PORTLAND — Although downtown Portland has no shortage of places to eat, it’s largely free of chain restaurants.

But in 2011, at least one national burger chain, and perhaps two, will set up shop in the Old Port.

They will be the latest in a series of chain businesses to enter Greater Portland, and may signify that national chains are increasingly looking to expand into this market.

“A lot of retail chains are all looking at the same demographic and market information. If you see one, it is safe to assume others are looking,” said Stacy Mitchell, a Portland-based senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

“They are looking for niche markets that they wouldn’t have touched a few years ago, (when) they had bigger fish to fry,” said Dick Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association.

This spring, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, a nationwide chain based in Lorton, Va., will open in the Old Port, in a 2,900-square-foot space at 425 Fore St.

Another Virginia-based burger chain, Arlington’s Elevation Burger, plans to open three Maine locations, including one in the Portland area this year, said spokesman James Stewart.

Those additions follow the Chipotle Mexican Grill and Cracker Barrel, both of which opened on Maine Mall Road in South Portland late last year.

The Old Port already has Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, and a Subway is downtown on Congress Street.

But new chains have historically been controversial in Portland, pitting developers against those who say chains erode the character and home-grown economy of the city.

In 2006, plans for a Hooters on Congress Street prompted the City Council to approve zoning to limit the number and location of “formula businesses” on much of the Portland peninsula.

After the business community protested, the ban was repealed in 2007 and a Business Diversity Task Force was formed to study the issue.

Still, opposition remains.

“Much of Portland’s economic strength derives from the fact that it is a city of independent businesses. As a community, we are foolish not to recognize that,” Mitchell said.

She said Portland has made great strides in attracting local businesses since the 1970s and 1980s, when the city had large tracts of empty retail space.

“If Portland ends up with a mix of chains downtown like what you find at the mall, why would you go to the trouble of coming downtown?” she said.

Miles Prentice, the franchise owner behind the Five Guys restaurant on Fore Street, said he has not received negative feedback on his plan.

And Tim Soley, who manages the building that will house Five Guys, thinks popular chains can boost local businesses.

“For them to thrive, you have to have the kind of draws that bring everyone downtown. That means, in some cases, you accept a tenant like Five Guys,” he said. “Other retailers get a positive spinoff.”

Grotton, of the Maine Restaurant Association, said it’s important to remember that franchises are often owned by local people.

For instance, Godfrey Wood, CEO of the Greater Portland Chamber, has helped open two Johnny Rockets – in the Maine Mall and Freeport – in the past two years.

Prentice has Maine connections, too. His brother Dick Prentice, who helped put the Five Guys deal together, practices law in Portland, at Pierce Atwood LLP.

Dick Prentice and his immediate family also own the Chebeague Island Inn and lease the Diamond’s Edge Restaurant & Marina property on Great Diamond Island.

Janis Beitzer, executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, said chains have traditionally struggled in the Old Port, with the exception of Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks.

“People were more interested in locally owned businesses,” she said.

Also, she said, nationwide chains tend to need more space than is typically available in the Old Port, where many stores are no larger than 1,500 to 3,000 square feet.

Wood said he chose the Maine Mall over the Old Port for Johnny Rockets because of foot traffic. “I would rather pay a higher rent at the Maine Mall and know how many people are walking by,” he said.

But Miles Prentice predicts high demand for burgers downtown.

“There is really not a place you can go, and within a reasonably short period of time, get a good burger,” he said.

Grotton initially thought that a restaurant like Five Guys was better suited for the mall. But after hearing Prentice’s plan, he changed his mind.

“It’s not a bad idea. They are right in the middle of everything. They are going to be so busy,” he said.

Five Guys, one of the nation’s fastest-growing restaurant chains, falls within an industry segment called “fast casual,” said Matthew Haller of the International Franchise Association.

Fast casual places have limited seating, usually cook food to order and tend to be a few bucks more expensive than fast food. Customers at most Five Guys, for instance, can get a burger, fries and a soda for under $10.

The segment also includes Arlington’s Elevation Burger and Chipotle Mexican Grill.

Miles Prentice said his Five Guys will employ 25 to 35 people. He already operates Five Guys restaurants in Warwick and Newport, R.I., and plans to open additional Maine locations.

His company is based in New York City, but he said the Portland location will be run by a Maine company.

 

Staff Writer Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or: [email protected]