Since opening in 2018, the Yard has become the no. 1 alcohol sales generator in the dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas.
33 Restaurant Group

Since opening in 2018, The Yard has become the No. 1 alcohol sales generator in the Dallas suburb of McKinney, Texas.

The Great Suburban Migration Comes for Restaurants

As more people relocate from cities, the suburbs are shaking off their dull dining reputation and transforming into vibrant communities with an appetite for dynamite restaurants.

One hot July day, right in the thick of a sticky Northern Virginia summer, three local barbers did battle in a Falls Church restaurant.

Each business owner had worked with chef Thomas Harvey to develop a signature dish that would appear on the menu of his eponymous restaurant as part of a competition. Dubbed The Battle of Broad Street, the event raised money for the Falls Church Education Foundation in a wholly unconventional manner and with somewhat high stakes. The most popular dish would find a month-long spot on the Harvey’s menu—it would also be permanently inked on the barber with the least popular dish.

“It was a really fun community event, and we had such a great response. … The tattoo aspect of it was what really draws people,” Harvey says, adding that it could very well become an annual event. “We're all big, bearded, tattooed guys, and like one of the guys said, it looks like the local criminals, [but] here we are promoting education.”

About a month after the Battle of Broad Street, Harvey’s teamed up with a local pie purveyor to host a Dog Days of Summer beauty pageant, which doubled as an adoption event and fundraiser for an area animal shelter.

READ MORE: 7 Hot Markets for Restaurant Growth

It’s community events like these that continue to affirm the chef’s decision to open his own restaurant/café in the D.C. suburb of Falls Church. Competitions and fundraisers not only drum up traffic for Harvey’s, which just debuted in March, they also weave the business into the community fabric and character. As the chef puts it, “I have that kind of feel here.” And that overall feeling works well with his ultimate vision for the restaurant to be a central gathering spot, which he describes as the television show “Cheers” meets a general store.

“It needs to be a neighborhood place and really become a local haunt. I like those weird, funky places where people come to visit from out of town, [and you say], ‘We’ve got to go here; you’ve got nothing like it back where you are like that.’ I love those kinds of places,” Harvey says. He adds that it can be difficult for the suburbs to achieve such a status but Falls Church is on its way. And he’s grateful to be on the ground level.

“Every box I was looking for, Falls Church just ticks it off,” Harvey says. “I think it's going to start growing and putting itself on the map. So to be here in the early stages of it with some really great, established restaurants that have been here for decades … before the whole big rush, I think we're in a good spot for that.”

Butcher Photography

Chef Thomas Harvey (center) says local events like the Battle of Broad Street are among the many perks to living in the suburbs.

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.”

Alyssa Vincent

Roots Southern Table is making the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch a destination unto itself.

A destination unto itself

While entrepreneurs like Lancaster and the Kenneys work to bring restaurants to people in the suburbs, others focus on bringing people to the suburbs by way of restaurants.

Within the same Dallas metropolitan area as 33 Restaurant Group, Roots Southern Table is endeavoring to put the inner ring suburb of Farmers Branch on the map. The elevated casual restaurant by “Top Chef” fan favorite Tiffany Derry and business partner Tom Foley is welcoming guests from other parts of the city—even if that means a half-hour drive.

“In the restaurant, when I talk to tables, I typically say—and I smile when I say it—we are inconveniently 20 minutes from everyone. It is a mutual inconvenience. And then our job is to make the experience strong enough that you don't think about the 20-minute travel time to get to the restaurant,” Foley says.

Roots Southern Table also attracts out-of-towners, thanks in part to Derry’s celebrity and the restaurant’s recent status as a James Beard Award finalist for Best New Restaurant. Nevertheless, these patrons account for only a portion of sales. From Foley’s vantage point, it’s that 20-minute threshold that’s most vital for a sustainable business. “At the end of the day, you're going to be successful based on a pretty controlled radius to your restaurant,” he says.

Foley doesn’t have hard data to support the geographic breakdown of Roots’ customer base—and besides, the restaurant has only been open since June 2021—but he’d estimate that a quarter to a third of guests live within a five-mile radius that might bleed into Addison and other surrounding areas. The next tier (encompassing Plano, Frisco, Dallas, and other points south) comprises about the same amount, if not slightly more. The remaining guests come from even farther afield.

For operators without Roots’ star power, other factors determine whether a restaurant hangs its hat on hyper-local, frequent foot traffic or outsider business.

“I think it has a lot to do specifically with the menu offering,” says Edie Weintraub, founder and CEO of Terra Alma, a boutique retail real estate advisory firm based in Atlanta. “There are certainly restaurants that are destination-oriented and lure people from the surrounding area, but it's probably not somewhere you're going to eat four or five days a week if you have the ability and the money to spend eating out multiple times a week. Then there are well-known and well-respected shops that have a variety of things on their menu that people can visit four or five times a week.”

Weintraub offers barbecue as an example. A restaurant that focuses exclusively on serving the best barbecue in Atlanta will bring in guests from across the metropolitan area and beyond. In contrast, a concept that serves barbecue among many other items might not be a destination, but it could be a regular gathering place for customers who live and work nearby.

Win-win all around

Roots Southern Table marks the first full-service restaurant and the first standalone unit under Foley and Derry’s T2D Concepts umbrella company. The duo had previously opened two food hall locations of its fast casual, Roots Chicken Shak, in Plano and Austin, Texas, and while the former may be considered a satellite city of Dallas, it has six times the population of Farmers Branch. In selecting the site for its more polished concept, community ties were essential.

“One of the other aspects when you're opening a restaurant is all those partnerships that you have—and partnerships not in a formal perspective but supportive partnerships,” Foley says. “The city of Farmers Branch was very supportive. So [the leaders] were instrumental in the design of the location. They hired their consultants and said, when you're building the retail component, let's pull the [restaurant] out from underneath a mixed-use building; let's make it a standalone center. That intentionality makes, in my opinion, the area more attractive.”

In addition to helping Foley and Derry select the best location, the city was instrumental in everything from construction and permitting to getting the word out about Roots Southern Table. After all, Foley says, if the restaurant is successful, it’s a win for the landlord, neighboring businesses, and Farmers Branch all around.

Weintraub has noticed a similar dynamic in Lilburn, Georgia, located about half an hour northeast of Atlanta. The petite city is experiencing a population swell; it posted an estimated 4.6 percent growth between 2020 and 2021, per the U.S. Census Bureau. Within that same timeframe, the city of Atlanta contracted by 0.4 percent.

About a decade ago, Weintraub recalls a couple of restaurants, including 1910 Public House and Agavero Cantina opening downtown. Although both restaurants found success, they didn’t jumpstart the restaurant scene. That’s changing now, with the city as the driving force.

“Lilburn took it upon themselves to really create a space for Main Street,” she says, adding that the city recently repaved its Main Street.

Weintraub, who is collaborating with the city, recently spoke at a Lilburn Business Association meeting, where there was a palpable enthusiasm and sense of anticipation. Attendance, which typically hovers around 10, was up to about 40.

“They're very excited to see more food and beverage and service offerings in their downtown that they could walk to and enjoy. And the city has also taken part in putting in a walking and biking path, a big park with an amphitheater space, public restrooms, and a splash pad,” she says. “There is a public-private partnership that is very important to consider. … The community really wants to see their city grow and the dollars of those residents be spent within their city limits.”

Like Farmers Branch and Lilburn, St. Charles, Illinois, is enhancing its commercial appeal in the hopes of kindling a more energetic destination. About an hour due west of Chicago, it has typically been overshadowed by another satellite, Geneva, a larger city in the Fox River Valley, with a bustling retail scene and a dining reputation that pulls guests from surrounding suburbs. But restaurants like The Ordinary Grace are making St. Charles, particularly its waterfront entertainment district, a bustling spot in its own rite.

Hovering between American upscale and fine dining, the restaurant is the brainchild of Chicago transplants chef Chris Curren and Megan Curren. Since debuting a year ago, The Graceful Ordinary has been regularly filled to capacity. The Currens say that the majority of guests live in the immediate area, but others are traveling from farther away.

“We are definitely drawing a much larger crowd than just the Fox River Valley, which is great for the business. It’s also good for the community that we're in because the people that come and visit us will see other businesses in the area, and it makes them want to come back and maybe try something else the next time around,” Chris Curren says.

St. Charles may be sharing in these rewards, but it’s also responsible for cultivating a desirable market for restaurants and retailers. The Currens laud the St. Charles Business Alliance as a hands-on partner. For example, the nonprofit group runs tandem marketing campaigns to highlight special events at the restaurant. On the flip side, The Graceful Ordinary has helped promote local festivals and initiatives through its social media presence.

“The city has been unbelievably supportive, which has been one of the other biggest differences between doing business out here versus in Chicago,” Megan Curren says. “It’s great for us if we can market ourselves and put our name out there as a restaurant, but as a whole, St. Charles has a wonderful scene. So we're all in all about promoting St. Charles as a destination in general.”

Matt Reeves

Rib-eye with seafood croquette and cauliflower purée at The Graceful Ordinary.

Mixed use, multiple opportunities

The Graceful Ordinary along with Rouge in Bellevue, Harvey’s in Falls Church, and Cadillac Pizza Pub and The Yard in McKinney are all nestled in walkable downtown areas, representing an increasingly popular city-suburb hybrid that in many ways, resembles small towns of yore. But real estate opportunities within suburbs are not restricted to these compact locales. Traditional shopping centers and malls have fallen out of favor in the past decade or two, but mixed-use developments have risen to take their places.

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill CEO Steve Kislow calls these models lifestyle centers, and they’re prime targets for the burgeoning restaurant chain. Although Firebirds has begun exploring more urban real estate opportunities, Kislow says that more often than not, the brand’s guests live in the suburbs, not downtown. And within suburbia, lifestyle centers are Firebirds’ sweet spot.

The key to a successful lifestyle center, Kislow says, is having a balanced mix of retail, restaurants, residences, grocery stores, etc. that get daily usage. To that end, offices, once a pillar of mixed-use developments, may be less relevant Covid as uncertainty continues to swirl around the future of in-person and at-home work.

“[With] the evolution of real estate over the last 10 years, it's certainly in the same suburb market, but I think you used to go, ‘All right, where are the retail synergies? Where is the “best mall” in the area?’ Then you go after them, and that's the bull’s-eye,” Kislow says. “That's changed significantly over the years.”

Instead, he adds, Firebirds likes to pursue lifestyle centers with popular anchors like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. “It’s that high visibility; it’s that traffic. Be where people are on a regular basis. And the reality is that’s not about the big malls and theaters anymore,” Kislow says.

From his point of view, theaters—which were also once an integral part of mixed-use developments—have been supplanted by concepts like Topgolf. And while eatertainment brands do compete with traditional restaurants to a certain degree, their presence can make for a more desirable location. In fact, going into an area—downtown or mixed-use—that’s home to other restaurants can be good for the suburbs. A higher concentration of dining options only intensifies the pull to a place that might otherwise be overlooked.

“It's really hard for someone who's been operating in the city to pick up and move to a strip center that has no anchor,” Weintraub says. “It’s just like you don't want to go to summer camp by yourself; you want to go with a buddy because it's easier to be successful as a team rather than as an individual. I think a lot of the success that comes from the folks who have arrived in suburbia is either in a mixed-use [development] or a walkable downtown because people are already drawn there for other reasons.”

Kislow predicts the independent restaurants will continue filling in revitalized Main Streets, but Firebirds will stick with its lifestyle center targets. It continues to be a winning formula—one of its most recent units is in the Alliance Town Center, a walkable development with shopping, dining, and entertainment options in Fort Worth, Texas.

Another factor is the physical space. Although Firebirds has built smaller stores and continues to innovate on that front, its average size runs around 6,500 square feet.

“I'm seeing a lot of smaller independent spaces [downtown]. Most of our footprints are a little bit larger than what the downtown area can accommodate,” he says. But with mixed-use properties continuing to crop up, Kislow foresees opportunities aplenty. “It's never been more exciting to have the majority of your portfolio and your growth strategy in the suburbs,” he adds.

Where everybody knows your name

In the smaller, less frenetic suburbs, many restaurant operators might find it easier to build relationships with community leaders, neighboring businesses, and other stakeholders. And the same could be true of connecting with guests.

Before opening his restaurant-plus-market, Harvey served as the executive chef for Tuskie’s Restaurant Group, whose multiple concepts are scattered across Northern Virginia. Because his role entailed managing operations at all locations, Harvey spent a lot of time in his car—he ballparks the annual mileage around 60,000. When Covid struck, he started reconsidering this lifestyle.

“I really wanted more of an urban environment with a small-town feel, where people just love where they are, but they still have that urban vibe and the movement and the pace and the trendy funkiness of the city,” he says. “Falls Church is 2.2 square miles; it’s very walkable. The whole community knows everybody.”

In an age when guest engagement is arguably the most essential part of full-service dining, tight-knit suburbs have an inherent edge—and more restaurateurs are recognizing the advantages to leaving the big city.

Since opening The Graceful Ordinary last November, the Currens have seen regulars frequent the restaurant and also recognized those guests around town. This dynamic was always part of the plan, as evidenced by its name. Per the restaurant’s website, “ordinary” was a colonial term for a local tavern that was the center of community life.

“Within the first few weeks, we saw familiar faces at the bar or having dinner with us. We do see people all over town whether going to one of the other restaurants or bars in the area or just running into people at the grocery store,” Chris Curren says. “And that's really a big part of wanting to be in the hospitality industry. It's the relationships that you get to build and the lives that you get to impact on a regular basis.”

Like The Graceful Ordinary, Harvey’s has experienced a similar phenomenon despite only being open a short period. Locals are already frequenting the downtown spot, and Harvey is working on new ways—such as building ready-to-go sides into the market side—to expand the services he offers.

Falls Church residents welcomed him into the fold, making the chef feel at home and making themselves at home. In reflecting on the past months, Harvey’s “Cheers” dreams have turned into a reality.

“Since we've opened, people will be sitting at the bar, and then you hear people screaming across the dining room, ‘Hey, how are you?’ And they're screaming back and forth at each other [because] their neighbors are here,” Harvey says. “It’s really got a fun feel like that.”