Private business hub looks like ‘a ghost town’ as UK competes for customers


Blaze Pizza closed the doors of its Limestone location near UK’s campus in Lexington, Ky in early February. Photo by Arden Barnes | Staff

Bailey Vandiver

Is UK bad for business?

A Coming Soon advertisement shows what restaurants will soon be opening in the UK student center, but in the now-covered window of Blaze Pizza, just off north campus, a sign on Feb. 4 read, “Sad to see us go?” to let customers know its doors are closed for good.

And Blaze is not the only one to go: Many businesses near north campus, particularly in the South Limestone area, have recently closed.

Just over a year ago, Fazoli’s closed. Since then, Street Craves, Smashburger, Freakin’ Unbelievable Burgers, Firehouse Subs, Noodles & Company and Blaze Pizza have followed.

READ: North campus Blaze Pizza closes in a flash

In theory, a location next to a college campus is prime real estate, but for these businesses, being next to UK is “an absolute negative,” said Jamba Juice owner Jim Phelps.

‘Hard for us to compete’

Jamba Juice is the lone survivor among restaurants in the Champions Court complex; the others, like Firehouse Subs, have closed. Phelps said Jamba Juice feels the same pressures that led to the closings.

“The reason that all the others have closed is the impact of the food services on the UK campus,” Phelps said.

Phelps, who also owned Smashburger for 10 years until it closed, said the Flex dollars system gives on-campus restaurants an advantage.

“It’s unfair competition with UK students because we’re (off-campus businesses) not allowed to use Flex,” he said.

Jamba Juice does accept Plus dollars, and Phelps said he has asked UK if Jamba Juice could take Flex as well. He’s been told no.

“That’s what’s driven all those businesses out before that were supporting UK and UK students,” he said. “They’ve lost that business.”

Jamba Juice’s 2017 sales from September to December were down 50 percent from the same time frame in 2016.

“Not many businesses can survive with that,” he said.

He estimated that 70 percent of Jamba Juice’s customers are UK students, which has remained a consistent percentage even as the number of customers decreases.

“We still do get some UK student business, but just not as much,” he said.

Bangkok House, located a few blocks away on Avenue of Champions, has also lost “a lot” of business, said owner Pom Buncha, especially since UK moved the student center restaurants.

“It’s hard for us,” Buncha said.

BurgerFi, which is located right above Bangkok and opened in fall of 2017, has a different perspective. Owner David Rodriquez said business has been great as BurgerFi continues to “build and grow.”

He said he does “not at all” feel like BurgerFi is competing with UK for customers.

“Everyone’s business has something different to offer guests,” Rodriquez said.

‘No place to park’

While Phelps said parking is not a problem for Jamba Juice—Champions Court has its own parking— it is a major issue for Buncha.

Buncha said that because of UK’s restrictions on parking on Rose Street and other nearby locations, there is limited parking near Bangkok House.

“The outside people can’t come because there’s no place to park,” he said. “If you take away all the parking for them, they cannot come.”

Bangkok used to get business from downtown, but not as much anymore, Buncha said.

Now, people only come if they can walk. UK students could walk—but “they are trying to go to the UK stuff” instead, Buncha said.

READ: North campus parking is shrinking and local businesses don’t like it

Phelps said that other businesses near Jamba Juice were dependent on walking UK students because they lacked parking. But “those students are the ones who can walk in the first floor of their dorm,” like Steak ‘n Shake in Jewell Hall, instead of across the street for food.

While he acknowledged that parking on a college campus often has challenges, Rodriquez said that parking is not an issue for BurgerFi– the tenants of the building work together “to afford plenty of spaces to go around for our guests,” he said.

Bobby Bowen, who owned the South Limestone Noodles & Company, said shortly after its closing that parking was one of the negative factors that led to its lack of business and that Noodles would do better at a location with better parking.

UK recently acquired the property that Kennedy’s Wildcat Den and Fazoli’s currently sit on, and there are some rumors that will become parking. However, UK spokesperson Jay Blanton said nothing has been decided.

“We are clearly considering options for parking as part of a mixed-used development as we know that it is an issue on parts of campus,” he said.

Blanton said UK is “thoughtfully reviewing our options for moving forward and will communicate that openly to the campus as decisions are made.”

‘They hurt us, they hurt everybody’

Phelps said UK changed the market when it added the food courts in addition to cafeteria-style options on campus. He said his daughter, who is in college, prefers the food courts to the traditional cafeteria options.

“When UK built their own food options, they hurt us,” he said. “They hurt everybody.”

Blanton said UK regularly surveys students to find out what food options they want, from specific franchises to gluten-free options.

“That’s what drives our consideration and decisions– what students tell us,” Blanton said.

Phelps said the businesses’ closing, while not actually on UK’s campus, hurts UK. He said UK should be more concerned about retail establishments near campus because of what high school students and their parents see when touring UK.

“It’s not good for prospective students to see boarded-up businesses near campus,” he said.

Phelps said the closings have made the area look like “a ghost town.”

READ: North campus Noodles & Co. closes its doors

To make the market fair, Phelps said Jamba Juice and other off-campus locations should be allowed to accept Flex— or else the on-campus restaurants should not.

Plus accounts are used at off-campus locations, while students can use Flex dollars at 26 different on-campus locations.

Buncha does not see the competition as unfair, just something that businesses have to face.

“In the business world, I don’t think it’s fair or not,” he said. “It’s just who’s better—the better survive.”

‘Good for UK… good for the community’

Blanton said that retail and food outlets have been thriving on South Limestone “for decades,” particularly since the city made “extensive improvements” to the area several years ago. Blanton said that “likely fostered new businesses moving into the area and more pedestrian usage.”

However, Blanton said, there is “great turnover” in the restaurant business in that area and throughout the whole community. He said the same is true on campus—some franchises have been open for a long time, while UK changes and adds others.

Blanton said the opening of the student center will encourage even more activity on north campus and the “important community corridor” that is the South Limestone area.

“It’s good for UK. It’s good for the community.”

Rick Childress and McKenna Horsley contributed reporting. Photo by Arden Barnes.