Hungry motorists driving on I-35 through Round Rock have their pick of local restaurants, such as Jack Allen’s Kitchen, Kerbey Lane Cafe, or the soon-to-open Cover3 or Hopdoddy Burger Bar. What those motorists might not realize is none of those options were available in the city five years ago.
“Five years ago I would have said Round Rock was driven by I-35 and largely driven by chain-centric pads adjacent to the highway,” said Texas Restaurant Association CEO Richie Jackson. “Now you see a lot more independent or small regional chain operations coming into Round Rock and flourishing.”
Restaurant owners cite the city’s booming population, its demographics and relatively quick permitting process for opening in Round Rock.
“When I decided to open Greenhouse it was all chain restaurants,” said Rob Snow, owner and executive chef at Greenhouse Craft Food off Old Settlers Boulevard. “It’s exciting to have a few new places.”
Increasing local options
Snow said he does not view chain restaurants as his primary competition.
“What we’d like to do is get the people who eat at [chain restaurants] because it’s their only option to know there are options like Greenhouse, Scarlet Rabbit and Jack Allen’s that cost about the same amount of money and use food that comes from right here,” he said. “With a smaller restaurant you can’t afford to put your name in everyone’s face all the time.”
He is open to more local options coming to the city, Snow said, even if they do mean increased competition.
“I’m going to go [to Hopdoddy] to eat as soon as they open,” he said.
Jack Gilmore, owner and executive chef of Jack Allen’s Kitchen, said when he opened in Round Rock he wanted to be as locally oriented as possible by buying from nearby farmers. He said he never thought he would own a place on I-35.
“When we go up and down I-35 all you see is national chain restaurants—north of 500 Denny’s and 200 Cracker Barrels,” he said.
When Gilmore started in Round Rock in 2012 to his knowledge no other restaurants took reservations or provided valet services, both of which Jack Allen’s does, he said.
“I think the community themselves are getting more educated,” Gilmore said. “They have a good palate here, and they care about who they spend their money with. They’re demanding better quality and better services, and they deserve it.”
Hopdoddy co-owner Larry Perdido said what brought Hopdoddy to Round Rock was simple demand.
“One of the top inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org is, ‘When are you coming to Round Rock?’” he said.
When Gilmore first started developing the Round Rock location he told friends in the industry the site would be ready in 14 weeks, he said. He was so confident in that time frame he bet his signature long hair on it, he said. It took 14 weeks and two days, and he had to cut off his hair.
Despite losing the bet, Gilmore said he was happy with the amount of time it took to get through the process.
“The consequences of going longer on the permitting process are one: you’re already paying rent, two: there are people standing around not doing anything, and three: instead of being open in four to six months you haven’t even started building,” he said. “When you open you have to start paying off debt.”
Round Rock Director of Planning Brad Wiseman said city staffers prioritize working with restaurant owners on the owners’ time frame.
“We view development as a good thing,” he said. “We’re clear in explaining the permitting process.”
Regardless of if the restaurant is a national chain or a local eatery operating for the first time, building permits, health and fire codes, and zoning requirements are the same, Wiseman said. For first-time business owners the process can seem “daunting,” so city staffers might spend more time working with local operators, he said.
“If there are any issues, we make sure we work closely with [the owners],” he said. “Instead of identifying a problem and walking away, we’ll identify solutions as well.”
Russ Boles, a principal with Williamson County real estate firm Summit Commercial, said when it comes to finding an optimal location within Round Rock, I-35—and the traffic it brings with it—is still king.
“Friday night isn’t a problem [for restaurant owners]; they are worried about Tuesday night,” he said.
He said the city is seeing some restaurants build away from I-35, such as Hat Creek Burger Co. or The Salt Lick, both of which are located on Hwy. 79.
“As people step out there the market becomes proven a little bit more, leading to more spots and more opportunities,” he said.
Hopdoddy, which now has locations throughout the country, has a team that looks at real estate when selecting a new location, Perdido said.
“If you look around [Hopdoddy] you have people coming in for business lunches, families—a whole mix of different ages and occupations,” Perdido said. “We’re looking for that balance.”
What local restaurateurs are mostly looking for is a building that has the infrastructure and location of an established restaurant so there will be minimal renovations, Boles said.
“It’s expensive to build,” Boles said. “[Restaurant owners] are looking for second-generation spaces, and we don’t have a lot of restaurant turnover. Even bad restaurants are paying the rent and are still there. We don’t have space waiting.”
Snow said it is getting harder to find a spot for a local restaurant to open in Round Rock.
“I think the small guys are getting priced out of the game a bit,” he said. “What they’re asking for in rent in the northern region is what they were asking for rent in Austin a couple of years ago.”