Applebee’s story disputed by franchisee representative

Published 12:49 am Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The debate and controvesy involving whether or not Picayune should sell liquor by- the-drink continued to roil and generate charges and countercharges.

A franchisee representative, Chris Potter, real estate and development director for Quality Restaurant Concepts, the company which owns the rights to establishing an Applebee’s restaurant here, says that the fact that Picayune does not have a liquor-by-the-drink law here had no bearing on his company not locating a store here. He said the decision to back off was strictly because of a weak economy.

However, the local real estate developer, Robert Thigpen, who said he had talked to a man who represented himself as being a representative of Applebees and other large chains, stood by his story that the representative backed off when told Picayune did not serve liquor, only beer and light wine. Thigpen owns Top of the Hill shopping center at I-59 and Sycamore Road.

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In addition, Potter said he was aware that in Picayune restaurants could serve only beer as he began a year’s search for a restaurant location here.

“I looked at Picayune for a year, at property there, and I knew from the get-go that you all only sold beer, and we felt we could make money there. But with the economy, the way it is, we are not doing any developing right now. It was the economy that was the only factor in the decision,” he said.

“We operate in beer-only cities, too,” he said, citing two restaurants in Rankin County where only beer is sold in the restaurant.

He said, howeveer, that the franchise company he represents does investigate the local liquor laws where they locate, but that is not a “premiere” factor involved in making a decision.

Asked point-blank if the lack of liquor-by-the-drink would prevent him from chosing to locate a restaurant here, Potter said, “It would not. If the economy were good, we would move forward if you only served beer. We felt like we could make some money in Picayune before the economy stalled.”

Potter said he was disputing a story that appeared in the Sept. 18 Item that said, based on what was termed a confirmation by Thigpen, that a person representing Applebees backed off after the person looking for a location was told that in Picayune you could not serve liquor-by-the drink.

Potter said an associate, not from Picayune, notified him of the story.

The businessman who confirmed the Item’s Sept. 18 story said that the story about the representative, who said he represented Applebee’s, was the truth. Thigpen said the representative had looked at properties he owned.

Potter would not identify who his contact in Picayune was during the year he had been looking here. However, he did say that he does not know Thigpen although he admitted that he looked at a lot of property, and he was not saying that he had not looked at a property “owned” by Thipgen.

The Item learned that Potter would call the paper about the story from another local real estate developer, Richard Teague, who called the paper to say he had learned that Potter would call the Item.

Following the call from Potter, the Item called Teague to ask if he was a developer whom Potter had contacted during his search in Picayune. He responded, “I have a fiduciary responsibility to my clients not to reveal who I represent.” He said the reason for that is that if property owners learned who was looking for property, they might raise their prices.

When asked on Sept. 17 if the story was true about Applebee’s not being willing to locate here because of the laws, Thipgen, who is also a former supervisor here, told the Item, “Yes, that did happen, but as you know these companies are very sensitive to puiblicity about their plans so that is all I can say.”

Picayune citizens currently are in a debate over the liquor issue as proponents of liquor-by-the-drink push for an election to allow liquor sales here in restaurants and hotels where food is also served.

Proponents say Picayune is losing jobs because quality restaurants are not locating here because of Picayune’s laws covering alcoholic beverages. Opponents say that has no bearing and the city will grow regardless of whether or not liquor-by-the-drink sales are approved here.

Currently, petitions calling for an election are in eight businesses.

Thigpen said that he stood by his story “100 percent.”

“This was in 2006, right after Katrina. The guy came by, gave me his business card and said he represented a number of large chains in site selection and evaluation, including Applebees.” He said that after he informed the man that any restaurant locating in Picayune could not serve liquor, only beer and light wine, the representative backed off of further discussions.

He said he could not remember the name of the representative and that he has lost the man’s business card.

Thigpen not only stood by his story, he added that representatives of two more restaurants wanting to locate in Picayune had turned him down after learning that Picayune does not serve liquor, and he attributed the decisions to being because of Picayune’s liquor laws. He would not name the restaurants or their representatives.

He also said that another restaurant is preparing to sign a contingency lease, stating they will “definitely” locate a restaurant here, if, and when, Picayune votes wet. He said he would name that restaurant after the lease is signed if the owner agrees to release the information.