It is football Saturday in East Lansing and one of MSU’s greatest and most storied rivalry games. The Spartans are about to take on U-M, and it is three hours from the kick-off. The 100-year rivalry has drawn generations of strong animosity from both sides, and I witness the Spartan fervor unfold. On the corner of Grand River Avenue and Abbott Road, hundreds of Spartan fans greet oncoming Wolverine fans with boos, jokes and derogatory chants. MSU students shot the obligatory “Go Green!” and “Go White!” as they walk past one another. Spartan alumni wear shirts that say “Appalachian Who?” in reference to U-M’s highly-referenced loss one month before to the Division I-AA school.
Fast forward to chilly January, when the glory days of tailgate haunt our memories as we bundle up for any outdoor adventure. When reflecting back on that memorable football Saturday, most Spartans will remember the nail-biting loss. What most Spartans won’t remember, however, is that East Lansing did win in one way that day, by opening up something Ann Arbor didn’t have: a Johnny’s Lunch franchise, adding to the plethora of cheap eating options in the downtown area. [fast12]
Johnny’s Lunch, a veteran New York hot dog establishment, opened its first franchise in the Midwest and drew approximately 3,000 visitors on that day. Johnny’s Lunch Franchise President George Goulson credited the restaurant’s opening day success not only to the football game’s attendees, but also to its 71-year-old initiative of quickly serving its tasty, inexpensive Johnny’s Hots, Big John Burgers and Johnny’s Cheese Fries to its customers.
U-M pre-architecture sophomore Jim Rund quickly took notice of their philosophy. “Fast food that is good for $5 or less is a winner, especially in a college town where students are looking for hot dogs and hamburgers,” Rund said. “I wish we had something like this at U-M.”
Many MSU students have fast food inklings similar to Rund’s and frequent restaurants such as Johnny’s Lunch. For human biology senior Brittani Slaughter, one of the most appealing things about fast-food restaurants is they – you guessed it – serve food quickly, which she says is great when she has an empty stomach.[rund2]
Students also like fast-food restaurants because they’re cheap. In downtown East Lansing, Johnny’s Lunch sells its Johnny’s Hot Conies for only 89 cents, Taco Bell advertises its bean burrito for 99 cents and Buffalo Wild Wings sells its traditional wings for 73 cents a piece. With a declining Michigan economy and an increase in college tuition bills, MSU students are left with little money and therefore demand cheaper foods.
The city of East Lansing, however, is trying to entice more upscale restaurants to the area. According to Tim Dempsey, East Lansing community and economic development administrator, one of the city’s plans is to tear down the old Citizens Bank building on the corner of Abbott and Grand River. In its place would be new buildings for the MSU Museum, an upscale restaurant Dempsey said will be similar in scale to a Bravo or P.F. Chang’s, a smaller complimentary venue such as a coffee house and some residential homes. Dempsey said if the plan gets approved by the city’s planning commission in January, the new plaza could open by 2011.
An increase in upscale restaurants in the downtown area could disenfranchise some low-income students. According to the 2000 census data, the median income for a household is $28,217; there are 14,401 households in East Lansing. Dempsey attributes the low median income to the large number of MSU students that overwhelm the city’s housing market. If more prestigious, upscale restaurants served their high-quality foods in the downtown area, it could force some lesser-known fast food eateries such as Johnny’s Lunch out of business. Fewer fast-food restaurants would leave low-income students with less variety, which could damper their dining experience in downtown East Lansing.
Dempsey added, however, the 2000 census data also shows the family median income in East Lansing is $61,095, which he said is one of the highest in the state of Michigan. Dempsey said the new upscale restaurants will cater to families that have that kind of income, and emphasized the city’s initiative is not meant to disenfranchise students; it’s intended to widen the variety of dining experiences in East Lansing.
“Right now the market adequately serves the students,” Dempsey said. “You look at the number of fast food and fast casual restaurants that have pretty low price points – clearly we’re well saturated in that area. What we don’t have are restaurants that are more mid-range to higher-end casual restaurants.”
Students such as criminal justice and psychology sophomore Jeff Washeleski said a restaurant such as P.F. Chang’s will attract some college students, including those with tight budgets. [fastfood12]
“I don’t have money [and] I don’t think a majority of the college students do, but when I get the money, that’s what I would prefer to do,” Washeleski said. “I’d rather go out and have a good meal than just eat at the caf.”
While East Lansing residents may enjoy new upscale restaurants, the existing restaurants may not. As with any new restaurant, it has the potential to steal some of the established restaurants’ loyal customers, especially if their food is of seemingly higher quality. This could start price wars in the region, which would force some smaller, less-established eateries to shut down, such as Johnny’s Lunch; this would ultimately leave consumers with less restaurant variety. [tim]
MSU economics professor Jeffrey Wooldrige, however, said new places often bring in more people, so the downtown area’s existing restaurants shouldn’t fret about new upscale restaurants coming to East Lansing. He did add people today have less money to spend on food because of Michigan’s ailing economy, further adding to cheap food demand.
“If a restaurant comes in and it has something new to offer that others places don’t have, then it has the chance of actually increasing the number of people who want to eat out for a lunch or a dinner,” Wooldrige said. “But I do wonder especially in this economic climate how many new customers a new place like Johnny’s can pull in. I suspect it will draw people more from existing places.”
In fact, the upscale restaurants could help places such as Johnny’s Lunch thrive. According to Dempsey, if the plan for the plaza is approved, the city would add underground parking and an adjoining parking deck to the plaza, creating 600-700 new parking spaces for the corner. This would be good news for Johnny’s Lunch, since it currently has only one, 148-spot parking lot in the back. More parking spaces would allow the budding restaurant to attract more people from outside the area, a draw the restaurant desperately needs if it wants to become a recognizable franchise in Michigan.
So is downtown East Lansing a cheap, fast-food college town or an upscale, sit-down family area? It appears East Lansing officials will try to balance the two roles in order to attract the city’s college students and families. Whether the city succeeds in doing so, however, is a different story. East Lansing is traditionally a college town, and therefore residents such as zoology sophomore Brian Schori want to keep its college-town tradition alive, despite the city’s efforts.
“I don’t really expect it to change much,” Schori said. “The vacant buildings could become upscale, but everything that’s here now is mostly here to stay.” And whether Johnny’s Lunch embodies this college-town mentality and makes it through to see another crowded Spartan football Saturday remains to be seen.

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