The next great American restaurants are in the suburbs. But can they thrive there?
Megan Curren, 35, owner of Graceful Ordinary, a fine dining restaurant in St. Charles, Illinois, said while many Chicago restaurants are still hurting financially due to the pandemic, St. Charles is recovering faster. Spaces like hers have plenty of room for outdoor dining, she said, and people are moving into the area — not out of it.
Yet this seemingly symbiotic relationship between restaurants and diners has its complications.
As suburbs welcome more diverse businesses that enrich the community, this success may attract the attention of developers, said Willow Lung-Amam, associate professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland. The resulting developments can drive up costs, forcing out the same contractors who helped make the area more attractive in the first place.
Mikey Ochoa opened his Latin restaurant, Oculto, in Castro Valley, Calif., last December. But he can’t afford to live nearby. In Castro Valley, he said, “the price of a one-bedroom apartment is higher than my two-bedroom apartment” in Hayward, just three miles away.
Mr. Ochoa, 31, added that Castro Valley is not well equipped for an influx of restaurants. Many spaces for rent don’t have refrigeration, fume hoods or grease traps, he said, and building a restaurant there could end up costing more than in town. He opened Oculto at Castro Valley Marketplace, a food hall where he was able to negotiate an affordable lease.
The design of some suburbs makes it even more difficult for independent restaurateurs to succeed.
While not all suburbs are alike, in general, suburban planners are unsure how to best support independent restaurants, said Dr. Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo. Because they don’t understand that these businesses often have a shorter financial trail than larger restaurant groups or chains, planners are less likely to award economic development grants or relax zoning restrictions.
Restaurant owners must also navigate many local government departments, including health, planning and zoning, which may not be as well prepared to meet the needs of independent owners as cities.
“I haven’t come across suburbs that do a great job of streamlining the process,” Dr. Raja said.
Dr. Lung-Amam, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning, said many suburbs lack public transit and aren’t zoned for mixed-use development, so homes and businesses can’t exist in the same area. Restaurants therefore have few nearby residents who do not have to go there to eat.