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Thayer through the ages: Restaurants reign supreme

Restaurants have dominated the street in recent years, encroaching on some smaller shops

When the neon lights and glass tables in Shark Bar & Grille expand into the building next door within two years, taking over a vacant space formerly home to the boutique shop Details, it will mark just one more step in a recent trend on Thayer Street: an increase in restaurants and a decline of small, privately-owned shops.

“When I started, (Thayer) Street had maybe six or seven or eight eating places, including drug stores that had soda fountains,” said Jagdish Sachdev, who opened Spectrum India in 1967.

In that time, restaurateurs like Andrew Mitrelis seized the opportunity to plant the seeds of an ever-growing Thayer restaurant industry. Acquiring new locations one by one, Mitrelis has since opened five different eateries on Thayer.

Other entrepreneurs have followed a similar path. Since the early 1970s, restaurants have gradually eclipsed boutique after boutique.

Now more than 40 restaurants line the Thayer area. Store owners said they worry about the decline of Thayer as a shopping destination, while restaurateurs praise the large food selection offered on the street.


Thayer maverick

One of the most influential business owners on the street, Mitrelis began with one small restaurant and expanded down Thayer over the years. During Thayer’s retail heyday in the 1960s, Mitrelis spent about $50,000 to acquire one of the only open spaces on the street — the building that currently houses Antonio’s Pizza. He named it the Hungry Sheikh and began to serve Middle Eastern food.

Mitrelis said business was steady for a year after opening the new restaurant. In 1967, Greg’s — a competing Thayer restaurant — closed down.

“I came in through the back door (that morning) and looked through the front door. There were 15 people waiting,” Mitrelis said. After booming business for the next 15 months, “I paid for a new house, carpets, furniture, and landscaping … and I still had $75,000 left,” he added.

But the lucky spell was short-lived. Soon after Greg’s closed, Mitrelis said, members of local organized crime began banging on his doors for weekly compensation.

“I had to close the place down and change it to a fast food place,” he said. “There was good business for a year, and then McDonalds came in and knocked me out” in 1973, he added.

After some time, Mitrelis decided to revive his old restaurant, the Hungry Sheikh. But in 1974, political reaction in the aftermath of the OPEC oil embargo led to a dramatic drop in patronage, because many Americans thought the name sounded Arabic, Mitrelis said.

“I hired two Brown students to look into it,” Mitrelis said. The students’ survey confirmed that the restaurant’s name was affecting business. So Mitrelis changed the name to Andreas and business tripled. Andreas still stands at the corner of Meeting and Thayer.

Meanwhile, Mitrelis had another plan in the works for a second restaurant. After visiting 27 restaurants across New York during a three day trip, Mitrelis decided to open a new restaurant that would “specialize in hamburgers,” he said. The new restaurant, Spats, was initially housed at Paragon’s current location.

Later, the original Spats became Paragon, and a new Spats opened six years ago at its current location on Angell Street. Three years later, Mitrelis opened the Better Burger Company. He is also behind Kartabar and Milan Quarter, a restaurant downtown.


Global cuisine 

Many other restaurants, serving cuisine ranging from Korean to Hispanic to Asian, were also drawn to the bustle of Thayer Street.

David Boutras founded Shark five and a half years ago with two partners, who later left the business.

“We liked the atmosphere with Brown University,” he said. “We thought we’d create something funky and European,” he said. The founders designed L.E.D. lights and a shark replica over the doorway to draw in customers, Boutras said.

After Shark had been open for six months, Boutras’ landlord offered him the building next door to open a new Mexican restaurant: Bajas.

Boutras said he worked hard on the visual design of Bajas, with the kitchen located toward the front of the restaurant and a large window looking onto the street to attract passersbys.

Another family owned restaurant — Bagel Gourmet — also expanded into the Thayer area. Though Bagel Gourmet originally had only one location on Brook Street, owner Richard Wise unveiled a Thayer Street location named Bagel Gourmet Ole in 2005, said Eduardo Perez, a manager at Bagel Gourmet. Two years later Wise opened a third location near Alpert Medical School but does not have any specific plans to expand more at the moment, Perez said.


Many flavors

Though Thayer Street is saturated with eateries, most restaurateurs are not concerned about the competition and instead claim to help each other out.

“I believe there’s enough room for everyone,” Boutras said, adding that Thayer’s diverse food selection is what makes it unique.

“We all know each other on Thayer Street,” said Jessica Chavez, who works at Johnny Rockets. Restaurants will help each other out if a machine breaks or the register rolls are all used up, she said.

Even the Mitrelis’ restaurants are distinct from one another because a co-owner runs day-to-day operations at each location, said Nicholas Makris, co-owner of Andreas. Owners independently order food and supplies from the companies they choose, said Taner Toprak, who runs BBC.

Though Thayer is home to Chipotle, Starbucks, Au Bon Pain and other chain restaurants, chains are not a new phenomenon to Thayer but rather have come and gone throughout the street’s history.

“One of the first places that came here for ice cream was Baskin Robbins,” said Sachdev, adding that it was pushed out of business by a local shop. But the local shop’s business was eventually undercut by a new Ben & Jerry’s, which is currently relocating to a location directly on Thayer.

Independent restaurant owners said they are not worried about the presence of chains along the street.

Fast food chains offer products completely different from what restaurants such as BBC have to offer, Toprak said, adding that BBC uses primarily organic ingredients.

Chains also bring more business to the street, which means more people might come back to try other food, Mitrelis said.


Demise of the shop

As restaurants and bars continue to boom on Thayer, small shops have declined in number and in business.

When Sachdev, who opened Spectrum India in 1967, first inhabited the street, he said gaggles of college and high school students would flock up a two-story walk-up and squeeze into one of the three gift shops on the top of what is now the Thayer Street Urban Outfitters. Parents and young children could be seen next-door buying chicken and potatoes for the night’s dinner at a family owned grocery store where CVS currently stands.

“Thayer Street was the busiest street in the state,” Berman said.

Sachdev said the proximity to Brown and the Rhode Island School of Design as well as his familiarity with the street drew him to Thayer to open his shop.

“The idea was to experiment and test different products from India and see what would sell,” Sachdev said. Americans often liked different products than he expected.

After a year of business, Sachdev’s friend suggested that they turn Spectrum India into a wholesale operation. The new operation was so successful that Sachdev was forced to leave his full-time job as a city planner and devote his time to the store.

Within seven years, he owned 23 wholesale shops throughout the state. Customers would come from out of town to buy his specialty goods from India, Sachdev said, adding that he hired Brown graduates to run some of his stores and advertised through WBRU and The Herald.

But the company’s reign came to an end when a bad investment downtown cost Sachdev more than he was making collectively at his other 23 locations. Thayer’s Spectrum India is the last of Sachdev’s shops.

“I can’t quite say to you when it happened (or) how it happened,” but student fashion and spending attitudes have changed between now and when Spectrum India first opened, Sachdev said.

Since the recent economic downturn, there has been a dramatic drop in student business, said Ann Dusseault, owner of Pie in the Sky. Before the popularization of the Internet and advent of smartphones, people relied more on small shops to purchase goods. “People had beepers when I opened,” she joked.

The downturn also affected sales for Sachdev, who said fewer students have been buying items such as clothing.

Shop owners said the shortage of parking on Thayer makes it difficult for customers to visit from outside of the College Hill area.

Between the expansion of the Wheeler School and the increase in student parking areas, spots are at a all-time low on Thayer, Dusseault said. Having enough parking is key for businesses if Thayer wishes to remain a destination for shoppers, she added.


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