Roti closes after year of business

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By Annika McGinnis, The Diamondback (Sept. 12, 2013)

After a year serving its falafel and pita pockets to students under The Varsity, Roti Mediterranean Grill unexpectedly closed two weekends ago and could be replaced by a larger food and entertainment venue, a city councilman said.

Businesses in the area have struggled with high rents and lack of parking options, and Roti is the fourth business in the strip to shut its doors since The Varsity’s opening in September 2011, said Michael Stiefvater, College Park economic development coordinator.

Other issues have afflicted the new establishments. For instance, Stiefvater said hot dog eatery ChiDogO’s, which closed over the summer, supplied too-limited offerings. Frozen yogurt shop YoLove did not advertise itself well, he said, and Austin Grill Express closed because of an upper management issue.

But Roti’s closing comes as “more of a surprise,” Stiefvater said. Because of rent contracts, College Park City Councilman Robert Catlin said Roti “probably wouldn’t have left if they didn’t have something to take over their lease” — which he’s heard might be an entertainment venue “targeting students” that could potentially take over both Roti’s former spot and the vacant spot next to it.

The venue, about which Catlin said he couldn’t yet provide details, was looking to move into College Park all summer, he said. Until Roti closed, it had originally considered moving into the shopping center across the street from The Varsity.

Catlin, Stiefvater and students were all surprised at Roti’s closing. Business seemed to have been going well, they said.

“I’m upset — I liked it; I used to go there a lot,” said Rachel Solomon, a sophomore education major who lives in The Varsity.

Solomon said she liked how Roti was “different from a lot of the food around here.” When it was open, Roti, a fast and casual Mediterranean eatery, sold laffa wraps, pita pockets, rice plates and salads for about $7 to $8. In a Chipotle-style assembly line, the customer could choose meat, falafel or vegetables and add sides, toppings and sauces.

“Remember the wraps, the laffa chicken?” Solomon asked. “There’s nothing else around here like that.”

But in March, Garbanzo Mediterranean Grill, a similar venue, opened in the College Park Shopping Center. Though Stiefvater said the two Mediterranean grills catered to different markets -— namely, those who live at The Varsity and the University View versus those who live closer to South Campus — the two eateries delivered many of the same options. Garbanzo also serves made-to-order pitas, laffa wraps or plates at similar prices, potentially drawing customers away from its competitor up Route 1.

A manager at Garbanzo said she had no comment on how the restaurant’s opening might have affected Roti’s business.

Several students had other concerns about Roti, including high prices, food style and quality. Lauren Mullin, a sophomore enrolled in letters and sciences, said she didn’t like the taste or style of the food.

“They were low-profile,” said Andrea Gilbert, a senior food science major. “I went once, and I didn’t really have the burning desire to go back. There were two stronger restaurants there — Bobby’s Burger [Palace], which I would go to on dates a lot and then Shanghai Tokyo [Cafe], which is honestly my favorite Asian restaurant [off] campus.

“So it was honestly probably the weakest option if I was going north of campus on Route 1.”

Roti also wasn’t as convenient as going to Moby Dick House of Kabob, a Mediterranean fast food eatery in Stamp, Gilbert added.

It’s not cheap to operate a business on Route 1, Stiefvater said, adding that successful places needed to sell “a lot of products.”

But the fast turnover rate of city restaurants is typical of the industry in general and not unique to College Park, he said. Some establishments, such as Bobby’s Burger Palace, Looney’s Pub and Sweetgreen, are doing well, proving, he said, that some businesses have what it takes to succeed.

Though Stiefvater also said he couldn’t release official details yet of Roti’s potential replacement, he confirmed an “interesting” establishment with a “food component” is looking to replace Roti.

“It’s not fast-casual, but it’s not fine dining,” he said. “It’s kind of a unique thing.”

If it does move in, Catlin didn’t know yet when the venue might open, but he said it depended on “all the work that has to go on inside” and acquiring necessary county permits.

“It’s the kind of thing that could take months,” he said.

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