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How many restaurants are too many for Oneida County?
There is no shortage of restaurant choices in Oneida County, but the question is, are there enough dining customers to go around?
"The thing about this area is, you can only cut the pie up so much," says Joanne Gerace, owner of Tiny's Grill, a west Utica fixture for 82 years and her labor of love for 23.
Many days, the crowd is sparse at Tiny's; a cozy, home-like restaurant featuring a fire place and, at Christmas time, a display of several hundred Nutcrackers.
"Certainly, it does appear to be a little bit over-saturated," says Dr. David Kiner, Executive Director of the Business and Economics Department at Utica College.
When that over-saturation occurs, it is often the national chains, which have franchise support, that survive.
"If anybody's going to kind of fall away, it's going to be the small independent who's relying upon the sort of the neighborhood and the neighborhood has changed," Dr. Kiner says. "It's not the customer that they probably grew up with 10, 20, 15 20 years ago."
Several of Joanne Gerace's favorite independent, locally-owned restaurants, are now gone.
"My three favorites are out of business. Grimaldi's, the Alpine, Trackside. They're gone," she said. "Wonderful places, wonderful businesses, historic businesses, landmark businesses are not here anymore and the chain saturation had a lot to do with it."
While many we asked guessed around 200, Oneida County Health officials say there are approximately 850 restaurants in Oneida County. It's an ever-growing number, with an Olive Garden going up right now on Commercial Drive in New Hartford.
The sight of a shovel in the ground brings stress for Gerace.
"Every time I see that, my heart sinks, because I know that is going to be another group of people not coming here and going there, bottom line," she said.
What can the small, locally-owned independent do?
Keep polishing the bar, watering the plants, cooking homemade and promoting local.
"I get my bread baked locally, I purchase my groceries locally, I get my fish locally," Gerace said. "Everything is local and that keeps our local people in business."