Suburbia’s staying power
Establishments like Harvey’s—which was voted Best New Restaurant by Falls Church News-Press and garnered buzz from outlets like D.C. Eater and Washingtonian magazine— are challenging the suburbs’ long-standing ho-hum reputation. But even before the current dining revolution, what suburbia lacked in excitement, it more than made up for in terms of numbers.
Since the 1950s, city-dwellers have migrated away from urban centers, pushing into new territory and building those areas up. Historically, the suburbs have promised safety, space, and slower, more laidback living—and it’s a promise that’s stood the test of time. Generation after generation, the migration has continued and even accelerated at times. According to the Pew Research Center, population growth in large suburban counties has increased by 25 percent since 2000—significantly outpacing urban growth at 16 percent. Additional data indicates that Covid increased the suburban appeal; in 2018, nearly a quarter of Americans (23 percent) preferred city life, but by 2021, it was down to 19 percent. Within this time frame, a desire to live in the suburbs grew from 42 to 46 percent.
But while the draw of the suburbs remains as strong as ever, consumers’ willingness to part with big city amenities—think: arts, culture, retail, and, yes, restaurants—has faltered. Restaurant owners, chefs, and other industry workers are also increasingly attracted to suburbia, which offers respite and untapped business opportunities. Not only are such places less saturated, they also have a growing population of foodies who are hungry for the options and quality of the big city, but in their own backyards.
For Preston Lancaster, market data has informed the locations of his various restaurants—but so have gut feel and personal perspective. His business, 33 Restaurant Group, has a half dozen concepts sprinkled around the greater Dallas area, ranging from the larger Plano to Southlake—a suburb with less than 35,000 residents.
When he was laying the groundwork for his group, Lancaster, who hails from Texas but now calls Southern California home, reflected on what he and his peers would want to find in these satellite cities.
“We had a unique perspective in that we lived in the suburbs. We were probably the demographic that we were trying to appeal to as restaurateurs,” he says. At the time, Lancaster and his business partners were in their early to mid-30s with young families, which also happened to be their target audience.
“We asked ourselves, and it sounds really simple and obvious, but, what do we want? What's missing in this area? You have all these homes, you have all these people, [but] Dallas proper has all the cool restaurants and the nightlife and the experiences that come with the restaurants, and we're like, let's create that in the suburbs,” Lancaster says.
The 33 Restaurant portfolio includes a trio of pizza-centric casual concepts (Cadillac Pizza Pub, Heritage Pizza and Taproom, and two-location Taverna Rossa), brewery-restaurant Union Bear, outdoor hangout The Yard, and Suburban Yacht Club, which serves SoCal fare in landlocked Texas. With each of these, Lancaster says the intent was to bring the social activities and experiences of their younger, city-living days to the communities where they now resided since “we don’t have 30 minutes on a Thursday to commute down to Dallas,” as he puts it.
The market gap
Living in San Diego, Lancaster is especially attuned to how greatly restaurant real estate can vary by region. The coasts don’t offer much by way of whitespace (if anything, Lancaster thinks trendy fast casuals with small footprints would have the best chance). But in areas like North Texas, runway abounds. After all, such markets are impeded by neither an overabundance of restaurants nor natural barriers like oceans and mountains.
At the same time, Lancaster warns operators—especially those who are new to the area—not to assume that opening a restaurant in Dallas-Fort Worth is a sure bet. Or that the window of opportunity will remain open indefinitely.
“Coming out of Covid, there's almost a shortage of restaurant space. It's hard to find good locations,” he says. “We're just having so much growth from an influx of people coming from the coast and from different cities.”
Lancaster has a leg-up in that he knows the area well and already has a foothold. Another arrow in the quiver is 33 Restaurant Group’s use of differentiated brands, which makes for a more nimble expansion strategy.
“We started realizing that our model of having different concepts within our arsenal allows us to look at a development and say, ‘Hey, we love this development. We love this location. Which of our concepts would be best here?’” he says. “If we only had one concept, one model … that development has to fit your goal, whereas we can say, this development would be perfect for Union Bear or this would be perfect for Heritage Pizza.”
And once 33 Restaurant Group becomes established in a suburb, it can use its existing cachet to bring in another concept. The group’s very first restaurant, Cadillac Pizza Pub, opened in McKinney in 2012 and became a neighborhood stronghold. So when an adjacent property opened up years later, the team leaped to action.
In deciding what type of establishment to put in the new spot, Lancaster considered the space itself, the McKinney F&B scene, and market data, namely alcohol sales. On that last point, he uncovered certain disparities; some suburbs were posting robust figures while others had only a fraction of the alcohol sales. He says Frisco was averaging about $300,000 per month, while McKinney topped out around $100,000.
“Frisco, Mckinney, Plano—all these places have the same demographic. So why does Mckinney have such a lower amount of alcohol sales?” Lancaster says. “I think what this is telling me, based on the information, is the people in McKinney don't have a place to hang out, enjoy drinks, and enjoy a social, restaurant-bar experience.”
So 33 Restaurant Group created The Yard to fill that gap. Formerly a tapas restaurant, The Yard operates out of a century-old house and, true to its name, takes advantage of the property’s expansive outdoor space under the shade of large oak trees. Lancaster describes it as an “icehouse-type concept” that pulls in families, empty-nesters, young adults, and everyone in between. He adds that since opening in 2018, The Yard has become the No. 1 alcohol sales generator in McKinney.
In the age of craft cocktails, microbreweries, and small-label wines, beverage-forward concepts are shoo-ins for suburban imbibers, often because they come with built-in points of differentiation. That’s been the case for Mary Kenney, who returned to Washington state after a decade in New York City. At the time, she wasn’t angling for downtown Seattle nor was she planning to return to the petite satellite of Issaquah, where she grew up. Bellevue, directly east of Seattle and with about a fifth of the population, offered an ideal in-between. Kenney credits family and the Seattle area’s general atmosphere as strong incentives to move back, but the region’s evolution also factored into the decision.
“[Part of] the motivation was seeing the growth of the city and in particular Bellevue. It kind of strays away from the big city of Seattle, but there are Amazons and Googles coming out here. I also see the beauty of small businesses really wanting to thrive in Bellevue and everyone really wants them to succeed,” she says. “Customers and locals … don’t necessarily want to travel all the way to the big city to see something cool or experience something like a speakeasy bar.”
And so that’s exactly what Kenney and her husband Chris created: a speakeasy-style bar in the heart of a suburban downtown. Kenney says the advent of Covid took some wind out of their sails at first, but last November, Rouge Cocktail Lounge made its grand debut on Main Street in historic Old Bellevue. In addition to a selection of signature cocktails, the cozy yet classy bar serves shareable small plates.
Kenney recalls how she and her husband would seek out different speakeasies around New York as cozy hideaways amid an otherwise bustling city. That vibe is what they wanted to bring to Bellevue—and they’re not the only ones. Per The Seattle Times, a “wave of bars” has been popping up in other satellite cities like Bothel, as well as more residential neighborhoods in the city proper.
“We just thought they were a way to really connect with people and have a little quiet spot,” she says. “Even though it's a nightlife scene, it feels quiet, and it feels secluded.”