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Published March 13 2012

F-M businesses reuse buildings distinctly built for different tenants

FARGO – Beds by Design has an interesting feature that most other furniture stores probably don’t: a drive-thru.

It’s not used, of course, but it’s there as a left-over feature from when the building used to be a Krispy Kreme donut shop several years ago.

Much of the building on 13th Avenue South has since been changed to make it seem like less of a restaurant, but the drive-thru still remains.

A furniture store in a former donut shop might seem like a strange juxtaposition, but it’s just one example in Fargo-Moorhead of businesses that have moved into buildings so identified with their former tenants; such as Altony’s Italian Café in the old Dilworth Taco Bell building.

It’s inevitable, after all, that businesses eventually close or simply move somewhere else. When that happens, an empty building is left in its wake, a reminder of what existed before.

And even if that building was designed specifically for a former tenant, like Krispy Kreme, if it’s a good building in a good location, it’s likely that someone else will want to move in.

Hermit crabs, it seems, have the right idea.

But, moving into a building with a look so identifiable to a specific company might create some confusion for customers. Memories and associations of the businesses that used to be there can be a little hard to shake, owners say.

Mark Ostlund, owner of Sandy’s Donuts on Main Street in West Fargo, has seen this happen. He moved his business into its current building after the former tenant, Hardee’s, went out of business about 10 years ago.

Ostlund says he had been looking for somewhere that had better parking than his old location on Sheyenne Street in West Fargo, and the Hardee’s building fit the bill.

“Things just kind of fell into place,” Ostlund says. “I didn’t spend a lot of time looking.”

Despite the building looking almost exactly the same as when it was Hard­ee’s, Ostlund says he just didn’t get around to remodeling the place until a couple years ago.

Not surprisingly, leaving the old look was sometimes a source of confusion for his costumers.

Even five years after he moved into the building, Ostlund says he once had a customer go through the drive-thru and order a Hardee’s burger.

“People would walk in and just be confused at first,” Ostlund says. “It did happen for a while.”

When he did get around to remodeling and removing everything that was Hardee’s-related, the change was almost immediate.

“I’ve been way busier since,” he says. “It’s paid for itself.”

Often, though, architects say that new businesses simply don’t have the money to be able to make the changes to a building that they might need.

Craig Helenske, principal architect at Helenske Design Group in Fargo, says that while the appearance of a building is important for a business, often it’s a question of money whether they can make those changes or not.

“My first reaction would be that it’s purely about budget, and about what’s the driving force by the new owner,” says Helenske, who in the past has worked on converting old buildings and giving them a new look for a new business.

But Helenske says the struggle for startup restaurants or mom-and-pop-style places that want to move into empty buildings is that no matter how many changes they make, customers still might associate the place with what it used to be.

“The visual of those buildings is the original statement of the original businesses that owned them,” he says. “You can’t not remember what it used to be.”

Ultimately, though, architects recognize that even more than giving a building a facelift, the most important thing for a new business is – as they say – location, location, location.

At least, that’s how it was for Jan and Curt Ness, co-owners of CJ’s Kitchen in Fargo. They moved into their current building on south University Avenue in the spring of 2011 because of its great location, even if it kind of looks like an old Pizza Hut.

Before becoming CJ’s Kitchen, the building had been the Fargo Coffee Company for about two years, Starbucks for five years prior and Pizza Hut for nearly three decades before that.

So, the building was certainly no stranger to change, or to having different tenants.

Even though some customers may have associated the building with its past tenants – especially Pizza Hut, which was around for the longest time – Ness says that’s not necessarily a bad thing and didn’t let it deter them from buying the building.

“If anything, I thought it’d be a benefit, knowing that people would associate it as a food place anyway,” he says.

After they settled in, the couple redid the entire place, starting with the kitchen and then moving to the dining room.

“We put in some new counters, new tables, changed everything up front,” Ness says.

Despite the renovations, Ness says it still isn’t uncommon to get a confused customer who doesn’t realize the building has changed hands and changed businesses multiple times.

“Even within the last two to three weeks, someone came through thinking it was a coffee place,” he says.

No amount of remodeling, it seems, can change a customer’s memory.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535

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