We eat gas for lunch.

The Dayton Daily (I can’t bear the idea anymore of including the word “News” with their name) tells us Chick-fil-A Express is closing downtown:

The Chick-fil-A Lunch Express restaurant at 10 W. Second St. in downtown Dayton will close at the end of business Friday, Sept. 24,

via Chick-fil-A’s downtown Dayton restaurant to close | Taste: Dayton food and restaurants.

Calling it a restaurant was kinda a misnomer- as they didn’t prepare food there- it was delivered from other outlets. It was more like a food vending cart with a roof and walls. It wasn’t that long ago that Roly-Poly slipped out of Downtown as well. So the question becomes where do all these people who supposedly still work downtown eat? And, if we filled those office buildings back up- where would they eat?

You can go to Google to find restaurants downtown as easily as I can- and there are quite a few independent, unique places left. There are also a few chains- but, nowhere near what there was in the 50s – 70s. Places like Suttmiller’s on Main which could seat hundreds, the Grub Steak just a few blocks north. Dominic’s on S. Main was another large dining room. All gone, and replaced with smaller places that seat at most 100.

What’s changed? Some companies like the Dayton Daily have their own cafeteria- which also enforces a “No delivery” policy. CareSource has a cafe which I hear is quite good (I’m no longer friends with my friend who works there). Delivery has become more common- with places like Pizza Factory running catering downtown- but, the entire business of “lunch” has changed.

Two factors seem to explain it:

We’re so car centric the idea of driving to Brown Street, or Coco’s, or points elsewhere has normalized. Note, this results in much lower productivity (even with cell phones in cars) – in that what was an hour lunch is now almost always closer to two hours by the time you figure in travel and parking. Yes folks, the end of the walkable business district has cost us in productivity.

The second factor is the “Mad Men” factor- the death of the three-martini lunch. By the mid-80s when I started my business career, the last of the cocktails at lunch crowd was still hanging on, but by 1990, you were hard pressed to even see a beer served with lunch, even if it’s a burger. Alcohol made the lunch trade desirable- and profitable. The change in the “acceptable behavior” of the “power lunch” hurt the restaurant industry and downtown as a power center.

While we’re flailing about trying to determine a way to bring back downtown of yore- maybe we should also look at bringing back the “day rate” for hotel rooms- as the mid-afternoon tryst, without worry of cars being seen together at a motel (note the last of these motels along S. Dixie and Keowee either have gone to X-rated movies in room- or closed)?

And while office spaces are being built at Austin Pike despite our huge inventory of available space, I fear that they too will find themselves hurting in the long run. When gas goes back up to $4 a gallon, and the traffic becomes even more congested as they try to head up to the Dayton Mall to eat- they’ll find that the “gas for lunch” deal isn’t all that great.

The only developers who’ve gotten the formula right are Steiner and Associates with their faux downtown at The Greene. Here is the last place where lunch and parking and shopping come together. It’s that model, and only that model that will make downtown come back. Free parking in large garages, wide sidewalks, highly visible security people on Segways and, a few places where a Martini at lunch might not be frowned upon.

And while a circulating light rail, a readily available bike share system and a unified parking rate and signage system downtown could help somewhat- unfortunately the modern lunch experience will most likely to continue with “Gentlemen (and ladies), Start your engines.”

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