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Athens Rising

The new Steak ‘N Shake where Thai of Athens on West Broad Street once stood has been very well received, to say the least. In fact, it has caused a sensation.

Since it opened last month, diners are often lined up outside the door, and the drive-through was so busy at some points that police officers had to direct traffic. Why, in Athens, a city that prides itself so much on being unique and supporting local businesses, are people waiting in two-hour lines to eat the same burgers and milkshakes they can in Atlanta, or anywhere else for that matter?

I’ll admit: I feel a tinge of guilt when I choose to spend my money at a national chain over its local counterpart, not only because I’m supporting a large corporation over a smaller business, but also because I’m opting for a dining experience I can get anywhere, as opposed to something I can find only in Athens. 

When I first heard Steak ‘N Shake was coming to Athens, I immediately sized it up against other places where I can get my fix for the classic burger, fries and milkshake. Places like the The Grill and Clocked have a charm that no chain could emulate, but I maintain that a local-food lover can still enjoy a chain visit.

Walking into the retro interior and sitting at the counter, I imagined what American life might have been in the bygone era. The black-and-white photos displayed on the wall remind customers of our 1950s history, when burger joints were the hippest hangout in town, or so I hear.  It’s a glimpse into the culture from another time period.

Local and unique stores and restaurants, though, are what make Athens Athens. So, does the existence of a Steak ‘N Shake detract from the essence of our city? Many people believe it does. But what about those who prefer a meal from a national chain? After all, anyone has the right to support their preferred businesses.

With its location on an underdeveloped stretch of West Broad Street near other chains in the Alps Road area, I don’t expect Steak ‘N Shake to drastically hamper the success of other local businesses. Steak ‘N Shake’s clientele are those who favor a predictable dining experience. It offers that familiar fast food fix, so it will be competing for the same crowd as Chick-fil-A or McDonald’s, not establishments that serve vegan food or cuisine made with locally grown ingredients. For the locavore crowd, when deciding on a restaurant, Steak ‘N Shake will probably not be in the running. I doubt restaurants in the heart of town will see a noticeable decrease in business. Although they have similar menus, The Grill owner Mike Bradshaw, for example, says he doesn’t foresee his locally owned burger joint being threatened. It’s still ultra-convenient for downtown’s late-night revelers, and visitors to downtown aren’t going to drive out to the suburbs.

A few years back, this location almost became a RaceTrac, but it faced too much hostility from nearby residents. Steak ‘N Shake had no public resistance, but Colima Avenue residents who fought the RaceTrac are reluctant to talk about how they feel about it. On the plus side, Steak ‘N Shake lacks the Colima Avenue entrance neighbors were upset about. But for some reason, I can’t see how those who opposed a convenience store/gas station would be too thrilled about a busy, 24-hour diner.

Then again, the Steak ‘N Shake—along with other new developments like the Kaiser Permanente office building, LongHorn Steakhouse at the old farmers market and the vegan restaurant Broad Street Coffee House—is part of the much-needed freshening up of this somewhat blighted stretch of West Broad Street. The Steak ‘N Shake created about 135 new jobs, and it should boost the local tax base.

Like it or not, these new restaurants and medical offices give the Westside entrance into the center of Athens a more polished look and further develop the area economically. If a chain comes to Athens, this is a good location for it.