State College

Downtown restaurant gets boost from Fraser Centre workers

Work continues on the Fraser Centre on Wednesday, March 9, 2016.
Work continues on the Fraser Centre on Wednesday, March 9, 2016.

Nestled among downtown buildings on West Beaver Avenue sits Margarita’s, a pizzeria long popular among residents that now has a new crop of regulars who fill the lunch hour.

Construction workers in neon yellow vests and hats take up about half of the 40-seat restaurant, with the rest filled by professors, students and other locals, all enjoying a salad or a slice. That’s been the customer makeup since construction on the Fraser Centre, directly across the street, began in October 2014.

“They were all on ground level and they could run right over,” Margaret Cruz said about the workers. “Now they’re up on the 13th floor, so they call me and plan ahead and then come pick it up.” She owns the restaurant with her husband, Juan.

According to borough Manager Tom Fountaine, the Fraser Centre is expected to bring many new profit opportunities to State College — the influx of workers for lunch being one early example.

“It is a project that is expected to bring more diversity in terms of new jobs, new residential units for long-term residents and new retail,” Fountaine said.

The 13-story building will include approximately 50,000 square feet of retail space, 165 Hyatt Place hotel rooms, residential living, a Federal Taphouse restaurant, an H&M clothing retailer and a Target store.

At Margarita’s, Cruz said workers first tried bringing packed lunches from home, but in the winter months the food would freeze. Now workers place their orders ahead of time, climb down from the upper levels and walk across the street for their lunch breaks.

As a bonus, Cruz runs a tab system so the workers do not have to worry about carrying money with them.

Never writing it down, Cruz remembers what each customer ordered on the days they were there and then calculates the cost on Friday, when patrons stop by to settle their debts.

Aaron Torres, a 22-year-old builder from Atlanta, said he comes to Margarita’s with other members of the crew at least three times a week. Some days, they head to California Tortilla on College Avenue or drive to Don Patron on North Atherton Street. But, according to Torres, lunch at Margarita’s affords workers the most time to relax.

Considering that workers are on the job from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and commute from homes they are renting in places like Lock Haven and Mill Hall, the extra time makes a difference.

Cruz estimated that since the workers have been coming, her sales have increased by 20 percent.

“They’re eating when they leave, they’re eating at lunch, they’re grabbing something throughout the day. They get drinks before they get in their vans to go home,” she said.

George Arnold, executive director of the Downtown State College Improvement District, said the building’s new tenants will bring energy, atmosphere and extra convenience to downtown residents.

Any time there’s anything new downtown I think it’s a positive thing.

Katie Dawes

“Rather than folks leaving — at move-in, for example — and going outside of the downtown and coming back, what we’ll see is that they don’t have to travel as far to get some of the things they need,” Arnold said, speaking of the weekend when Penn State students arrive each year.

Stores like Target will add a larger quantity of products to the downtown marketplace, but with new merchants can come added risk to existing businesses.

Katie Dawes, owner of the specialty store Kitchen Kaboodle downtown, agreed that new shops will bring “a rush of curiosity,” and therefore more people, to the area, but she sees how competition could come into play.

“I’m sure there will be some,” Dawes said. “But I think the key is, being an owner-operator instead of a corporately managed store, I have the advantage to be able to tweak my inventory as I see fit. What I need to do is just pay attention.”

Dawes said she sees the business climate in State College changing but knows that additions of local and national stores indicate growth.

“I like to think that (the Fraser Centre) will be positive in terms of energy. Any time there’s anything new downtown I think it’s a positive thing,” she said.

Margarita’s co-owner Cruz agreed, noting that her influx of customers is a sign of the way the local business scene is improving.

“It can only get better,” she said. “There’s no negative here.”

Noelle Rosellini is a Penn State journalism student.