In the last six months, a handful of longtime Laurel restaurants and stores have unexpectedly closed their doors, leaving questions about rent hikes as larger chains begin to disappear.
After losing Weis Markets in the Corridor Marketplace shopping center on Sept. 28, Laurel will soon be losing Safeway at Laurel Lakes, which is slated to close on Oct. 22. Earlier this month, the Kentucky Fried Chicken location on Route 1, across from Autozone, also closed.
Laurel's store closings started this year in March with Carol's Western Wear off Route 198, followed by Silver Diner, a 25-year Laurel landmark, in April and Old Country Buffet in June.
Carol's general manager Bob Chance said in March that online sales had led to the Laurel location closing as the business underwent consolidation.
Silver Diner company spokeswoman Vicki Bendure said previously that the diner closed after lease disagreements, while Gabriel Pradeo, president of online auction company Auction Nation, which helped liquidate the equipment in Old County Buffet, said Laurel's location of the chain restaurant was considered to be "underperforming."
Jack Brock, director of the Department of Planning and Business Services for the city of Laurel, said rent increases have appeared throughout the city and surrounding areas. Don Pablo's Mexican restaurant closed in 2013 because of rent increases, Brock said, and has since reopened as a Chido's Tex-Mex Grill. Another Japanese restaurant located behind Sleepy's was also closed because of rent hikes and now operates as Kabu Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi.
Brock said he wasn't sure why the Route 1 Kentucky Fried Chicken closed, but that the business was independently owned. A KFC representative did not return phone calls from the Laurel Leader.
Outside the Safeway at Laurel Lakes, a large banner informs shoppers of the store's impending closure, offering 30 percent off specified products. Safeway community and public affairs senior manager Beth Goldberg would only say the decision to close the grocery store was strictly "a business decision."
The store currently has 76 employees, she said, and all will be relocated to surrounding stores.
"Like all retailers, we analyze our stores in terms of how best we can serve our customers," Goldberg said. "We felt that we could better serve them through some of our other nearby locations. We do have several other Safeway stores within a fairly short distance of the Laurel location. We just made a business decision to close this particular location."
While Goldberg said Safeway does not discuss lease details, Brock said he heard the closure was likely due to rent increases by property owner Maryland Financial Investors. The property owner's spokesman, Scott Cherry, did not return several phone calls made by a reporter.
Hyattsville resident Kathleen Walton said she often stopped in Safeway after dropping her son off at school and was surprised to hear about the closure. She only had one question left on her mind: Why?
"A huge brand-new Safeway just opened up in Hyattsville, but that's a half an hour from here with traffic," she said. "I didn't know this one was closing until I stopped in."
Walton said she has "a wealth of stores" around her home, but isn't sure about the thought process behind many Laurel store closings.
"I don't know what [these businesses are] thinking about, where people are going to get groceries," Walton said.
Word has also spread of other restaurant closings in the community, some of which are false. Across from Towne Center at Laurel, Olive Garden catering manager Ben Shifflett was stunned after multiple customers asked about the location's closing. However, Shifflett said he knew the rumors were not true.
"It's definitely not. It's pure speculation," Shifflett said. "I kept following up with people coming in here and I looked up information online to see who had spread the rumor. I was going to send the information to the corporate office so that they could handle it with the public relations department."
Shifflett said he did not find any reports of the restaurant's closure online aside from rumors on social media posted by members of the community. The chain owns the property, he said, and is using it in real estate investment trust for continuing cash flow.
"I can assure you that we're a high-performing restaurant and we're definitely not closing," he said.
Rumors of Olive Garden's neighbor, TGI Friday's, closing are also false, said Andrea Glass, the restaurant's general manager.
As other Laurel stores and restaurants continue to fade away, Brock said rent is a primary factor in any business' success.
"I think that we've got so many new restaurants that are coming and the customers are having such a large market to choose from that these older restaurants are finding it hard to compete," Brock said. "I'm sure that during the recession they didn't increase rent, so it's probably catching up."