1. Olive Garden (copy)

The most-requested restaurant in Kearney is Olive Garden, according to the Kearney Hub's Facebook poll, but a couple factors in place prevent one from actually opening in Kearney, at least anytime soon.

KEARNEY — Far and away, the most-wanted restaurant in Kearney is Olive Garden, but there are two big reasons there may never be an Olive Garden here:

First, there’s already an Olive Garden in Grand Island, just 50 miles away.

Secondly, there aren’t enough people in the Kearney area to support another Olive Garden.

“It would cost several million dollars to open an Olive Garden,” said Randy Kratochvil, a retired restaurateur from Kearney.

After 40 years in the food business, Kratochvil understands why chains such as Olive Garden set such demanding criteria. Olive Garden won’t even consider a location unless it satisfies population, street traffic and other criteria because those benchmarks are proven barometers of potential success or the likelihood of failure.

“A lot of the big chains just look at those reports, period, and say, ‘This isn’t going to work,’” he said.

In a recent Kearney Hub social media poll that asked which restaurants Hub readers most desire in Kearney, the most requested restaurant was Olive Garden. But getting an Olive Garden to open in Kearney would take more than a deep-pocket investor and a parade of meatball and pasta lovers.

It would take another 100,000 people in the Tri-Cities area.

Population matters when chains like Olive Garden select sites for new restaurants.

Grand Island got its Olive Garden by combining the populations of Grand Island, Kearney and Hastings. Together, the three cities hit a total population of 109,000 — enough to exceed the corporate population threshold for Olive Garden restaurants.

The Tri-Cities’ numbers are:

- Grand Island, 51,042;

- Kearney, 33,082;

- Hastings, 24,948.

According to Olive Garden’s parent company, Darden Concepts Inc. of Orlando, Fla., a minimum population of 100,000 people is necessary before a city even would be considered for an Olive Garden. That fact is illustrated in the list of recently opened Olive Garden restaurants, all of which easily satisfy the corporate population minimums.

New restaurants in Grand Prairie and Prosper, Texas, are within the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex with 6.8 million people. The New Caney, Texas, Olive Garden is in the Houston metroplex with 7 million people.

A staffer at the Grand Island Olive Garden when asked where the restaurant’s diners come from said, “We get a lot of guests from Kearney, but we get guests from everywhere. We do a good pull.”

The staffer said he wasn’t able to make statements to the media and referred the Hub’s questions to the corporate marketing team at Darden Concepts.

Darden’s stable of chain restaurants includes Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, Season’s 52 Fresh Grill, Bahama Breeze Island Grille, Eddie V’s Prime Seafood and The Capital Grille. The restaurants’ population minimums range from 100,000 for Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse to 500,000 within a 20-minute drive for The Capital Grille.

Cheddar's, Omaha.jpg

Cheddar's was another oft-requested restaurant when the Hub asked readers what they'd like to see open in Kearney. Also a part of the Darden family, like Olive Garden, its population requirements are too steep for the city.

It is simple economics — the higher the population requirement, the higher the average ticket is likely to be. Whereas Darden describes restaurants such as Olive Garden and Longhorn Steakhouse as family oriented and comfortable, clientele for The Capital Grille are described as affluent and discerning. Darden bills The Capital Grille as a “private club open to the public” with valet parking.

While the initial investment to open an Olive Garden likely runs into the millions of dollars, Kratochvil said the owner of a chain restaurant must cover additional, ongoing expenses.

“If you’re going to use the name you have to pay for it,” he said. After an owner has paid the one-time franchise fee, monthly royalties and promotional charges pay for the chain’s national advertising.

Kratochvil said in exchange for all those fees, owners receive a tremendous amount of support, which includes food cost discounts as part of a large purchasing group and point-of-sales assistance, such as fliers to place at every table.

“The last thing they want is for you to fail. With a mom-and-pop place you’re on your own,” Kratochvil said.

So, as a restaurateur with years of experience managing 20 Bonanza and USA Steak Buffet restaurants in three states — what chances does Kratochvil give Kearney for landing an Olive Garden?

He said anything is possible because Kearney has traffic drivers that attract potential customers to town: large medical and educational institutions, lots of retail shopping and a youthful demographic — busy families with little time to cook at home.

And then there are the intangibles. Kearney often punches above its weight in attracting businesses that normally wouldn’t locate in a city of 33,000 population.

“Olive Garden wouldn’t surprise me. Not too many years ago everybody wanted a Hy-Vee, but they kept telling us ‘Kearney is too small,’” Kratochvil said.

After Hy-Vee finally decided to come to Kearney, the grocer had one of its largest openings ever.

Darden Concepts restaurants

Restaurant chains are up front about their requirements: Building size, parking, population base, traffic expectations.

Darden Concepts Inc. of Orlando, Fla., which has Olive Garden and other well-known restaurants in its stable, publishes its franchise criteria online. According to the website, population minimum requirements increase along with the affluence and discerning expectations of prospective diners.

 Restaurant Trade Area Seating  Closest Location
 Olive Garden 100,000 251  Grand Island
 Longhorn Steakhouse 100,000  202  Omaha
 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen 150,000 281  Lincoln
 Yard House 300,000 275-350 Kansas City/Denver
 Seasons 52 350,000 260-300 Kansas City/Denver
 Bahama Breeze400,000  375  Chicago
 Eddie V’s Prime Seafood 500,000 260-320 Kansas City

mike.konz@kearneyhub.com

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