By Pat Shaver
CORALVILLE — For commuters who drive through Coralville on Interstate 80, it may be no surprise that a new restaurant chain has opened near Coral Ridge Mall.
Cheddar’s Casual Café opened Oct. 14 at 2824 Commerce Dr. in Coralville. The front of the building is clearly visible from the interstate, said Lou Speer, Cheddar’s area director covering the Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska markets.
“This spot here in Coralville is great being very close to Coral Ridge Mall and right on the interstate. As traffic goes up and down I-80, we’re plainly visible,” Mr. Speer said. “We’re one of the few businesses that actually faces I-80, the others face the Commerce Drive side.”
The new restaurant has about 200 employees.
A Cheddar’s restaurant is being built in Cedar Rapids, connected to Lindale Mall, Mr. Speer said. It is expected to open in March 2014.
Irving, Texas-based Cheddar’s has frequently received No. 1 ratings from Zagat, Consumer Reports and Nation’s Restaurant News for food quality, customer experience, value and atmosphere.
“We have great quality food that’s made from scratch and made-to-order. Our menu is very inexpensive compared to other chains,” he said. “The most expensive thing on our menu is less than $15.”
The menu features items such as steak, ribs that are smoked in-house for five hours, seafood, salads, pastas, burgers and chicken, plus the “lighter side” menu, with entrees under 575 calories. The kids menu includes chicken tenders and penne pasta with homemade marinara sauce that can be paired with side offerings like edamame and a fresh apple and yogurt medley.
The 8,000-square-foot restaurant seats up to 288 customers. Interior and exterior features include copper awnings, reclaimed Chicago brick, chalk stone from a Texas quarry, solid cherry and walnut butcher-block tabletops and cedar millwork, a granite bar top and a 400-gallon fish tank.
It wasn’t easy hiring 200 employees, Mr. Speer said.
“That was a task here, to find people looking for jobs in a market where a lot of people are already employed,” he said. “The employees are making really good money. I think a lot of them are surprised they are making such good money.”
The restaurant continues to hire and hopes to increase the number of employees as the sales increase, he said.
“Business flow has been good and it keeps growing as people find out that we’re open. We didn’t do a big advertising blitz that we were opening,” Mr. Speer said.
The chain is able to maintain high-quality handmade food and keep costs down because it can buy fresh items in bulk for all its restaurants, he said.
“We have a lot of buying power as a company. With over 83 restaurants that are corporately managed we can have great value with the products we get. We spend a little more on labor but save a lot more money on the initial cost of food,” he said.
This has also allowed the company to continue to grow.
“Cheddar’s is one of the few concepts in the industry that’s able to open a new building from the sales and revenue from the current restaurants, so we don’t incur any debt,” Mr. Speer said.
Ground broke on the restaurant last April. Mr. Speer said there were a few delays in construction from weather. Since opening on Oct. 14, business has been steady at the new restaurant.
“With the economy the way it is, people are watching what they spend money on. They don’t have the same disposable income they had six years ago. Everybody loves a great value,” Mr. Speer said. “Brands like Cheddar’s that are value-driven have been successful with the economy.”
The Coralville location is the first company-owned Cheddar’s in Iowa. In the past, there was one in Davenport and another in Des Moines that were owned by a franchisee. Both closed several years ago and the Cheddar’s corporation took over the franchise territory, Mr. Speer said.
Cheddar’s was founded in 1979 as a neighborhood restaurant featuring handmade food offered at an affordable price. Cheddar’s has grown to more than 140 company-owned and franchise locations in 28 states, as of October.