by Aaron Burns

– Oresti Arsi wanted to expand his Mediterranean restaurant, Santorini Grill, from its sole location in Hickory.

Arsi searched for the perfect spot for a second restaurant and quickly found it in the Lake Norman area. Santorini opened in Cornelius to what Arsi said was “a fantastic reception.

“I was thrilled with the feedback from people,” he said. “They’ve been great. We wanted to find the right place and we found it.”

Arsi is just one of a slew of entrepreneurs bringing more restaurants to the lake area this year.

The increase in restaurants, Mooresville-South Iredell Chamber of Commerce President Kirk Ballard said, benefits the area in three ways: It gives residents more options for eating out, it creates more jobs for locals and it stimulates the local economy by encouraging people to eat in the area instead of going to Charlotte.

It also means there’s a demand for all the restaurants.

“There’s a sense of optimism and opportunity for people to bring restaurants here,” he said.

Jeff Steiner agrees.

Steiner, executive director of Moving Mooresville Forward and owner of a Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchise in Mooresville, said the lake region offers restaurateurs more than a scenic view and a burgeoning retail sector.

“You have to have the right products, the right people and the right service to succeed,” he said. “A lot goes into it, but Mooresville provides an opportunity for successful entrepreneurship.”

The rise in restaurants is spreading throughout the region.

Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell said restaurants in  Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville continue to thrive.

The secret? Food choices.

“The sheer diversity we have in the area is astounding,” Russell said. “If you want Southern, Mediterranean, Mexican, Italian food, it’s all available here. The quality is good as well. That’s why people keep coming. And as we add more people to the region, we’ll be even more diverse in the food we’ll be able to offer.”

Russell pointed to the opening of Santorini Grill, Hot Stone Grill and Harvey’s Bar and Grill as prime examples of successful restaurant development in northern Mecklenburg County.

“People are already frequenting those places,” he said. “We have the infrastructure to support any kind of restaurant. It still amazes me how all of these places can be so successful.”

Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce President Ken Kindley said there’s another factor aiding restaurant expansion.

“Restaurants look at demographics,” Kindley said. “They want to go where they know people will be. If they see the numbers, they’ll come. And they are.”

Kindley said eastern Lincoln County hasn’t seen an influx of new restaurants yet, but those around the area seem to be doing better than they have in years, mostly because of high hopes of moving past the 2008 recession.

“People are loosening up the wallets and spending money more,” he said, “and that’s helping (restaurants) out.”

Russell said the growth of eateries throughout the area should continue as more business owners and residents infiltrate the lake.

“We’re only going to keep growing,” Russell said. “That’s the case in retail, real estate, restaurants, everything. It’s especially the case for restaurants right now. We’re seeing a lot of them coming in and succeeding.”

Number of restaurants in the U.S.

• Major chain restaurants (500 or more) saw a 1 percent increase in the U.S. from 2006-2009

• Small chain restaurants (3-49) saw no increase or decrease from 2006-2009, but minor chains (50-99) and mid-size chains (100-499) dropped by 2 percent

• Independent restaurants dropped by 1 percent nationwide from 2006-2009

• The 2008 recession led to a decrease of 1,652 restaurants in the U.S. from 2008-2009

– Courtesy of the Nation’s Restaurant News