Could Red Lobster be in Covington's foodie future?

The city of Covington has changed dramatically over the last decade. Once a business bare area, it is now a main attraction for neighboring communities, thanks in part to a plethora of fast food choices and shopping spots, such as Costco and Walmart. But over the next five to 10 years, the city is expected to see even more commercial change, as the Hawk Property, 212 acres of land located southeast of state Route 18 on the northern border of the city, and Town Center projects are now starting to take shape. With those ventures will come opportunities for dozens of businesses, including everyone’s favorite topic of discussion: restaurants.

“Not many people miss a meal,” said Josh Parnell, Vice President of First Western Properties who serves on the Covington Economic Development Council. “There’s plenty of days I don’t walk into Target or Kohl’s, but I haven’t missed a meal in several years. Everybody has to eat.”

During public forums over the years, Covington citizens have mentioned Red Lobster and Trader Joe’s as desired businesses for the area, as well as a movie theater and Target. A Trader Joe’s will be opening inside the Lake Meridian Marketplace in Kent later this year, but the beloved seafood restaurant remains on the wish list.

Covington Community Development Director Richard Hart said the city has no control over what types of restaurant businesses open in the city, fast food or otherwise.

“We also don’t survey the public about whether they desire more fast food services in Covington or what type,” Hart said in an email.

A game of fast food musical chairs is currently underway, as a Wendy’s will be moving onto the site of the 76 gas station, along Kent-Kangley Road, across from Fred Meyer. Wendy’s submitted its Commercial Site Development application on Feb. 3 and it was approved May 6. Salina Lyons, Covington’s Principal Planner, said the developer has not yet submitted the engineering phase plans or building permit for review and approval. Demolition of the gas station and car wash, which were built in 1998, is expected to start in June.

Another of the city’s fast food restaurants has a lease expiring in October and is expected to close. The property owner is quietly marketing to other potential businesses.

Lyons said new restaurants coming into the city are a private market decision. She said the city’s zoning codes and downtown design guidelines provide the parameter for sites to develop.

“The city does not solicit restaurants or businesses,” Lyons said in an email. “We respond to questions and submittals by the private sector.”

With such expansion, though, should Covington be the traditional suburb appeal of strip malls, fast food joints and big box stores or move to a more similar vibe as Seattle and its local, foodie restaurants?

Parnell said there is room for both, but that Covington is following the usual course.

“Typically the chains are the first ones to go to suburban markets,” Parnell said. “It is very difficult for local operations to do on new construction and pay the rent associated with that.”

Parnell noted that Covington is still a relatively new retail market, with most of its major businesses coming since 2000. He expects more restaurant variations to join as the city continues development.

Brian Pounder, President of Regency Group Inc., based in Bellevue, was the leasing broker for multiple businesses in Covington, including Kohl’s and Office Depot. He said the city must continue to work at cutting out barriers and extra costs in its permitting processes. He said the city has missed opportunities, including a Target, because of the perception that it can be difficult to put a business in the city.

“They have to have a streamlined, predictable permitting process,” Pounder said.

Dawn Gillespie, co-owner of Nikki’s Restaurant & Lounge, which is one of the few independently owned restaurants in town, said, after being open for 2.5 years, business is starting to pick up. She isn’t sure how her bottom line would be affected if more independent restaurants sprouted up in the neighborhood, but she does know it is difficult to compete with the major players.

“It’s a struggle,” she said. “Because you’re working against chain pricing.”

Parnell broke down the various types as “quick serve” restaurants, such as McDonalds and Subway, “full service,” like Applebee’s and Red Robin, and the increasingly popular “Fast casual,” exemplified by Chipotle and Panda Express. The fast casual, with its slightly little higher press point and quality of food, has been a hit with younger generations.

Wendy’s, which finished fourth in Business Insider’s Best Fast Food Chains in America survey last month, behind Chick-fil-A, Chipotle Mexican Grill and McDonald’s, has made attempts to join that latter most group, adding modern amenities and increasing elements of health consciousness. Their French fries are “natural cut,” with sea salt and their gluten-less items are all listed online. The layout of the incoming restaurant is expected to be similar to the recent opening in Tacoma, which has a fireplace and overall modern feel.

“A lot of people are excited about the Wendy’s,” Parnell said. “I think it will look and feel different than the older, rundown fast food restaurant.”


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