Restaurants Thriving In Columbia

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COLUMBIA - Starting and running a restaurant in any city can be risky business. In large part due to their location, two Columbia restaurants have found success.

Mi Tierra is the second offering of a family-run Mexican restaurant in Columbia. Manager Cristian Ramirez lived in San Marcos, Tx before moving to Columbia to work with a friend at El Maguey. A few years down the road, he decided to open his own restaurant - La Terraza. Business, though, got tighter after his brother convinced him to open a second location.

"I wanted to work things out but sometimes, you just have to face the facts," Ramirez said. "I had the passion to keep it going, but I just couldn't because of the money."

After almost moving back to Texas, his cousin, German Amaya, offered to provide the money for an entirely new restaurant.

"I couldn't let that go," Amaya said. "He's a very passionate guy, and he has great ideas, so I couldn't let it go.

So with that money, Ramirez brought back almost all of the same staff from La Terraza and opened his current restaurant, Mi Tierra. Not only does Ramirez want to stay in Columbia because that is where he and his wife met, but he also thinks the city is the perfect place to build a business.

"Columbia has a lot of potential for Mexican restaurants for some reason," Ramirez said.

The culture of Columbia has several elements that make the city a good place to open up a business.

Columbia's central location on highway I-70 and 63 attracts travelers passing through while its positioning between St. Louis and Kansas City increases business. As a center of higher education, Columbia creates a ready-made workforce and customers who can afford to eat out. Also, moving to the SEC has brought in more out-of-town customers who come for gameday.

Recent statistics in regard to restaurants reflect this growth. In the past year, new businesses represent eight percent of all restaurants in Columbia. Amaya believes college students help entrepreneurs, like Ramirez, get back on their feet and try again.

"Look at the students, look at how many people we have around here," Amaya said. "There's like thousands of students just across the street from us right now. That can help anyone trying to get support."

Students also provide the workers and customers chain restaurants need. Zaxby's owner Cheryl Jarvis and her husband actually inquired about opening a restaurant ten years ago but were turned down.

"They told us, 'thanks for the inquiry, we're not close to Missouri. Check back in the future,'" Jarvis said.

By 2012, the future had already arrived.

"Columbia just joined the SEC and so we really like that was very much another part cause people coming to Columbia would recognize Zaxby's name," Jarvis said. "There are so many positive results because of the move."

When it came to finding employees, Jarvis said hiring was a cinch.

"Whether it's college students on up, it's a little bit higher level because Columbia supports such a mixed group," Jarvis said.

Jarvis isn't the only one that sees Columbia helping businesses to be. Columbia Chamber of Commerce president Matt McCormick said he has long seen the impact higher education has on Columbia business

"With the higher ed with the university and the colleges we have here, you have a constant flow of possible employees and customers," McCormick said. "It's amazing to see."

McCormick mentioned that Columbia has become the entrepreneurial capital of Missouri with the available support in the city.