Business

Bill Virgin: Old Spaghetti Factory trolley tugs at heartstrings

Workers remove blocks as the trolley is held up by a forklift outside The Old Spaghetti Factory in Tacoma on Saturday.
Workers remove blocks as the trolley is held up by a forklift outside The Old Spaghetti Factory in Tacoma on Saturday. Staff photographer

The University of Washington Tacoma will pay nearly $1 million to buy out the remaining lease of a tenant for space in a downtown building it owns and wants to renovate for classrooms and labs.

Tenant-landlord negotiations, transactions and relocations are standard business occurrences, so that’s not an especially intriguing part of the story.

Much more fascinating, though, is who that tenant is, its category of business and the deal’s significance for downtown.

The tenant is Old Spaghetti Factory, the Portland-based casual-dining chain that has been on East Jefferson Avenue since 1971. The company, which has 42 locations, will be relocating its Tacoma restaurant to space on Pacific Avenue.

While the restaurant won’t open in the new location until 2016, the move is started Saturday with the biggest fixture of all — the trolley car.

Trolleys and streetcars as dining venues are a signature of Old Spaghetti Factory. The original Portland restaurant had one, as did locations that followed in Tacoma, Seattle and Spokane. When OSF ran out of real trolleys (many were scrapped, but a few were left to rot and rust), it built replicas to go in the restaurant.

Tacoma’s is, according to rail-history websites, a 101-year old Tacoma Railway & Power Co. streetcar, No. 213, shortened to fit in the restaurant. The tentative plan was to take the car out of its current space Saturday (which will require removing some windows), then moving it to and installing it in its new location Sunday. After that OSF can start remodeling the rest of the space around the trolley.

That might seem like a lot of hassle over an old streetcar. It’s not to rail fans who like seeing a bit of history preserved, even in altered form and even if trolleys weren’t actually dining cars. It’s not to the company itself, which gets valuable brand identification and mind share out of being “that place where you can eat in the trolley.”

And it’s probably not to the families who, over the decades, have eaten in the trolley parked in the middle of a restaurant, celebrating birthdays or graduations or a visit from relatives or just a night out that everyone can enjoy without requiring a bank loan to pay for it.

That’s the role of the casual-dining category, a huge but unsung segment of the restaurant world. Casual-dining outlets will never make the covers of city lifestyle magazines as being among the hottest new restaurants. Their chefs will never be celebrated as celebrities, with their own TV shows and book deals. Foodies will dismiss them as cookie-cutter purveyors of unadventuresome food for suburban tastes in suburban locations.

In fact, the only people who seem to like casual-dining restaurants are members of the public who throng the places in the expectation of reliable food, good service and affordability.

The category is broad and definitions are amorphous. Casual dining sits between fast food and fine dining. Some include diner-style restaurants and ethnic eateries in the category; others see those as separate or a distinct subset. Some casual-dining chains are national, while others are regional and a few are distinctly local. This region has spawned a few chains, such as Lakewood-based Ram Restaurant & Brewery and Burien-based Azteca. Red Robin got its start in Seattle although it’s now headquartered in Colorado.

Nor is the category stagnant. Entire companies grow, thrive, decline and disappear. Fads in food and design schemes sweep through the industry. Some stick, others fade.

What doesn’t seem to fade is the public’s taste for dining that is decidedly middlebrow; nicer than fast-food, not as pricey or fussy (dare one say pretentious) as upscale dining.

Tacoma needs representatives of all three categories, or however many you want to count, if it wants to continue the momentum of drawing people to downtown.

The decision by OSF to stay downtown is particularly noteworthy given that it’s been there for 44 years, sticking it out through the years when downtown Tacoma was a decidedly unfun place to be. Had it bailed when so many other businesses chose to do so, it could hardly have been blamed. For years it was one of the few dining options available downtown. That it stayed and made a go of it is testament to not only casual-dining’s drawing power but OSF’s adeptness at the model.

Downtown is a much different place now. Actual streetcars have returned to the streets; so have people, as workers, tourists, students, even as residents. Whatever their function or station in life, they’re all going to want to eat. Because of that, casual dining eateries will continue to be a significant drivers of business activity and development. They won’t get a lot of attention or glamour out of that. They’ll have to console themselves with the number of customers streaming through their doors.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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