In Austin, sit-down restaurants a rarity

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Gritty storefronts, boarded-up gas station windows, graffiti-covered pavement and a plethora of fast food restaurants are the sights that will meet your eyes on a drive through one of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods.

Located on the city’s West Side,  Austin’s population is nearing 130,000, and as the population rises in what community activists call Chicago’s “forgotten child,” so do the number of fast food restaurants in a neighborhood that already lacks grocery stores and healthy sit-down options.

Elce Redmond, assistant director of the South Austin Coalition, said business owners, specifically fast food restaurant owners, decided Austin wasn’t a community that wanted or would support anything but fast food.

“For some reason, people have this idea that Austin can only sustain fast food restaurants,” he said. “I mean, no matter where you are in Austin, all you see are fast food joints. In this community, all we have are horrible fast food restaurants with their greasy, fried and deeper fried foods.”

Redmond estimates that there are well over 100 fast food restaurants in Austin and less than five family dining options.

Lavern Herron, co-owner of Caramel Café, a sandwich shop that opened at 5941 W. Madison St., just over a year ago, said Austin can sustain restaurants with healthy options and hers is one of them.

“We don’t offer the standard deep fried everything and fries,” she said. “Instead, we offer healthy options like soup and salad and sandwiches. We offer a sit-down restaurant in a warm, clean environment, and that’s something the community really needs more of.”

Woodrow Taylor, a 35-year resident of Austin, said the number of fast food restaurants has grown every year and the number of grocery stores has decreased.

“One of the biggest problems in Austin is we have no grocery stores and that is the main reason for all the fast food restaurants,” he said. “The owners of the fast food restaurants have taken advantage of the fact that it is easier for people to walk over and grab a burger and fries than it is to travel and try to find a grocery store.”

It’s not just Austin, as journalist Eric Schlosser points out in his 2001 best-seller, “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal.” He wrote that every city across the United States is being taken over by fast food chains.

“A generation ago, three-quarters of the money used to buy food in the U.S. was spent to prepare meals at home,” Schlosser said in his book. “Today, about half of that same money is spent in restaurants – mainly fast food restaurants. In 1968, McDonald’s had 1,000 restaurants – today it has about 30,000, and 2,000 new ones are opening each year. The number of fast food restaurants that are taking over cities everywhere is alarming.”

Camille Lilly, president of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said Austin has more than 900 businesses, but it’s been difficult to bring in family-style dining and chain restaurants like Applebee’s and TGIF.

“It is difficult to change the culture of a community,” she said. “Austin is landlocked, so it is difficult to build in Austin. That, coupled with the idea or stereotype that family dining options won’t succeed in Austin, are the biggest problems.”

One family-style option, open since 1997, MacArthur’s, located at 5412 W. Madison St., has done very well with the concept of homestyle cooking and a sit-down family environment.

“This is a family-style restaurant that has reasonable prices and offers the food that people in the community want,” MacArthur’s Manager Sharon McKennie said. “Austin has a lot of fast food restaurants, and we offer the alternative. We offer good, everyday, full-course meals at a reasonable price.”

Malcolm Crawford, president of the Austin African American Business Networking Association, said there is a strong need for healthy options in the community, but with all the other problems, it is difficult to force the issue.

“There has been some discussion about focusing on bringing in more family restaurants,” he said. “But let’s face it, there are so many other serious issues in Austin that I don’t really think people see the lack of sit-down restaurants, and the overabundance of fast food restaurants, as a pressing issue.”

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