It didn't take long for the implications of a 1990 consumer survey showing that Columbia residents and workers heading out of town in droves for dining out, to sink in with Edward A. Ely.
"We definitely had a restaurant vacuum on our hands," said the senior land sales and marketing director with the Rouse Co., Columbia's developer.
For a solution, Mr. Ely and other land development experts at the national company turned to a successful concept used at their shopping malls across the nation -- the food court.
The result is a restaurant park featuring family-style "concept" eateries drawing customers from not only Columbia, but also Ellicott City, the Laurel area, Catonsville and beyond.
Today, operators of the three sit-down restaurants that have opened so far in the park -- The Olive Garden, Black-Eyed Pea Restaurant and Bob Evans -- say they are packing in the crowds and revenues are exceeding expectations.
Also, customers are coming from a much broader area then Rouse had predicted, some restaurant operators say.
"We're finding people coming from Annapolis, Southern Maryland, Frederick and even Harford County. A lot of people seem to know us from our restaurants in Florida, and they call our home office and ask where the nearest restaurant is in Maryland," said Jason Bradley, Columbia general manager of The Olive Garden, the first restaurant to open in the park, about a mile east of the I-95 and Route 175 interchange.
The Olive Garden, a family-style eatery serving Italian food, also is drawing heavily from the Fort Meade area, he added.
"We projected doing $45,000 to $50,000 weekly. But business has averaged 15 [percent] to 25 percent above that," he said. "We're very happy with this location."
So strong is the market that The Olive Garden has moved ahead with setting up an operation in Laurel.
Our demographic studies found there was enough business in the Howard County-Prince George's County areas for two restaurants just 15 minutes away from each other," Mr. Bradley said.
Rinzy Nocero, vice president and regional director for Bob Evans Restaurants, also says business at the park is exceeding expectations.
The Columbus, Ohio-based family-style chain, which serves traditional American breakfasts, lunches and dinners, had expected about $30,000 of sales a week, Mr. Nocero said. While he won't say how much higher revenues are averaging, the company has been "very pleasantly surprised."
Meanwhile, officials at the Dallas-based national restaurant chain TGI Friday's, which purchased the last restaurant site in the park, are eager to get their operation open on June 7.
"The Columbia restaurant should be very hot for us," said Kirk Hermansen, director of the eastern seaboard real estate division at TGI Friday's. "We probably should have been in that market a long time ago."
In fact, Mr. Hermansen said, the national chain, which operates restaurants modeled around a casual American bistro theme, had taken notice of the agreeable demographics of the area some time ago and spent almost two years looking for an appropriate site to set up shop.
"The location of the park and the demographics of the area sold us on the site," said Mr. Hermansen, adding that he expects the restaurant to draw customers living 15 to 20 minutes away by car.
The consumer market in Howard County is expected to be so strong, TGI Friday's isn't worried that its Laurel restaurant will drain business from the Columbia operation.
Like many companies, TGI Friday's targets expansion into markets with a lot of affluent residents and workers whose average age is about 40, Mr. Hermansen said.
He and other company officials decided the Columbia restaurant park would offer a particular advantage over other county sites they considered.
"What we think will happen in the park is the four restaurants won't so much compete with one another as create a kind of gravity effect," Mr. Hermansen said. "People will be drawn to the park with one thing in mind: let's eat.
"The restaurant isn't competing with retail stores for time and money, and all of the restaurants are different from one another that there isn't direct competition. A customer coming into the park is just as likely to go to any one of the four restaurants."
The park also has one fast-food restaurant, McDonald's, and a gas station, both of which Mr. Ely says are successful.
The only element of the park that hasn't taken off is a residential-style hotel. Rouse sold the site for the hotel two years ago to Memphis-based Homewood Suites. But the company is waiting for the economy to improve before moving on the 131-room project.
Mr. Ely said he and other members of the team who planned the project were always confident that a restaurant park modeled on a mall food court would be a success.
For one, a 1989 study Rouse conducted showed the site could support several new restaurants. And, the 1990 consumer survey showed Columbia-area residents needed a choice of nearby family-style and upscale restaurants.
"We found people driving out of the area to dine out not only for special occasions, but also just for that family meal on a week night," Mr. Ely said.
Before the restaurant park opened, Columbia's dining options were limited to several pubs in the village centers, a smattering of delis and fast-food chains, and several haunts catering to a local clientele.
The 1989 study showed that there were at the time 180,000 potential dinner customers within a 15-mile drive from the park and 50,000 potential lunch customers, most of them expected to be drawn from the numerous nearby office and industrial parks on Columbia's east side.