East side commercial area booming
Expansions, enhancements, moves highlight year
The multitude of businesses that are located on or near Fifth Avenue South — the city’s Corridor of Commerce — continues to grow. There have also been major developments regarding enterprises that have been part of this booming venue for some time. Here are some of the changes.
Smitty’s Lawn, Landscape and Garden
Smitty’s Lawn, Landscape and Garden, 2305 Second Ave. S., owned by Heather and Jon Baedke, continued to evolve in 2016.
It’s been a dozen years since the Baedkes purchased a small lawn service venture named Smitty’s. They have transformed the enterprise into a growing company that offers an array of options and services to address assorted lawn, garden or landscaping needs.
During 2016, major changes took place. Smitty’s expanded its nursery and consolidated all of its operations at a single location.
“Last fall we tore an unused greenhouse down,” Jon Baedke explained. “We took that space and a little bit more and we’ve expanded the nursery. Basically, we’ve four times the inventory. It has fruit trees, shade trees, ornamentals, evergreens, shrubs. All kinds of shrubs and trees.”
He said the choices available in the nursery during the growing season are extensive.
“I think selection sets us apart,” he said. “We don’t grow it. We bring it in. Most of our nursery stock comes out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. We try to bring in all nursery stock from a northern climate so it is hardy.”
Smitty’s was long headquartered at 1770 Lainson Ave. (U.S. Highway 169 north of Fort Dodge). In 2013, the company broadened its offerings by purchasing what for three decades was one of the city’s most successful businesses — Eddie’s Greenhouse, located on South 23rd Street. The opportunity for that purchase came about because Ed Casady, longtime owner of Eddie’s, retired.
Baedke said at the time of that expansion that combining the greenhouse with the previous services was a logical next step for the company.
Until December 2015, the lawn and landscaping components of the company continued to be housed at the original site north of Fort Dodge. They have been moved to a building the Baedkes purchased just north of the Garden Center. It previously was the home of Larson Electric. The Lainson Avenue site has been sold, Baedke said
He said having all the company’s components consolidated on a single campus at the edge of a major commercial area in Fort Dodge strengthens the business.
“This location creates more visibility for us,” Baedke said. “For management purposes and public perception we wanted to get in town. It’s also more efficient as far as our lawn-care crews driving back and forth to work sites.”
Smitty’s Lawn, Landscape and Garden is multifaceted.
“We offer full service lawn-care services — typically, a five-step lawn-care program,” Baedke said. “We do core aeration, spring and fall clean-ups. We do weekly mowing for residential and commercial clients. We do snow removal, holiday lighting. We also do a lot of hardscapes — patios, retaining walls, outdoor-living environments.”
The company can handle both commercial and residential landscaping projects. It specializes in the residential sector, according to Baedke.
The Garden Center, which has about 35,000 square feet of greenhouses, is a major part of Smitty’s. It offers a broad range of plants and sells supplies, tools and related products.
During 2016, customers found making their selections easier because the Garden Center was enhanced.
“We widened the aisles so there is two-way traffic all around,” Baedke said.
Baedke said the explanation of the Garden Center’s popularity is quite straightforward.
“We try to grow good quality plants at a decent price,” he said.
Businesses with a reputation for quality work, top-notch products and dependable service tend to prosper. Baedke said those elements have all been part of the Smitty’s story.
“I think our competitive advantage is that we employ people that are trained and educated in this field,” he said. “They have a passion for what they do. Our employees are trained to prevent people’s problems and diagnose people’s problems. We pride ourselves on fixing problems.”
Building on that approach is the game plan for the future, according to Baedke.
“We want to increase the quality of work, the quality of the products that we offer,” he said. “I just want to perfect what we have — stay in tune with today’s trends and fashions.”
Infinity Restaurant Group
Infinity Restaurant Group operates two well-known Fort Dodge restaurants — Community Tap and Pizza, 2026 Fifth Ave. S. and Sneakers Eatery & Pub, 1317 Central Ave. A third venture — Smokeworx — was recently combined with Community. Since Feb. 1, 2016, the unique Smokeworx barbecue menu has been available at Community along with that restaurant’s regular offerings since
For several years, Infinity has been a popular choice locally for anyone who needs a caterer. During 2016, however, the company has massively expanded its catering business and now also handles jobs far from its home base.
“We do catering across Iowa and we’ve been to other states, too,” said Mychael Mueller, Infinity’s president and chief executive officer. “This is probably a quarter of our business and it is growing. We’ve been to Sioux City, Iowa City, Davenport and Dubuque. We have been all the way to South Dakota.”
He said that during the last year or so, Infinity Restaurant Group has provided “hundreds of thousands” of meals at its customers’ events.
Helping various government agencies, including military units, address dining needs in assorted — and sometimes challenging — venues has emerged in recent months as a major focus for Infinity, according to Mueller.
“We’ve done work for both the federal government and state government,” he said, noting that these opportunities usually come about through a competitive bidding process. “We did the first military contract last summer in Boone at an armory where there was training taking place.”
In addition to providing meals for the armed forces, Infinity has also handled food requirements related to responses by government and private sector agencies to natural disasters. Mueller said, as an example, that his company’s catering project in South Dakota was as a subcontractor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture related to the response to the bird flu crisis a year ago.
The scale of these undertakings can be far larger than the typical wedding or event catering restaurants typically handle.
“We’ve done anywhere up to 7,000 meals a week in one location,” Mueller said. “That one, we prepared it individually and boxed it and wrapped it in foil.”
Infinity Restaurant Group is becoming a well-regarded caterer statewide because it has demonstrated the flexibility to produce topnotch results in diverse situations, he said.
“Every meal is different,” Mueller said. “We have a mobile cooking unit that we use. We can also cook at the site using their equipment. Nothing is too small. Nothing is too big. If I can handle 7,000 meals on the road, I can do anything. When you are on the road you don’t have your normal resources and equipment.”
He said the key to producing results that please clients is to pay careful attention to how each catering venture is organized and recognize that the approach must be customized to the nature of the job.
“You need to know how to cook food in different environments,” Mueller said. “Every cater is different. Every meal is different.”
He said that one of the company’s strengths as a caterer is that it has the ability to address multiple projects simultaneously.
We can handle jobs at multiple locations on the same day,” Mueller said. “We have two or three catering vans.”
Kesterson Realty and Appraisal
James Kesterson has been a major figure in real estate world locally for four decades. During 2016, however, the company he heads — Kesterson Realty and Appraisal — was quite literally on the move. On June 15, it relocated its offices to 1926 First Ave. S.
The building that is the firm’s new headquarters underwent a massive renovation prior to the move.
“The interior was gutted completely and rebuilt,” Kesterson said. “It took about two months. It’s a better location and a more convenient layout.”
He said the new office sets the stage for expanding the business.
“We plan to get bigger,” Kesterson said. “We now have room to add four or five additional staff.”
The enterprise has two major components.
“We do real estate. We’re pretty active in the real estate field,” Kesterson said. “We do both residential and commercial. We also do appraisals for residential, commercial, farm and industrial properties.”
For residential property sales, Kesterson said the company focuses on Webster County. With respect to the commercial and industrial sectors, it draws clients from a much broader marketplace.
“For industrial, we’re connected with brokers in multiple states,” Kesterson said. “We’ve co-brokered deals with brokers from all over the Midwest — Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Des Moines.”
The appraisal work takes Kesterson well beyond Webster County and can occur for a variety of reasons.
“Appraisals can be for any purpose,” he said. “Some appraisals are needed for property sales, some for refinancing. We do a lot of estate work. In divorce cases you have to know what the assets are, so appraisals may be needed.
Asked what makes Kesterson Realty a good choice for clients, Kesterson said he said its low-key, customer-oriented approach is what sets it apart.
“Our claim to fame would be our experience and our service. We’re very experienced,” he said. “We don’t push people into things that they shouldn’t be in. I’ve always said that a young family has to have money left over for a beer and pizza or whatever. To get them into a home that doesn’t allow them to do some fun things in life is a horrible injustice to the customer. We know better and shouldn’t do that. The advice I gave my own children is ‘don’t become house-poor.'”
Kesterson said that means his team members help clients understand fully the financial ramifications of buying a home.
“We certainly show the customer what they can afford, but we also show the customer the rest of the story,” he said. “For example, there will be some tax savings but those don’t happen as you are making your monthly payments. You might get that tax savings at the end of the year. We take pride in giving good, sound financial advice.”
Family Bowling Center
There were big changes in 2016 at Family Bowling Center, 3599 Fifth Ave. S., as owner Rick Harrington transformed his establishment to make it fully state-of-the-art.
“Almost all of your modern bowling centers today have synthetic lane overlays,” Harrington said. “Family Bowling Center is trying to bring local bowling into the 21st century with some innovative remodeling and installation of new synthetic lanes.”
He said the conversion in 2016 of wood lanes to synthetic made his bowling alley the first one in Fort Dodge to offer that enhancement.
Additionally, the number of lanes was reduced from 24 to 16. The area at the west end of the complex that long has housed eight of the center’s 24 bowling lanes was converted into 10,600 square feet of commercial space. The bowling lanes there were removed.
Synthetic lanes are the industry standard in 21st-century bowling facilities, Harrington said, noting that having them now available in Fort Dodge should appeal to all bowlers, but will be especially attractive to people engaged in competitions.
The new lanes also have the economic advantage of requiring less maintenance than wood lanes. Harrington said that unlike wood lanes there is no need for annual resurfacing and the durability of the surfaces gives synthetic lanes a long lifespan.
Harrington, who has been at the helm for just short of two decades, has a longtime commitment to keeping Family Bowling Center fully in sync with the latest industry trends.
In 1997, he took ownership of what had been the home of Dodger Lanes. He said that by then the earlier operation had fallen on hard times and had been closed. The name was changed and he set about transforming the center’s look and offerings. Automatic scoring was added, as were a snack bar and game room. A diversion called “Cosmic Bowling” — essentially a light and music show coupled with bowling — was gaining popularity in many communities. Bringing it to the Family Bowling Center required a substantial investment in equipment and extensive structural and electronic renovations. Harrington said he concluded it could be a draw that would set his center apart from the competition.
Cosmic Bowling has remained a popular dimension to the experience Family Bowling Center offers on Friday and Saturday evenings. The synthetic lanes will make this popular feature even more visually pleasing, Harrington said.
“It’s a glow finish,” he said. “The entire lane glows. The open bowlers will just plain love them for that ultimate glow during Cosmic Bowling.”
Harrington said Family Bowling Center appeals to a broad spectrum of customers that include participants in leagues, family groups and assorted celebratory gatherings.
Harrington said open bowling is almost always an option.
“We’ve been open-bowling oriented,” he said.
Harrington said providing a venue where families can engage in an entertainment that has appeal to people of all ages is a significant part of the mission of Family Bowling Center.
“I enjoy seeing people have fun,” he said. “The big thing is the family bonding. It’s affordable entertainment for the whole family.”
In September 2015, fans of Lomita’s Mexican Restaurant had a new venue to enjoy classic and specialty dishes such as fajitas and chimichangas.
Lomita’s moved its operations from its previous location at 140 S 25th St. to 2223 Fifth Ave S., the site that formerly housed Zebb’s Burgers and More and before that the Fort Dodge Maid-Rite.
The restaurant opened at its new location Sept. 15, 2016.
The new location is less than a half-mile from the old one.
The move was done to create more space inside and out, according to Alfonso Galvan, owner of the restaurant.
“We wanted to have more space for parking,” Galvan said. “We were pretty tight on parking. The main reason for the move is to have better parking and it is more accessible.”
The 2,350-square-foot building was purchased by Galvan in June for about $310,000, he said.
“We have good food and good service,” he said. “Parking was the issue we had at the old location. … The building itself is in much better shape,” he said. “The restrooms will be bigger and the patio will have at least 10 tables.”
The outdoor area will feature two gazebos and a fire pit.
“We have a lot of people who like to enjoy a beer or smoke a cigarette, so the patio will be a welcome addition,” he said.
In hopes of attracting new customers and bringing a fresh perspective to the restaurant, Galvan said he also plans to have live music or a DJ.
“We are very excited to add the music and outdoor patio,” Galvan said.
Inside the restaurant there are about 18 tables with seating capacity for about six at each table.
An island table and a revamped bar are other new attractions.
Galvan decided to stick with the bright, vibrant colors on the interior and exterior of the building.
“People really like bright colors, so we are going to keep the same colors as the old place,” he said.
The outside is white and blue with a red roof and lights. Inside is mostly blue and yellow.
Baymont Inn & Suites
A new hotel brand arrived on Fort Dodge’s booming Corridor of Commerce as 2017 began. Comfort Inn, 2938 Fifth Ave. S., was renamed Baymont Inn & Suites. The new affiliation makes the hotel part of the Wyndham Hotels network.
Paresh Bhatt, who owns the hotel, said being part of the Wyndham system is a better fit for his hotel than remaining part of the Comfort Inn brand in part because of changes taking place in its future marketing strategy.
“Comfort Inn is asking for three-story hotels minimum,” he said. “We don’t have that. We can’t put a third story on the building. They are also looking for elevators and much larger public areas. We don’t have more room in this small building to make those changes.”
Bhatt said his decision to affiliate with Baymont Inn & Suites was also motivated by the fact that he is already invested in another Fort Dodge hotel that is part of the Choice Hotels network. The Comfort Inn properties are part of the Choice marketing system.
“I’m a partner in the new Sleep Inn in Fort Dodge,” Bhatt said. “It’s part of the Choice Group. So I thought I would go for a different market with this hotel.”
For the most part, guests won’t notice much change when the signage says Baymont Inn & Suites rather than Comfort Inn.
“The new sign will be here in March,” Bhatt said. “We’ve got a banner with the new name that we’ll put up until then. We’ve also just changed all the mattresses. We spent more than $35,000 on mattresses.”
Many of the old mattress sets have been donated to charity.
“With this hotel and others that I own, when we make changes, we don’t sell anything. We give the old items to people in need,” Bhatt said. “About 45 mattress sets went to people in town who were in need.”
He said the lobby and hallway walls of the hotel are also being repainted.
A big change, however, that Bhatt said many guests who travel a lot will find appealing is that they will now be able to participate in the Wyndham Hotels frequent traveler program.
“They have the largest frequent traveler program in the USA,” he said.
According to its corporate website, Wyndham Hotel Group is the world’s “largest and most diverse hotel business.” It features 16 hotel brands with more than 7,800 hotels in 73 countries. Those properties offer nearly 700,000 hotel rooms. The Baymont Inn & Suites sector is a rapidly growing part of this vast system. Bhatt said that was part of the appeal of changing to this affiliation.
“Eighteen months ago when I talked to them, Baymont Inn & Suites had 250 hotels,” he said. “Now they have more than 425. They are geared toward both business and leisure travelers.”
When he arrived in Fort Dodge, Bhatt was the hands-on general manager for the hotel he had just acquired. His career has evolved over the years.
“I’m more of an investor now,” Bhatt said. “The guy that built the new Sleep Inn & Suites here, I’m a partner with him in three different hotels. All the new ones he’s building, I’m joining him.”
He said the success he has had in Fort Dodge has made it possible for him to expand his business.
“Fort Dodge has been very good to me. This hotel is the first business of my life, so it has special place in my heart,” he said. “My kids have gone to Fort Dodge public schools since their first grade. We have benefited immensely from being in a town on the move, at the right place at the right time by moving to Fort Dodge. All my progress has mainly been because of this town. I’ll always be grateful to Fort Dodge for everything we have been able to achieve and do in our lives. I was able to do well here, so I was able to buy a hotel in Oskaloosa, which I sold in November. Then did so well that I was able to buy other places.”
Bhatt said the key to prospering as a hotel owner is quite straightforward.
“I think the secret is taking care of people and that starts with the employees,” he said. “Take care of the employees and they will take care of the customers. That in turn will take care of you.”
The day-to-day operations of the hotel are overseen by Paresh Bhatt’s wife, Dipa Bhatt, and manager Whitney Faulkner. The hotel has 15 employees.
Editor’s note: The section of this story concerning Lomita’s was contributed by Chad Thompson.