Towson shows its growth by reeling in big chains

Towson Times
Bonefish Grille is more than a new restaurant in Towson. It's yet another sign of the area's growth and clout.

Location, location, location is the old adage about what makes a business successful. In the case of Bonefish Grill, the new restaurant in Towson Square, the location is 127 W. Joppa Road, in the $85 million entertainment complex with a multiplex movie theater in Towson.

"They have the premium location in Towson Square," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the restaurant last week.

Although the 15-screen, 3,400-seat Cinemark theater is the primary magnet of Towson Square, County Councilman David Marks thinks Bonefish Grill, a slightly upscale chain restaurant known for its fresh seafood and eclectic cocktails, will be a major draw among the handful of other restaurants that have opened or are planned in Towson Square, including BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse, Hanabi Japanese Restaurant, and the Bobby Flay-inspired Bobby's Burger Palace, as well as La Tagliatella, Nando's Peri-Peri and On the Border Mexican Grill & Cantina.

"I think it's an anchor," Marks said of Bonefish Grill, which is owned by Bloomin' Brands, which also owns the chains Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill and Fleming's Steakhouse.

But county officials and business leaders also see the location in a larger context — a national chain of slightly upscale eateries claiming a prime spot in Towson's downtown core, with a birds-eye view of one of the region's hottest emerging markets. The $300 million Towson Row project is among many housing, shopping and restaurant developments planned in the area, and business leaders are seriously considering free circulator bus shuttle service.

"It is Towson's time," Nancy Hafford, executive director of the Towson Chamber of Commerce, said at the ribbon-cutting.

"There is really no place I'd rather be," said Jason Roach, managing partner of the restaurant, who bought a financial interest in Bonefish Grill in Towson.

"It really is a perfect area," said Holly Gustafson, the joint venture partner (like a regional manager) who oversees seven Bonefish Grill restaurants in the Baltimore area. She said the family-friendly Bonefish in Towson — with paper on the tables that children can draw on but also a white-coated waitstaff, is positioned competitively on a par with or above P.F. Chang's and the Cheesecake Factory in the mall but below more upscale restaurants like Cunningham's and Cafe Troia.

Future coming to pass

Some cheerleading for Towson Square and for the county seat is to be expected. But it's more than that for Marks, who said, "More and more people are living in this area. People love restaurants. This adds to the diversity of choices."

As far back as 2013, Blake Cordish, vice president of Cordish Co., one of the two development firms building the complex, said the investment of the developers, the restaurants and Cinemark represented "a tremendous vote of confidence" for Towson. He said the complex would generate 600 construction jobs and 870 permanent jobs.

Fronda Cohen, a Baltimore County spokeswoman, said Towson Square and Bonefish Grill are further evidence that Towson's future is coming to pass.

Towson University and Goucher College are both nearby, as is Greater Baltimore Medical Center and the Towson Town Center mall with 16 million visitors a year and a wing of luxury stores including Tiffany & Co. and Louis Vuitton, Cohen said. She said Towson has 55,000 residents, a work force of 48,000, three exits off the Beltway, and a median annual income of $73,644, slightly higher than Maryland's.

It's the headquarters for several major corporations, notably Stanley Black & Decker, General Dynamics Information Technology (with 700 employees at Towson Commons) and Whiting-Turner contractors, Cohen said.

"Towson is really growing into a downtown and everything that that means — downtown as a destination (for) dinner and movie," she said. "In most other jurisdictions, Towson would be a separate incorporated city."

Towson even has its own free app, unveiled last week by the Towson Chamber of Commerce and downloadable from Google Play for Android phones or the Apple Store on iPhones.

Daraius Irani, chief economist for the Regional Economic Studies Institute at Towson University, shares in the county's and business community's excitement.

"For too long, Towson struggled with a sense of identity," Irani said. "What was it? Was it to go to the mall?"

Now, as developers have discovered underdeveloped properties and "development bargains" in Towson, they are building amenities like the movie theater and more restaurants as well as more housing stock.

"It will make (Towson) a destination," Irani predicted.

And, he said, much of downtown Towson is walkable, which adds value to the area. He likens it to a smaller-scale Bethesda, "a neat place to hang out. I think that's what Towson was lacking."

Irani said that as he looks at it today, "I don't know where Towson begins and ends."

Ground floor

For Roach, the 38-year-old Bonefish Grill managing partner, coming to Towson in such a capacity is a dream come true. He said he was 18 when he began his restaurant industry career as a busboy for an Outback in Bowie. Before coming to Towson, he was managing partner of a Bonefish Grill in Glen Burnie.

"To be on the ground floor of the Towson boom is huge," he said.

Now, the question is, when is enough enough? At one point will Towson's bubble burst with too many restaurants?

Not any time soon, said Roach, who did the ribbon-cutting honors with an oversized pair of scissors.

"I think there's room for everybody," he said.

"The more the merrier," said Hafford, the Chamber of Commerce director.

"I don't know," said Cohen. "That's a good question."

Irani isn't sure either. Noting unscientifically that there's a seemingly high concentration of sushi restaurants in Towson, he said, "You've got density, which means you can support more restaurants. You've got a lot of people living in a small area. They need places to eat."

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