When Delores Tronco moved to New York City, she was hardly a bright-eyed novice with little restaurant experience. Instead, she arrived an accomplished businesswoman, one who had already cofounded and run an acclaimed restaurant, Work & Class, in Denver. But despite her hometown success, the Big Apple beckoned. For so many in the food world and beyond, New York is a proving ground of sorts; to wit, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Tronco wanted to learn and eventually thrive in arguably the most competitive city in the world.
“I made the decision to sell my shares of Work & Class and to go chase that more difficult market,” she says. “I not only wanted to have my own restaurant there but [also] really wanted to be a student of that market first and so I waited tables, I managed another restaurant, I went to wine school at the International Wine Center in Midtown. I really tried to look at, what are my weak points, what are the areas where I can improve.”
So while Tronco may have been following a dream like so many who come to the city, she was able to transform hers into a reality relatively quickly. Three years after walking away from Work & Class, she had a new restaurant, The Banty Rooster, which debuted in the West Village in December 2019. Specializing in Southwestern fare—something of a rarity in New York—the restaurant made a splash, with guests filing into the 75-seat space and media outlets including Eater, Grub Street, and The New York Post singing its praises.
But 96 days after the grand opening, The Banty Rooster, like so many restaurants, was forced to shut down. When it reopened for al fresco dining in the summer, it was only for a bittersweet interlude. The landlord had been unwilling to work with Tronco regarding rent, leading the restaurant to permanently close in August 2020.
“We did a farewell tour. I wanted to go out on my own terms and just say good-bye to the neighborhood. It was emotional, as you could imagine,” she says.
Tronco packed up and drove back to Denver. If not for the pandemic, she would still be in New York City.
Out of the big city
For restaurant operators, major metropolises have long been a go-big-or-go-home gamble, thanks to cutthroat real estate, sky-high rent, and an oversaturated dining scene. That’s why over the last couple of decades, a number of chefs and restaurateurs have left the big city to pursue greener pastures.
But their exits were oftentimes not to the suburbs, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead they sought smaller, burgeoning cities, where they could help shape the nascent restaurant landscape.
COVID likely accelerated this migration while also leading business owners to reconsider their growth plans—or in the case of Parker Hospitality Group, its headquarters.
Currently based in Chicago, the group operates multiunit restaurant The Hampton Social, speakeasy lounge The Bassment, and Mediterranean concept Nisos, which is slated to open in the spring. The Hampton Social has eight locations, including outposts in Orlando and Naples, Florida, and Nashville, Tennessee. Owner Brad Parker is exploring the possibility of moving the company’s base of operations to the Sunshine State, citing Chicago’s strict COVID-era regulations and a rise in crime.
“The pandemic threw fuel on the fire in terms of people wanting to leave the city for a different lifestyle,” Parker says. “There was an overwhelming sentiment of people feeling like they needed to get out, and those factors led people to leave sooner than planned.”
For Parker, people leaving cities often fall into one of two camps: those who follow the traditional route of settling down in the city’s suburbs and those who go much farther afield.
“While there were many people who did not want to leave Chicagoland, unfortunately they ended up leaving the state altogether,” he says. “We’re very fortunate to have restaurants based in multiple locations. We ourselves are seeing that city migration flow-over in our other markets.”
Outposts in different cities and states have also offered Parker a glimpse into how widely attitudes around the coronavirus can vary. He says it’s a night-and-day difference between the Chicago and Florida stores. In the former, people are reluctant to shake hands or talk unmasked, while in the latter, they’re reluctant to mask up at all.
It’s an ideological divide that has permeated all facets of business and society. Restaurants in cities with tighter restrictions may support those policies, but many are faring financially worse than concepts in markets with looser regulations. So when it comes time for a growing chain to pick its next city or region, chances are it will gravitate toward places where business is doing well. That’s why many are planning expansion into states like Florida and Texas, as well as up-and-coming cities like Nashville, Tennessee, and Cincinnati.
“A city like Nashville is really booming; it has been for the past couple years,” Parker says. “You feel like you can do the things you want to do in Nashville. It has live music, great concerts, amazing restaurants, and a standard of living that’s dollar-for-dollar better than if you look at Chicago or New York.”
Recent data from reservation platform OpenTable also paints a rosy picture for a restaurant’s prospects in Music City. In August, reservations (including online, phone, and walk-in) at area restaurants were up half a percentage point compared to August 2019. While this pales in comparison to some markets like Naples, which was up more than 25 percent, it is far better than Chicago (down 27 percent) and New York City (down 51 percent). Plus, Nashville benefits from a trendy reputation that has young professionals migrating from cities and suburbs across the country.
Though not as red-hot as its southern neighbor, Cincinnati is also on the road to recovery, albeit in a different way. Consumer finance resource MoneyGeek tracked hospitality jobs across more than 300 metropolitan areas in the U.S., and Cincinnati was among the top performers. As of this past June, the city had recovered 90 percent of jobs in the greater foodservice, lodging, tourism, and entertainment sector.
That’s heartening news for restaurants like Another Broken Egg. Over the past 18 months, the breakfast concept has opened two locations in Cincinnati and is already looking across the river into Northern Kentucky for additional units.
“Cincinnati is experiencing a resurgence as people are moving back into the city from the suburbs and are looking for restaurants outside of the typical chains they are used to seeing,” says Jeff Sturgis, chief development officer for Another Broken Egg. “Neighborhoods like Hyde Park are being redeveloped and attracting concepts like ours to create a new energy and vitality for older parts of the city,” Sturgis says. Hyde Park is home to one of Another Broken Egg’s two Cincinnati locations; the second is in a suburb just north of the metropolitan interstate loop.
Indeed, while transplants from big cities are contributing to Cincinnati’s growth, suburbanites’ return to smaller downtowns may yet play a larger role. It helps, too, that smaller urban areas are working to revitalize downtown neighborhoods and city centers. So while people may be departing from New York, Chicago, L.A., and other metropolitan areas, the second- and third-tier cities could offer the best of both worlds: big city amenities with small city prices.
A permanent vacation
In terms of larger market areas, many growing restaurant chains are zeroing in on Florida. The state has built a reputation for pro-business tax policies and while its COVID response has been a source of controversy, restaurants have performed relatively well throughout the pandemic.
The state has long been home to full-service titans like Darden, Bloomin’ Brands, Brinker, The Cheesecake Factory, and more, but it also holds appeal for the next generation of casual-dining players. In addition to Another Broken Egg, fellow breakfast brands First Watch and Keke’s Breakfast Cafe are also based in Florida. And while other growing concepts might not consider relocating their headquarters like Parker Hospitality is, they are planting flags.
It helps, too, that parts of Florida that were once predominately vacation destinations are now welcoming a greater number of permanent residents.
“What used to be off-season, it’s still a little bit less than season, but it’s not like off-season was in 2019. So that means there are more people who have migrated to South Florida at this time, which is making South Florida a real hot market,” says Tony Montero, CEO of Texas-based Hai Hospitality Group, which includes Uchi, Uchiko, Uchiba, and Loro restaurants.
Montero says he can’t base this observation off the company’s numbers since its first Florida location, an Uchi in Miami, didn’t open until earlier this year. But restaurant friends who’ve been long established in Florida have confirmed as much. Having grown up in South Florida himself, Montero also has an innate understanding of how much foot traffic can fluctuate with the seasons.
But non-natives are also privy to this shift. Cameron Mitchell Restaurants will open a new location of its seafood-centric concept, Del Mar, in Naples before year-end.
“Naples has been very strong in their recovery. It is a very popular place for people to live and visit,” says vice president of development Steve Weis. “We know that guests of Fifth Avenue in Naples would embrace the Del Mar menu and love the stunning restaurant we are designing.”
The restaurant group also has its eye trained on the eastern side of the state for expansion of its various concepts.
The “end of off-season” isn’t limited to just Florida. Another Texas-based concept, Abuelo’s, has had an outpost in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for 16 years but as of late, business hasn’t dropped off at the end of tourist season.
“Myrtle Beach’s year-round population is growing and more and more ‘locals’ are discovering us, which means more people are dining during the week,” says Brian Bell, vice president of marketing and merchandising for Abuelo’s. “We absolutely anticipate restaurant growth, as well as additional businesses outside of the restaurant industry.”
He adds that other factors have also come into play. For one, Southwest Airlines now flies into Myrtle Beach. And since South Carolina COVID restrictions are looser than other parts of the country, more people are choosing to vacation—and work—there. According to MoneyGeek, Myrtle Beach had boosted its leisure and hospitality jobs 126 percent in June 2021 compared to the previous year.
Montero ascribes the steadier business flow to relocation, but he also thinks consumers’ general eagerness to be out and about plays an important part.
“I think there’s a combination of more people moving to those cities—cities where they know they can be outdoors and it’s not going to get cold,” he says. “And then obviously there’s the pent-up demand with guests that are just like, ‘It’s been a year and a half now, and I’m ready to eat some great food and get out in the world a little bit.’”
A sense of place
Miami is only one of two Hai Hospitality locations not in the state of Texas. The other, Denver, may not appear to have much in common with Miami, but Montero points out that both embrace a blend of urban and outdoors—the outdoors just happens to be beaches for one and mountains for the other.
And therein lies an important consideration in selecting a market for expansion. Proximity does not equate similarity; oftentimes factors like population demographics, industry, and overall energy are more important. For Hai Hospitality, Miami and Denver have more in common than Miami and say, Tampa or Orlando. The company is still very much a Texas operation with the rest of its locations in Dallas, Houston, and Austin, but in looking beyond its home state, Hai Hospitality is more focused on finding complementary markets rather than saturating a new region.
Taffer’s Tavern is one growing group that has eschewed the idea of regional expansion in favor of market opportunism. The restaurant opened its first location in Alpharetta, Georgia, (about half hour north of Atlanta) last fall and already has a pipeline filled with deals for Savannah, Washington, D.C., Boston, Las Vegas, as well as northern Florida. Taffer’s Tavern is also aggressively pursuing Michigan.
Founded by restaurant consultant, entrepreneur, and television personality Jon Taffer, the brand is in a unique position when it comes to expansion. Before exploring real estate opportunities, the restaurant first looks at brand power in a particular market.
“Branding Taffer’s Tavern is different from a traditional restaurant because we don’t need to build the brand in each market. For us, we have a 10-year history of TV branding,” Taffer says of his Paramount Network show, “Bar Rescue.” “So we look at which markets are heavy penetration markets for the brand on television, and that’s an indicator that other restaurant companies don’t get to use.”
Taffer adds that other elements, like market economics, demographics, and tourism, come into play, but they do not supersede that first criterion. Another advantage to Taffer’s star power lies in marketing. Instead of paying for aggressive media campaigns to get the word out, local news outlets are likely to seek out Taffer for interviews.
These factors combined with lower labor costs (Taffer’s uses computerized and automated cooking systems as well as server tablets), has the brand more bullish than most. Major cities like D.C., Boston, and Las Vegas might intimidate up-and-coming chains, but not Taffer’s.
That all goes to show that what constitutes a “hot market” is highly subjective. Taffer says it’s important to consider, “what kind of impact is that brand going to make in that marketplace.” Restaurants of the same ilk might zero in on buzzworthy cities, but the successful operators choose them for reasons that go beyond mere popularity.
For Tronco, Denver was home. She knew the market well and had already built a successful restaurant from the ground up. And upon her return, she did it once again. This fall, after only a year back in town, she debuted The Greenwich in Denver’s bustling River North “RiNo” Art District.
The concept pays homage to The Banty Rooster in many ways, beginning with the name—her New York City restaurant was located on Greenwich Avenue. The kitchen celebrates local produce but also slings “pies” (New York’s preferred term for pizza) in its wood-fired oven. And while the bohemian interior harkens to the Big Apple, it also takes advantage of a larger space; The Greenwich seats about 130, a third of which are on its outdoor patio. Two garage doors open the dining room up to the outside, something Tronco says, “was appealing to me, especially post-pandemic, that idea of air circulation being your friend.”
Although she left New York sooner than intended, Tronco is hopeful she’ll see familiar faces from back East. When she moved to New York, traveling Coloradans who had dined at Work & Class would stop in to visit her at The Banty Rooster. She told New York regulars about the move last year and thinks the same phenomenon might repeat itself.
“These are two separate worlds, but I don’t think they’re as separate as we sometimes make them out to be. It’s been interesting for me to kind of do business in two different cities and now to be back in Denver,” she says.
After all, no matter the city or town, a restaurant is ultimately a place unto itself.
“I think, [with] great restaurants, there’s an immediate sense of soul and a sense of place when you walk into them, whatever that might be. And it’s really important,” Tronco says. “Those are the places where we all love to spend our time.