A decade earlier, former Oxford Mayor Bester Adams contacted Red Lobster officials. His mission: Reel in a Red Lobster.
“I talked to the man down there,” Adams recalled to The Star. “He said at the time he just didn’t think Oxford was ready.”
Fast-forward to February 1991. George H.W. Bush was president. The Gulf War was ending. And Red Lobster — Red Lobster! — opened in Oxford, just south of the bridge connecting it with Anniston. It was front-page news in The Star.
Leon Smith, Oxford’s mayor then (and now, too), didn’t fail.
(And, yes, later we can debate whether the proximity to Interstate 20 had more to do with the opening of Oxford’s retail/restaurant/hotel boom than did anyone in City Hall. It’ll be fun.)
To recount, Oxford spent more than two decades courting this chain restaurant. (It wasn’t the only one, mind you. Heaven knows Anniston circa 1991 would have sold its soul to get the place and its tax revenue.) Now that it’s 2012, Oxford’s still courting chain restaurants like they’re keepers of some mystical prize.
This month, Panera Bread confirmed that it will open a restaurant — with a drive-through! — at Oxford Commons, which thus far has been heralded as the future home of the county’s very own Publix Grocery. Panera Bread’s menu offers all sorts of delights, and not all of them contain bread. (Sorry, bread-lovers.) There are soups and salads and paninis and souffles and bagels and sandwiches of all sorts. Most sound delicious. It has as much chance of failing in Oxford as did Wes Brooks’ Oxford High baseball team.
(For fun, go online to www.paneranutrition.com, where you can design your Panera Bread meal and see if your sandwich is doctor-approved or if it will clog your arteries. Hint: stuff’s pretty healthy until you put cheese and toppings and the like on it.)
If you’ve followed Oxford’s recent expansion — the new Motor Mile, the hotel row along I-20, the Exchange, soon the Commons — you’ll agree that today it’s Panera Bread, tomorrow it’ll be something else.
And, boy, do you guys want something else.
I knew Calhoun Countians were passionate about eating out, but, gosh, I didn’t know how fervent we were when it comes to suggesting what restaurants we’d love to see follow the Panera Bread path.
Last week, I posted this simple question on Twitter and Facebook: What other places does Calhoun County need? (And, by places, I meant restaurants, but that didn’t stop a few people from requesting things like a new bowling alley.)
In no particular order or ranking, here’s what you want next:
A Zoe’s Kitchen.
A Milo’s — for the whole menu, not just for the sweet tea.
A Five Guys Burgers and Fries.
An Einstein Bros. Bagels.
A Cheesecake Factory.
A Red Robin Gourmet Burgers.
A Buffalo Wild Wings.
A Moe’s Southwest Grill. (The Next Big Announcement? Hmm, the rumor mill’s churning …)
A Jim ’N Nick’s.
A Krispy Kreme.
A Whole Foods Market.
A Fresh Market.
(And someone tweeted back to say they really, really wanted a place that made world-class burritos.)
Here’s where we have to address two subjects: (a.) Few things in small towns excite the masses more than the arrival of chain restaurants they don’t have; and (b.) this euphoria is often mistaken as a condemnation of an area’s locally owned eateries. The first is a fact; the second is a fallacy.
Restaurants don’t have to be local to stink. Chains can be just as foul. Good food and bad food can come from either. Last week, I ate Chinese food at a local establishment, and it was so wonderful that I went back the next night. That said, I had a meal at a local chain restaurant earlier this month that I can describe as competently below average.
My favorite chicken wings come from a local joint in Jacksonville. My favorite pizza comes from two chains, one in Anniston, one in Oxford. I could keep going, but you get the point.
Here, eating out is as much entertainment as sustenance. Our juices boil when given options we didn’t have before. Plus, raise your hand — up goes mine — if you remember the pre-Red Lobster days: when there were no chain restaurants in Calhoun County other than fast-food joints, and if you didn’t like the locally owned kitchens, you were up a tree.
So get ready for the Next Big Announcement.
Whatever it is, chances are, we’ll still want something else.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.