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Wendy's takes a bite of East Lake market

When Ian Shaw got up Monday, he planned to grab some food and hang out with his friends.

But by 10:37 a.m., the 15-year-old had made local history of sorts. Still hungry after a morning pit stop at McDonald's, he headed for the new Wendy's across the street in the Shoppes at Boot Ranch.

His $1.06 order _ a quarter-pound double-stack cheeseburger _ made him the restaurant's first customer ever.

"It tastes good. It tastes historic," said the East Lake High School sophomore, who said he was skipping school.

After two months of construction, Wendy's opened quietly Monday. No flags, banners or catchy advertisements marked the seashell pink restaurant.

The only notice to passers-by was a sign on the marquee that read: "Open, open, open."

In another location, the emergence of another fast-food restaurant in a saturated market might not even raise an eyebrow.

But in East Lake, where McDonald's has held a McMonopoly for six years, it means choice. And for both restaurants, it means competition.

"For the longest time, McDonald's has been the only place to go," said East Lake's Jocelyn Zimmet, who had her 5-month-old daughter, Marissa, and 2-year-old son, Alex, in tow at McDonald's for lunch Monday.

"I think McDonald's will lose some business. I know we're going to be going to Wendy's. They have healthier choices there."

That may be Wendy's biggest selling point in the neighborly competition, according to restaurant analyst Caroline Levy.

"Wendy's has always been rated by the consumer as the best-tasting product," said Levy, of New York's Smith, Barney and Shearson.

"I love it," said Dianna Rudnick, a 32-year-old New Port Richey visitor who ordered the first Super Bar meal. "I'm making a taco. Then, I'm going to get the zucchini spaghetti."

Across the room, Glenice Rhodas of East Lake waited for a celebrity with her 2-year-old son, Michael. She'd heard a rumor that the folksy founder and pitchman for Wendy's, Dave Thomas, might stop by for the opening.

Instead, customers got Bob Flynn _ a 62-year-old retired insurance executive from Oldsmar who looks somewhat like Thomas. Flynn works part time as a host at the restaurant and got more than a few stares as he cleared tables and passed out mints:

"They said, "You should change your name tag to Dave.' "

Restaurant analyst Levy thinks the competition between the two fast-food chains will hinge on their differences.

"McDonald's . . . I think their real market niche is value and kids. Wendy's is delivering extremely high quality (products). That's really what differentiates them."

Robin Micerak of Palm Harbor brought sons Joey, 3, and Jordan, 2, to McDonald's for some food and fun.

"Wendy's is a little more expensive," she said before taking the boys outside to the bustling play area. "It's easier for me to come here because there's things for them to do."

Yet around noon, just as many kids were packed into Wendy's dining room across the street _ where there is no playground.

McDonald's owner Stu Brown said he's not worried.

"Competition is good for everybody. It makes us sharper," he said. "I really don't foresee much of an impact. . . . We're pretty entrenched in the community."