Four restaurants have opened along Airport Boulevard since January, and at least two more are in the works.
Restaurant owners along the heart of the corridor between I-35 and FM 2222 said a variety of factors made the area attractive for opening their businesses, including the high vehicle traffic, reasonable rental prices and the growth of surrounding neighborhoods.
“You’re seeing all these neighborhoods popping up because Austin is getting more dense; it’s becoming more neighborhood-driven for dining and for drinking,” said Shawn Cirkiel, owner of new Spanish restaurant Bullfight. “That’s why you see all these little districts. … And they’re all having the ability to sustain based on the neighborhood.”
Bullfight opened on Airport Boulevard on Sept. 8, and Cirkiel said the restaurant is busy every night. He said he kept the restaurant casual and approachable so it could be the neighborhood’s restaurant. Bullfight offers valet services to its patrons to make sure an influx of cars do not disrupt the surrounding homeowners’ quality of life.
Change along the corridor
As new restaurants are seeing success, there are also those establishments that have occupied the corridor for decades. Quality Seafood Market opened in Austin almost 78 years ago, then moved to Airport Boulevard in 1969 or 1970, owner Carol Huntsberger said.
As Austin home prices began to rise, people were able to move to the Airport Boulevard area and renovate homes at an affordable price while living in a good school district, Huntsberger said. The airport’s relocation, the development of the Mueller neighborhood and the Travis County Tax Office relocation all contributed to the area’s revitalization, she said.
However, she said she remembers a time when the business considered extending its dinner hours until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. but chose not to after receiving feedback from patrons who said they did not feel the area was safe enough to be out that late.
“People just told me no way they would come over here that late at night,” Huntsberger said. “I think people would come later now.”
When The Omelettry was forced to relocate last year, the ownership team could not find a good second-generation building until it landed a corner spot in an Airport Boulevard strip mall. The Soup Peddler Real Food & Juice Bar plans to open in the same strip by the end of the year.
The Omelettry co-owner Ken Carpenter said he is certain area lease prices will increase in the future. The business currently has a 10-year lease, but he expects the rent to rise when it comes time to re-sign. However, he said his restaurant has benefited from being close to I-35.
Jason Faludi, a partner with real estate group Aquila Commercial, specializes in finding locations for new and relocating restaurants. He said Airport Boulevard is an attractive corridor because of its visibility, ample parking and favorable lease prices. He compared the transition occurring in the area to how Burnet Road and South Lamar Boulevard transformed into restaurant and retail business destinations.
Because of the area’s altering demographics and change within surrounding neighborhoods, he said businesses such as pawn shops that currently exist along the road may be phased out.
Although locally born restaurants are not typically known for having drive-thrus, Sala and Betty owners seek to entice Airport Boulevard commuters to choose their restaurant—even if it means staying in their vehicles.
Sala and Betty co-owner Terry Wilson said the team has had to adapt and be flexible to customer demands that may have not matched initial expectations—even in the booming area.
“You have to do your homework and stay in the forefront of people’s minds, and that takes a lot of dedication to social media and that sort of thing,” Wilson said. “Someone has to be working that angle because there are so many [dining] options out there that you have to stay competitive.”
Plans are underway for new standards to be set for Airport Boulevard in the city’s land development code when CodeNEXT, the process to rewrite the city's land development code, is completed by 2017. Urban design planner Jorge E. Rousselin said funding is needed to improve road patterns and install traffic signals and sidewalks as part of any long-term solution.
With current code it is difficult for business owners to do anything other than interior remodels, Rousselin said. However, with the CodeNEXT changes it is likely zones will be created to allow for mixed-use retail businesses along Airport Boulevard to create a transition area to increase housing options without interfering with the character of existing single-family neighborhoods.
“The corridor itself is in transition,” Rousselin said. “It’s shifting from a mostly auto-oriented highway to a vibrant, mixed-use destination for Austin.”
Neighborhoods' character will still be preserved as the code changes, and changes will be guided by input the community has given on how it would like to see the area change over time, Rousselin said.