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Craft closure leaves some wanting more local restaurants in Woodbury

Craft Beer and Kitchen, an independently run restaurant located off Radio Drive, closed May 28, 2017. Youssef Rddad / RiverTown Multimedia

With the Craft Beer and Kitchen restaurant poised for demolition in place of four retail buildings, some Woodbury residents are questioning the move and bemoaning the loss of one of the city's few independently-run restaurants.

A Florida-based developer submitted plans this spring that would see the restaurant building at 700 Commons Drive cleared for 14,000 square feet of retail space, pending the city council's approval Wednesday, Aug. 30.

The proposal has led to strong calls from some residents for fewer chains and more locally-owned businesses, which they say Woodbury lacks.

The independently-run Craft abruptly closed May 28 after operating as Sunsets Restaurants for nearly two decades. The restaurant boasted a wide beer selection and classic American fare menu with an array of noodle bowls, flatbreads, steaks and chops.

According to legal documents filed in Washington County, Craft had been shedding staff when word of the property's sale broke out among employees. The restaurant had fewer than half the needed waitstaff and four line cooks on its payroll, forcing the restaurant to close, records said.

Plans for the property's redevelopment would include a large standalone retail building, two multi-tenant buildings and a drive-thru coffee shop.

The site is near the former Brix Coffee, which closed last summer due to staff shortages. The building housing the family-owned Crêperie and cafe is now one of more than a dozen nail salons in Woodbury.

Danielle Philippon, a 15-year Woodbury resident, said she's unsure the city can support duplicates of the same types of businesses found elsewhere in the city.

"There's been so many places shutting down," she said. "How many Caribous and Starbucks do you need in a three-block radius?"

Aside from the occasional beer at O'Malley's Irish Pub, Philippon said she and her friends often go to St. Paul's Lowertown, Hudson or Stillwater when they go out.

Residents like Denise Shettle say they worry the project will further eliminate unique businesses in the city.

"It feels like chain after chain after chain," she said. "It's frustrating because a lot of cities similar to Woodbury have a little more diversity."

Instead, Shettle said she'd like to see a community pool or another unique feature be added to the space.

City can't pick and choose

Local government has limited power in choosing the types of businesses that come into a city.

Unless a development project doesn't meet city requirements like zoning and building materials, Woodbury officials have little legal ground to deny a project.

"I certainly understand what people are saying," said Woodbury Mayor Mary Giuliani Stephens. "I too liked Craft, and I like small, locally-owned businesses as well, but it has to make sense from a business perspective. They're investing their lives into it."

City leaders say they let the market determine commercial development.

Giuliani Stephens said the city doesn't have incentives for certain businesses, but it also doesn't market itself to retailers. "Retail chooses to come to Woodbury for a number of good reasons," she said.

In recent months, national retailers grappling with slumping sales have announced broad store closures. But some cities, including Woodbury, have managed to dodge local closings.

Companies like JCPenney and Gordmans announced plans to close hundreds of U.S. stores earlier this year.

The century-old Gordman's decided to shutter all Minnesota stores after filing for bankruptcy and auctioning off the company. After emerging as the highest bidder in April, company leaders for Stage Stores, Inc. said they wanted to continue operating its profitable stores, including Woodbury.

According to the store's manager, the Gordman's at Tamarack Village shopping center is among the company's top-selling stores.

A tough restaurant town?

Making a family-owned restaurant work in Woodbury isn't easy.

For five years, Joe Lehn ran Chickadee Cottage Restaurant, in what later became Italian eatery Carmine's Restaurant and Bar off of Valley Creek Road and Woodbury Drive.

He recalls the long work weeks and challenges with employee turnover before selling the restaurant in 2004.

A significant barrier Lehn sees for small restaurants is the high rent costs. Rent for the 200-seat Chickadee Cottage was about $15,000 per month, Lehn said. That was nearly 20 years ago.

"One of the things we like about Woodbury is it's clean and nice and new, but it kind of works against an independent guy who has to spend all that money," Lehn said. "They don't have as deep of pockets sometimes."

Smaller restaurants, he said, aren't always able to weather operating in the black for a few years before establishing themselves in cities like Woodbury.

To cut down on costs, independent restaurants tend to open in locations where others have closed.

Though Giuliani Stephens said the city doesn't offer incentives for certain businesses, she'd be open to promoting the residents' desires for more independently-run businesses and restaurants.

But Lehn says give it time.

Woodbury is passing its 50-year mark this year, and Lehn speculates the types of businesses residents want will eventually come as the city matures.

In the meantime, "if someone opens up, and they're an independent, frequent them a lot because that's what it's going to take," Lehn said. "What the community needs to do is support those people who are out there, and we'll get more."

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