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4 Rivers to join UCF area dining

By Jason Kelly
On November 14, 2012

Restaurants surrounding the nations second largest university seem to come and go with more frequency than cool temperatures in autumn, but that hasnt scared off 4 Rivers Smokehouse, Graffiti Junktion and Wawa from serving up the UCF area with new dining options next year.

Cruising up and down University Boulevard and Alafaya Trail, its difficult to keep track of all the restaurants that have come and gone over the years.

Two and a half years ago, it was Boston Markets rotisserie chicken that drew students to the building they now go to for Kyoto Sushi & Grills chicken teriyaki.

The fragrant smoke of searing burgers once again billows up from the kitchen of what used to be a Back Yard Burgers, but now, Jimmy Hulas hamburgers share the stage with a cast of mango salsa-crowned fish tacos.

And its Mexican fare, not Fazolis buttery breadsticks or Uno Chicago Bar & Grills deep-dish pizza, that patrons now chow down on at Del Taco and Azteca d Oro Mexican Restaurant.

Sean Snaith, a UCF economist, said the constant turnover of university-area restaurants is indicative of a vibrant local economy.

Its a ripe area in terms of economic activity, and its a growing area, Snaith said. That is why when a restaurant shuts down another one seems to pop up in its place.

With 70,500 students and staff members, the UCF community provides restaurant owners with a golden opportunity to stay in the black so long as they cater to their customers ever-evolving expectations.

Different culinary trends come and go the way fashion trends come and go, Snaith said. The closing of the restaurants Ive witnessed were not driven by purely economic factors but more about preferences. Young people are demanding food thats not defrosted or thrown into a microwave and then served.

For UCF graduate student Chris Kuras and alumna Kerri Coons, flavorful food and hospitable hosts are the key ingredients in a restaurants recipe for success; thats what drives the couple to make the 30-minute drive from their home near UCF to Winter Parks 4 Rivers Smokehouse on a regular basis.

Its not cheap barbecue, but its well-worth the money, Kuras, who studies exercise physiology and is a UCF assistant strength and conditioning coach, said.

Spending an extra $5 on gas and an extra $5 on a quality meal is a no-brainer, he said. The sky is the limit on the price for good food.

Coons, a self-described barbecue snob, introduced her boyfriend to the chic Winter Park smokehouse after her pastor at Summit Church raved about its menu.

Theres absolutely nothing like it, the Fort Pierce native said. It was love at first sight.

The couple said they wake up early on Saturday mornings to beat the lunchtime line of carnivorous customers often seen snaked around the brick building.

Everyone here is so friendly, Coons said. The food is phenomenal, and the service is even better.

Former health care executive John Rivers, who also goes to Summit Church, said it was a barbecue ministry that inadvertently served as the genesis for his popular chain of fast-casual Southern eateries. Three years after opening the original Winter Park location, Rivers has expanded the company to Winter Garden and Longwood and will open university-area stores next year in Gainesville, Jacksonville and Orlando.

We have such a great following of UCF students who come to Winter Park all the time, Rivers said. From the day that we opened, we had requests to move out by UCF.

The new UCF-area location, which will employ 70 to 80 people, is slated to open Oct. 1, 2013 and will have a layout and feel similar to the recently reconstructed Winter Park location. The new smokehouse will also feature an expanded Sweet Shop the restaurants in-house bakery.

The one that we build out by UCF will be the last one for Orlando, Rivers said. Honestly, I probably wouldnt have opened a fourth location in Orlando had there not been a desire on our part to honor and thank all of those fans who make that drive almost on a weekly basis.

The young couple was ecstatic to learn of Rivers expansion plans.

That is the happiest news Ive heard all year; Im not even exaggerating, Coons said as her mouth dropped. Im going to gain 5 pounds, easily, her boyfriend added.

When it comes to burgers and brews, however, the couple gets its fix at Thornton Parks Graffiti Junktion a neighborhood hangout best known for its award-winning, made-from-scratch specialty burgers, a vast array of crafts and drafts and its artfully graffitied picnic tables.

We have a lot of college students who drive out to our restaurants, marketing coordinator Morgan Langley said. We really like the UCF area and we like the people.

So much so that the company has chosen the university-area as the locale for its fifth restaurant, which will open in spring. The burger bar will employ 30 to 50 people, Langley said.

Like its sister locations, the new restaurant will remain open till 2 a.m. and feature a full-service bar with daily drink specials, live music and trivia on select nights and a weekend brunch menu that includes a mimosa or bloody mary with each meal.

Langley says the companys success exemplifies the importance of investing in high-quality, fresh ingredients.

Whereas other restaurants have cut back on the quality of their food, weve stuck to our guns, she said. We still make everything homemade from our hand-cut fries to the breading on our chicken.

Just a mile north of campus, the UCF areas first Wawa is under construction across the street from Peppinos Ristorante Italiano. The Pennsylvania-based convenience store chain, known for its made-to-order hoagies and extensive coffee selection, will hire 45 to 50 employees for its 11th Orlando market store, which is to open May 1, 2013.

Theres a certain affinity between young people and Wawa, CEO Howard Stoeckel said. If we can build in an academic area, thats where we prefer to go.

He anticipates Wawa will not only be a competitor of other gas stations like RaceTrac, but also restaurants like Dunkin Donuts, Subway and Panera.

When you walk in our stores, the first thing you see is a kitchen, he said. Were more of a takeout restaurant that happens to sell gas.

Stoeckel expects the new store to not only help erase the stigma of gas station food, he also hopes the companys culture of customer service and cleanliness will trigger a domino effect in local restaurants. He said competition helps consumers because it raises the bar.

Rivers agrees.

Consumers are not going to be compromised; theyre not going to settle for less. Thats why you see so many restaurants come and go so quickly, he said. When I go out to eat, it doesnt matter if Im paying $10 for a meal or $50, I still expect the highest quality of food.

Only time will tell whether 4 Rivers, Graffiti Junktion and Wawa will have the wherewithal to avoid the fate that so many other UCF area restaurants have suffered in recent years.

What a lot of restaurant owners find out is that getting the door open is only the first step, Rivers said. Keeping the door open a year later is a much more difficult process.

But Rivers, Langley and Stoeckel are all confident that fresh food and quality customer service are anything but a fad.

Students will continue to vote with their dollars, and thats ultimately what determines who succeeds and who fails, Snaith said.

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