When Mohamed Amir moved his Moroccan restaurant a few blocks farther from downtown Silver Spring on Ellsworth Drive last year, he went from running a successful venture to struggling to survive.
“Honestly, the business did not go as well as before,” Amir said. “It's not even five minutes walk away.”
Amir's story is all too common in downtown where locally-owned businesses often struggle to compete with chains and attract foot traffic to their more remote locations, owners said.
Of the 1,500 restaurants licensed in Montgomery County, 803 are chains, said county spokeswoman Mary Anderson.
At least three local restaurants have opened and closed in less than a year's time in downtown Silver Spring.
About 26 percent of independent restaurants fail during the first year, according to a 2005 study by Cornell University.
The same study found there was higher restaurant turnover rates in densely populated areas.
About 7.3 percent of Montgomery County's population lives in Silver Spring, making it one of the densest locations in the county, according to 2010 U.S. Census data.
Owners of struggling restaurants all emphasized a need for greater support in the community for local businesses.
“This area needs a chance. It needs a caring group of people to work together,” said Ronald Bouchard, owner of the recently-closed Babe's Sports Bar & Grill.
Bouchard's restaurant on East-West Highway closed in February after opening last winter. Highland Cafe & Restaurant on Fenton Street closed in the fall after expanding into a restaurant last spring. Skew Works Asian Grill & Cafe on Wayne Avenue also closed at the end of last year after opening in March.
Amir's Marrakesh, which opened in May, is struggling to stay afloat, he said.
A community effortWithin downtown Silver Spring's ZIP code (20910) there are 177 licensed restaurants.
Economist Michael Shuman, a Silver Spring resident, said the community can benefit by eating at local restaurants.
“Silver Spring residents can and should be buying more local food more of the time,” said Shuman, the author of “The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition” and “Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age.”
Shuman said when residents spend more money at locally-owned businesses, jobs, wealth and income increase within the community.
Amir said he noticed fewer customers spending money at his restaurant when he moved Taste of Morocco from City Place Mall on Fenton Street, to Georgia Avenue, renaming it Marrakesh.
“If you go to Marrakesh or an Indian place, you feel like the quality is homemade,” Amir said. “You go to Red Lobster, it's a joke as a restaurant.”
Further away from the downtown development, which is owned by Peterson Cos., Amir said business suffered.
“I think that here in Silver Spring, people go more for big names more than the small businesses,” Amir said.
His other location, Fez Bistro in Falls Church, Va., attracts more business, he said. On a typical weekend night, Amir said he will have about 200 customers at Fez Bistro compared to 80 at Marrakesh.
“Right now, I am still in business,” Amir said. “I'm not saying I'm losing. It's bringing me money, but not enough money that I can stay in it.”
Off the beaten path
Marrakesh is one of a number of the locally-owned restaurants in Fenton Village, a strip surrounding Fenton Street south of the downtown, that have struggled to draw customers, community members said.
“When you come to Fenton Village, it's a whole different world than when you walk through downtown Silver Spring,” said Jessica Fusillo, chair of the Commercial Economic Development Committee of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board. “The two can definitely work together. Everyone needs to understand that helping small businesses will help all businesses.”
Fusillo said to thrive in Silver Spring, locally-owned restaurants need a clear plan and vision.
“In this day and age, we don't want a wishy-washy message from a restaurant,” Fusillo said.
Fenton Cafe on Fenton Street opened last April and has succeeded by finding a niche in the market, said owner Goitom Tekie.
“We are special because we are the only [restaurant] in this area making the crepe and French sandwich,” Tekie said.
On the other hand, Fenton Village's Highland Cafe & Restaurant, which long served Ethiopian coffee, expanded to include an Ethiopian restaurant in the spring and closed before the end of the year.
“It's tough,” said Yonas Tessema, one of the owners. “It's hard. We had customers. It's just a personal thing. We don't have that energy.”
Strategy for success
Since 2005, the number of licensed food facilities, including cafeterias and convenience stores, have grown by 449, Anderson said.
Shuman, who just released a new book titled “Local Dollars, Local Sense,” said the best success strategy for local businesses is to work together in a collective organization. Businesses could then create joint marketing strategies such as a coupon book or a map or guide to Silver Spring restaurants, Shuman said.
“Small businesses do not have the time or ability to do this on their own,” he said. “This is why creating a business alliance that can represent these businesses that can work with them and support them is critical.”
Fusillo and community activist Karen Roper are in the beginning stages of organizing a merchants association with small business owners in Silver Spring.
On East-West Highway, Bouchard and his wife, Jenifer Bouchard, sold Babe's to Latin American restaurant, Fajita Coast, which opened at the end of February.
Bouchard said Babe's built up a solid base of regular customers, which helped the sports bar succeed. He said he encouraged these customers to return to the new restaurant.
“It's the neighborhood that has to support it,” Bouchard said.