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Regional hubs big winners when it comes to sales growth

Food/beverage trend study shows casino influence

It comes as no surprise that with the influx of visitors to gaming resorts on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Harrison County has eclipsed Hinds County in food and beverage sales in the past five years. Other gaming counties such as DeSoto and Tunica have also considerably increased food and beverage sales.

In 1995 Hinds County was first in the state with $600 million in food and beverage sales compared to $484 million in Harrison County and $248 million in third-place Jackson County. By 2000, according to figures compiled by the Lamar County Economic Development District (LCEDD), Harrison County’s food and beverage sales had climbed to $683 million compared to Hinds County at $664 million and Jackson County at $297 million.

“We have more visitors by far than Hinds County,” said Stephen Richter, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You have the normal population here that frequents our excellent restaurants, and then you have the gigantic visitor base.”

Richter said the City of Jackson is also at a disadvantage because it is primarily a five-day-per-week market for restaurants compared to a seven-day-per-week market on the Coast. He recently attended the Majesty of Spain exhibit in Jackson on a weekend, and found there were few restaurants open downtown. He said while the downtown has many excellent restaurants, they primarily cater to the Monday-Friday state government and business crowd.

There has been tremendous growth in Coast restaurants since 1995. In addition to casino restaurants, a large number of chain restaurants have built on the Coast in recent years. But Richter said it isn’t a case of getting too many restaurants and cutting the pie too thin.

A bigger pie

“More restaurants helps grow the pie,” he said. “People like the variety. Nearly all the new restaurants that have opened have been successful. The word is out in restaurant circles around the country that this is good place to open a restaurant.”

Interestingly enough, the latest major chain to announce locating on the Coast, Hooters, has casinos execs as major investors: Jeff Dahl, president of Beau Rivage, Grand Casino Gulfport General Manager Joe Billhimer, and Tom Brosig, a former top executive with Grand Casinos and its parent company, Park Place Entertainment. The first Hooters in the state is expected to open by the end of the year in Biloxi, and Billhimer said they expect to open two or three more Hooters in the next couple of years between Hattiesburg and the Coast.

Forrest County also has seen significant gains in food and beverage sales. Sales were $165 million in 1995 compared to $179 million in 2000.

“We are a very eating-out town,” said Rick Taylor, director of the Lake Terrace Convention Center in Hattiesburg.

Forrest County was ranked eighth in 1995, and ninth in 2000, changing places with Madison County which had sales of $154 million in 1995 compared to $220 million in 2000. Madison County has seen considerable residential growth in recent years.

Hattiesburg is also partly located in Lamar County, which has seen many new restaurants locating there in recent years. Lamar County went from 23rd in the rankings in 1995 to 15th in 2000.

“What we wanted to see was that we are moving up in the rankings which is showing relative growth,” said Mark Goodman, commercial development manager, LCEDD. “It was important to see where we stand statewide compared to other strong metropolitan areas. We can use this to show that relative strength to potential investors in grocery stores and restaurants. We have a strong concentration of restaurants. And other restaurants want to be where the concentration is, generally.”

The LCEDD set out to identify patterns across Mississippi counties to assist in recruitment efforts. As with an earlier study that looked at trends in apparel and general merchandise sales, the report indicates that the shopping and eating out habits of Mississippians have changed drastically. There is a migration away from smaller counties to regional shopping hubs in Lamar, Madison, Harrison, Rankin and DeSoto counties.

“What we identified was an interesting perspective regarding where people travel to purchase groceries and dine out,” Goodman said. “The rural markets are losing food and beverage sales. The gravitation appears to move toward commercial centers and this action has had a tremendous impact on select counties across Mississippi. Lamar County figures represent a healthy capture. However, there are other counties in Mississippi who are larger “winners” of consumer choice.”

Top ranking counties in “pull capture” (the amount of shoppersdiners in the category compared to the county’s population) were Tunica followed by Harrison, Panola, Lauderdale, Oktibbeha, Lamar, Grenada, Forrest Pike and Lowndes. Goodman attributed Tunica’s top ranking in pull factor to the impact of casinos on food and beverage sales.

LCEDD plans in the future to run similar reports on categories like automotive, furniture and appliances, building materials, general retail and total retail. For more information on the report, see the Web site www.lamarcounty.com.


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