 years old. She’s the youngest Checkers franchise owner in the nation. She has 11 locations in Metro Detroit, two of them are in the city.
“We love the city,” says Wilksi. “The draw to us was, as the city grows, we grow, and that’s been the proven result for us so far.”
Wilski says she is looking at additional locations in Detroit but it’s hard to find ones that allow drive-thrus without applying for a variance. The Midtown location was formerly a Church’s Chicken that already had a drive-thru. The city says that new drive-thru restaurants are allowed as long as they meet the requirements outlined in the zoning ordinance.
As for Taco Bell, they declined our requests for a formal interview but said in an emailed statement that Detroit is a place where they’re “actively looking to grow.” If you’re curious about some of the fast food that Detroit has lost over the years, take a look at this Angelfire website that tracks chain restaurants that have closed in Michigan.