Downtown Leesburg restaurants look to local app to fight business downturn

WASHINGTON — Pass the customers, please.

Independent restaurant owners in downtown historic Leesburg, Virginia are struggling to keep up with the growth of city centers, which often include chain restaurants in walkable mixed-use communities.

“In the past seven years we’ve seen a tremendous growth every year, but unfortunately this year we have seen a 30 to 35 percent decrease in foot traffic and sales,” says Bryan Crosswhite, owner of The Cajun Experience, located on Loudoun Street, in the heart of the historic district.

Crosswhite says the sharp drop in business can be attributed to two developments on the outskirts of town: Villages at Leesburg and One Loudoun.

“We don’t have the marketing dollars that these chain restaurants have in those city centers,” says Crosswhite.

Three weeks ago, Crosswhite says Leesburg retail and restaurant owners met: “We were all talking about our struggles.”

The business owners agreed they need better visibility.

“The community needs to know about us,” says Crosswhite. “We are different than the chains — a lot of us make our food from scratch.”

A retailer mentioned the popular Spotluck dining app, as a way of enticing customers.

“You can have the best lamb chops in town, but if no one knows you exist, it really doesn’t matter,” says Cherian Thomas, co-founder and CEO of Bethesda-based Spotluck.

The Spotluck app offers discounts at approximately 250 local and locally-owned restaurants in 17 D.C., Maryland, and Virginia neighborhoods, including Adams Morgan, Georgetown, H Street, Bethesda Row, Kentlands, Ballston and Clarendon.

Coming soon, downtown historic Leesburg.

“This is the only way we’re going to survive, if we promote each other’s restaurants,” says Crosswhite. “In return, we’re going to see foot traffic in our community.”

Users of the free Spotluck app get one spin each day in each “hub,” or neighborhood.

By spinning the animated Spotluck wheel, users are offered a discount at a randomly-selected, but certified-local restaurant.

“You take that into the restaurant, enjoy your meal, and when you’re done you simply show your phone to the wait staff, and you’re good to go,” says Thomas.

Thomas says the app doesn’t just pull discounts out of thin air.

“They’re constantly fluctuating discounts based on day, time, weather, and other factors that affect occupancy,” says Thomas.

However, instead of just filling a single restaurant’s seat, Spotluck creates something more important — a neighborhood buzz.

“It’s about local, it’s about being part of a community,” says Thomas. “It’s about marketing with your neighbors, because a busy block is good for the entire neighborhood.”

Loudoun County developers have acknowledged the need to offer entertainment options that will keep residents in the county, and draw customers from the District, Tysons, Bethesda and other downtown areas.

“A lot of people, when they think of Leesburg, they think of Premium Outlets,” says Thomas. “It’ll bring some pull.”

Despite the additional driving needed to reach Leesburg, Crosswhite says Frederick recently became listed on the Spotluck app, and is experiencing an uptick in business.

Thomas acknowledges Leesburg wasn’t on the app’s short list of future hubs to feature, but says the restaurateurs’ request for help couldn’t be ignored.

“We have hubs all over the DMV,” says Thomas. “All of those users are going to see Leesburg — it’s a great incentive to help pull them in, to make that trip.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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