Tri-Citians really want Trader Joe’s, Cheesecake Factory, Nordstrom

Trader Joe’s products in Juli Weisgerber's pantry.
Trader Joe’s products in Juli Weisgerber's pantry. Tri-City Herald

When it comes to restaurants, retailers and culture, Mid-Columbia residents want it all.

Almost 2,000 Tri-City Herald readers who responded to an informal Most Wanted Business survey expressed a profound desire for the three cities to unite as a center for commerce, culture and recreation.

Asked what experience they would most like to see, one reader pined for community unity.

“Something that genuinely brings the three cities together,” the reader wrote. “Each city has their own things but nothing where all three are coming together. Whether it’s music or food or shopping, just something that gets people out.”

The unscientific survey, a followup to a similar poll conducted in 2002, asked readers to identify the restaurants, retailers, services and experiences they find lacking.

Not surprisingly, national chains ranked highly. But readers also expressed strong support for local business. About 92 percent would either pay a premium to support a local business or would consider doing so. Only 8 percent would not.

As for the chains, Trader Joe’s grocery and Cheesecake Factory restaurant, both based in California, received the most mentions. Readers have not given up on a Nordstrom, the Seattle-based department store chain that topped the 2002 survey.

The 2016 results show tastes have evolved. There is greater support for genuine experiences, cultural centers and family time. Cabela’s, Apple and Nike all claim local followings.

Here’s a look at the list and what the companies themselves have to say about their plans for the Tri-Cities.

Trader Joe’s! Trader Joe’s! Trader Joe’s!

When it comes to retailers, there’s nothing readers want more than a Trader Joe’s to call their own. About 40 percent mentioned the quirky grocer by name.

“Almost everyone I know would be thrilled to have Trader Joe’s,” said Michelle Smith, a Richland resident who belongs to a Facebook group that shops at Trader Joe’s when members visit a city with one of the outlets.

They’ve organized a Facebook page dedicated to drawing the company’s attention to the Tri-Cities, and they direct visitors to the company’s own website, which invites visitors to submit communities for consideration.

The wish is entirely reasonable — Trader Joe’s stores ring the Tri-Cities in Seattle, Portland, Bend and Spokane, with a distribution network in place to serve the region. In fact, the company is opening a second Spokane store this very week.

The Tri-Cities is a short hop, skip and jump away, right? Not quite.

“Right now, Kennewick, Pasco and Richland are not in our two-year plan,” said an apologetic Alison Mochizuki, spokeswoman for the Monrovia, Calif.-based company. “It’s just not in our plan at this time.”

Nordstrom is the second most-desired retailer in the Tri-Cities, followed by Whole Foods Markets, an upscale grocer from Dallas.

About 25 percent of survey takers want either a full-scale Nordstrom department store or its discount sibling, Nordstrom Rack.

The company ruled out a Tri-City store 14 years ago. Today, the odds of a Nordstrom sign gracing the local retail scene have improved.

A full-line department store is out of the question, spokesman Dan Evans said. Nordstrom has 121 full-scale stores in the U.S. and Canada. There’s not much opportunity to expand, beyond a high-profile plan to open a store in Manhattan in 2019.

But Nordstrom Rack is on a growth tear. The company opens its 200th Nordstrom Rack this month and has a goal of 300 Rack stores by 2020. Simple math indicates there are 100 opportunities for communities to make their case.

Evans isn’t aware of any plans for the Tri-Cities, but said the cause is not lost given the company’s aggressive growth plan.

“We always have Nordstrom.com,” Evans said.

Whole Foods Market, mentioned by 12 percent of survey takers, could not be reached to comment. But the outlook is dim. The company operates only five stores in the region, all in densely populated areas around Seattle and Portland.

If not Whole Foods, then perhaps Cabela’s, an outdoor sporting retailer based in Sydney, Neb. Its stores routinely draw shoppers from hundreds of miles away. Cabela’s was mentioned by 4 percent of readers.

In its early days, Cabela’s built Costco-sized stores in edge-of-town locations. It altered its business model to feature smaller stores in prominent locations closer to urban centers. The nimble approach could bode well for the Tri-Cities. The company does not discuss possible sites beyond what it has officially announced and it has not announced any Tri-City locations.

However, a spokesman said it is growing.

Cabela’s operates 85 stores — including one in Yakima — and has plans to expand to 200 by adding six to eight a year. Nathan Borowski said the company considers a variety of factors, including online sales and outdoor recreation opportunities. The Tri-Cities has the latter in spades.

If everything meets that criteria, it seeks out visible spots along major highways and freeways.

What to eat?

The most popular restaurant in the survey is unlikely to hit the Tri-Cities. A quarter of the readers mentioned Cheesecake Factory, based in Calabasas, Calif.

Chili’s Bar & Grill, a division of Dallas-based International, was second, mentioned by 21 percent and In-N-Out Burger, based in Irvine, Calif., was mentioned by 17 percent.

Honorable mentions go to Panera Bread, Chick-fil-A and Cracker Barrel Old Country Store.

Cheesecake Factory favors larger cities. It answered a Herald inquiry with a generic statement that it “is always on the look-out for A-1 sites.”

Chili’s is a better prospect. The chain responded that it’s gratified by the local interest.

“This is an area that’s on our radar and we will be sure to let our fans know if we head that way,” Chili’s said in a statement.

In-N-Out Burger was more forthcoming. Its slow growth plan means it has not yet reached Washington. The 313-unit chain opens about a dozen locations each year, reaching as far north as Oregon. It is a private, family-owned company that does not franchise, which limits growth.

“We are honored and consider those results a great compliment,” said Carl Van Fleet, vice president for planning and development.

The message from Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A was also encouraging, though the bottom line is that there are no current plans to expand here. Chick-fil-A has outlets in Seattle and Boise, and is eying new locations, said Carrie Kurlander, vice president for public relations.

“We would very much like to serve the communities of Eastern Washington,” she said.

Cracker Barrel Old Country Store is another interesting prospect. Based in Lebanon, Tenn., the restaurant chain was the Tri-City’s top dining choice in the 2002 survey. At the time, Eastern Washington was too remote to consider. Since then, Cracker Barrel has been expanding west, reaching as far as Idaho.

Breeanna Straessle, manager of corporate communications, said Coeur d’Alene is on the expansion list. And it recently announced plans for three Portland-area restaurants.

It hasn’t crossed into Washington — yet.

“We’ll get there,” she said.

The publicly traded company pays attention to local demand too. It is opening a new Kentucky outlet, attracted by a Facebook campaign that drew 10,000 “likes” in 48 hours.

“It does not hurt to hear that a community wants us there,” Straessle said.

Go for a swim

For the last question, the Herald made an open-ended inquiry: What experiences would you like to have?

Fully 40 percent mentioned a water park of some sort. Others want activities that welcome families, such as a children’s museum. Culture was high on the list, with mentions for a symphony orchestra, a professional Broadway theater, a semi-professional sports team and more outlets for the arts.

But water was the clear winner, with readers expressing a desire for both a water park and more swimming beaches.

“I want to go swimming in the summer,” wrote one reader.

Editor’s Note: Tri-City Herald readers were generous in their observations. Results of the survey will inform future stores. Next week, reporter Ty Beaver will take a closer look at the expressed desire for more ethnic and locally owned restaurants in his Eat All About It column.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell