Thursday, June 02, 2005

Why does Houston have such a great restaurant scene?

Browsing through peoples' posts of their favorite things to do in Houston, there's a recurring theme of eating out (which I noticed only after posting my own thoughts along the same lines - thanks to Anne for the link). I've also posted about it previously, where USA Today called Houston "the dining-out capital of the nation": on average, we eat out more often than any other city in the country, at the second-lowest average price (Zagat). The Chronicle claims Houstonians eat out a third more times per week at 20 percent lower cost than the national average, with 9,000 area restaurants to choose from (which also makes us one of the nation's leaders in restaurants per capita). Finally, I've talked to tons of people who have moved away from Houston, and one of the first things they mention missing is the restaurants.

So it's definitely one of the great strengths of Houston, but it's also one that raises a lot of skepticism from anybody who hasn't lived here: why would Houston have more or better restaurants than anywhere else? What's so special about Houston? Having given this a bit of thought, I think there are set of factors that have come together to create the "perfect storm" of great restaurants in Houston:

  1. Diversity. Start with Houston having a very diverse population from all over the globe, so there's plenty of people available to start restaurants in their native ethnic cuisine. Not a whole lot of cities can say that. I think a lot of that is related to being the capital of the energy industry, which is an inherently global industry. That plus being a major port city and proximity to Latin America and Cajun Louisiana.
  2. Lack of zoning. Houston's open development culture makes it real easy for anybody to start a restaurant. Plenty of inexpensive space and not a lot of regulations/permitting.
  3. The freeway network. This may seem to be an odd factor, but think about it a minute. We have a very well developed freeway network compared to a lot of cities (mainly because Houston only really grew after the widespread adoption of air conditioning in the 1950s, so the car has been an integral part of its growth vs. many older cities). Outside of rush hour, that network puts a lot of restaurants within 15-20 minutes of most people, so restaurants can easily draw customers from a large area.
  4. Sheer size. We have 5 million people in the metro area. That's a lot of potential customers to draw from, especially when combined with the accessibility of the freeway network. That means there are enough people within easy driving distance to support exotic niche restaurants and ethnic cuisines.
  5. Intense competition. Combining the first 4 factors, we have a lot of restaurants that are easily accessible, meaning that the not-so-great ones die off pretty quickly. Why go to a mediocre restaurant if a much better one is only 5 minutes farther away? In more mobility-challenged cities, many mediocre restaurants survive because they're one of a handful of convenient options within a given neighborhood or area. In essence, they have a partial monopoly. That kind of competitive barrier is almost non-existent in Houston.
  6. Low cost of living, especially housing - part 1. Houston is one of the lowest cost of living major cities in America. Lower cost of living means lower labor costs, which are a big part of the cost of running a restaurant. That lets them keep prices low, which attracts more customers.
  7. Low cost of living, especially housing - part 2. The second impact of a low cost of living is that people have lots of leftover income to spend on eating out. That discretionary income is the raw fuel that drives the restaurant scene. If people are feeling squeezed financially, one of the first things they do is eat at home or pack a lunch to work.
  8. Relatively high average incomes. Mainly because of the high-paying energy industry, Houston has higher average incomes than many similar cities . Not as high as cities like New York and San Francisco, but those cities also have much higher costs of living. Our average incomes are very high compared to our cost of living, which boosts the discretionary income available for spending at restaurants.

So that's my list of reasons for Houston's great dining scene. If you think there are other reasons to add, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

It's a substantial competitive amenity for the city. Cities like to hype amenities like museums and performing arts, but really, how often do you go to a museum or an arts performance? a few times a year? vs. how often do you eat? Hopefully more than a few times a year (although, for ideal health, hopefully less often than me ;-). Great, affordable, accessible restaurants are an amenity you can enjoy every single day. We should be proud, and work as a community to preserve all the elements of our excellent "perfect storm".


At 11:08 PM, June 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree that our restaurants are a substantial competitive amenity.

I think the two key factors on your list are diversity and size, though I might qualify size by saying that it's not so much the sheer number of people as it is the number of people who are inclined to go out to eat frequently. For instance, I've long wondered why Kingwood is such a black hole when it comes to food options, and I think it's not only a lack of ethnic diversity but also having a family-oriented population with long commutes who just don't have enough time or energy on weekdays to go out to eat. (I guess you would say that this is a lack of social and economic diversity.) So despite having something like 50,000 people, all you get is fast food and pizza delivery.

Another factor that hinders Kingwood is a lack of variety in existing building stock that would lend itself to restaurant use.

Lack of zoning might help, but as I mentioned in the Kingwood example, I think it's more about available supply of existing building stock that is suitable for restaurants (esp. non-chain start-ups). As the strip centers of FM 1960 West have aged in the area that I grew up, and as the population has become more diverse in many different ways, this corridor has gone from being a pretty homogenous and gastronomically boring place to increasingly having a great assortment of eating options. All that space for entrepreneurial restauranteurs really helps.

I don't think the freeway network is really a strong contributing factor. Debatable.

Regarding the high average incomes, I'm not sure if that is actually a contributing factor for low to mid-priced restaurants, though I'm sure it would be for high-end establishments. Having lived in the college town of Charlottesville, VA, my experience is that many younger people (singles, childless couples) are willing to spend an unusual percentage of their incomes on restaurants and bars, far beyond what a family with a mortgage and car payments and child care expenses might consider.

Going back to the Kingwood example, my wife and I used to wonder how it was that Charlottesville - with a population size roughly equal to Kingwood, where she grew up - had so many more eating options than Kingwood. And I think the answer relates to diversity, size of population willing to spend heavily and frequently on dining, and available building stock for suitable for start-up non-chain restaurants.

At 5:02 PM, June 03, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The freeway network argument is mainly from personal experience. I live and work in Meyerland, and often meet people for lunch and occasionally dinner on the far west side (I10/Hwy6) and in the upper Kirby area. Those are pretty reasonable trips with 10, BW8, 610, and 59 - but I would take them a *lot* less frequently if it were all surface streets, much less any 15-30mph transit network.

When people are deciding whether to go to eat or not, one of the key questions is "Is there a compelling restaurant within a reasonable distance/time?", where 15-20mins is reasonable for most people. Freeways put a lot more square miles within that 15-20min range than surface streets.

At 9:01 AM, June 04, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you can get from Meyerland to IH-10/SH-6 in a *reasonable* amount of time? I'd be starving by then! ;-)

I think the freeway network is better characterized as being a minor contributing factor rather than a strong one. I say that because while there certainly are instances of longer restaurant drives like the Meyerland to IH-10/SH-6 example that you gave, my feeling is that generally speaking most of our restaurant trips either do not involve the freeway or if they do it's for shorter distances that could easily be accomplished by surface streets. (and in fact, many of these sorts of trips H-GAC would like to capture with "express streets").

You mentioned Meyerland to Upper Kirby - that's one that depending on time of day, I'll take the surface streets rather than the freeway. Taking the freeway out of the equation for that route does not mean that I won't make that trip, but it certainly would for the I-10/SH-6 example.

There may indeed be some instances where restaurants rely heavily on people making drives of over 20 minutes or 10 miles to get there, but for the most part I would think this is a small segment of their clientele. So that's why I would say that freeways are a weak contributor at best rather than a strong one.

At 3:58 PM, June 04, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

10/6: 25 mins via Beechnut, BW8, and 10. I have a friend that works out there. Bit of a stretch, but doable.

My argument would be that the freeway, by at least doubling and probably tripling your net speed vs. surface streets, opens up 2-4x more square miles for access within 15-20 mins (circle area=pi*r^2, and you've increased r by 50-100% with even a small portion of the trip on the freeway). That's 2-4 times more restaurants available, which increases competition and makes it more likely you will think of a compelling one to go to rather than stay at home or your desk.

At 8:21 AM, June 06, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Realistically, considering that dinner time coincides with the evening rush hour, I think this argument only applies on weekends. It's a rare person that will choose to drive 15 miles on a freeway at 6PM on a weeknight to go to a restaurant unless it's a special occasion. Likewise, for the weekday lunch hour, because most workers are constrained by having only an hour for lunch, if they do get on the freeway it would be only for a short distance at most. So I think we're only looking at weekends when the freeway system might influence decision-making regarding dining choices, which is why I think it's a weak contributor at best to Houston's fabulous restaurant scene.

Another factor which could influence restaurant options is density. Think about San Francisco - pick any block, and it seems that within just a few blocks radius you have an amazing variety of restaurants, a variety that it would take us here in Houston several square miles to replicate.

At 4:19 PM, June 06, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Still disagree. Many people eat at 6:30 or 7 or later, when rush hour has cleared out. Or they're headed towards town rather than away, making evening congestion less of an issue. And because networking is so important these days, I've seen 1.5 hours as the new lunch standard, opening up more options.

Yeah, when walking is your mobility mode, 15-20 mins ain't far. You'd better have a lot of density to support nearby restaurants (the Manhattan model). Still, at best, I think you'd have access to many dozens of restaurants walking in SF or NY, whereas I'd bet you have access to hundreds within a 20 minute drive in Houston (out of 9,000 total in the metro).

At 2:15 PM, July 03, 2005, Blogger hcpark said...

I hate to sound like an old-fashioned economist, but I think that supply and demand play a big role here.

1st, there are lots of people here who are in good position to start restaurants. They bring their ethnic and entrepreneurial heritage. But that's not enough. There are lots of customers here who are willing to give it a try. Been to Kim Son lately? Every time I visit, I can see tables of non-Vietnamese being introduced to Vietnamese food. I’ve even noticed an increase in non-Koreans at my favorite Korean restaurant.

I think the relatively harmonious interactions across the diverse groups is one of those wild cards that helps with both the supply and demand side of the restaurant equation. Everyone wins!


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