This trend is evident in establishments such as the craft-burger spot Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Vintage Park and the literature-themed American restaurant The Provisioner’s Tale in historic Old Town Spring.
Restaurant owners and local chamber of commerce presidents cite Spring and Klein’s growing population, cultural diversity and affordable property for the recent uptick in unique restaurants.
Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association, said restaurateurs consider two key factors when deciding on a location: customer base and affordability. Both factors are subjective, but Spring and Klein are able to fulfill both needs, she said.
“There’s a Venn diagram sweet spot of really nice affordability and options, with the population to back it up,” Stewart said.
Barbara Thomason, president of the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce, said Spring and Klein have experienced an increase in the number of young families moving into the area, which she believes plays a role in the type of restaurants opening.
“We are starting to see younger couples move into the area with plans to have children because of the strong schools and affordable housing,” Thomason said. “They don’t want to live in a high-rise inside [Loop 610].”
Tomas Villarreal, owner of Mingo’s Latin Kitchen—a food truck serving Latin street food with a Texas influence—said he also has noticed this trend. When his food truck opened two years ago, he said he thought trips into downtown Houston would be his primary revenue source. However, the number of young families in the area has enabled him to spend the majority of his time serving customers at various churches and apartment complexes throughout Spring and Klein.
The population in unincorporated Harris County has grown 95 percent since 2000—from about 1.04 million residents to an estimated 2.03 million in January 2017. Stewart said the growth was spurred by oil and gas companies moving to Houston’s northern suburbs, such as the ExxonMobil campus that opened in Springwoods Village in 2014. This created a gap for innovative restaurants to fill as people who lived and worked in Spring and Klein looked for establishments that did not require driving into the city.
“As areas develop, retail comes in, along with businesses and hospitals and professionals,” Stewart said. “And all of a sudden there [are] daytime and nighttime opportunities for restaurants to fill the gaps.”
Thomason said growth along Hwy. 249—including Noble Energy and HP campuses—has attracted many new restaurants to The Vintage. Austin-based Hopdoddy Burger Bar opened in Vintage Park this spring, while the fast-casual Japanese restaurant U-Maki Sushi Burrito opened in June in Vintage Marketplace.
Mitch Liggett, vice president of design and development for Hopdoddy, said the owners chose the location because of the large number of businesses in Vintage Park. U-Maki owner Byron Lee also said this was a factor in choosing a location for his restaurant as it caters to the lunch crowd, which demands quick and fresh food.
The growing population also creates a larger labor pool that benefits restaurants. Stewart said this could be a reason why downtown restaurants, such as organic eatery Ruggles Green, which will open in the fall, also build restaurants in Vintage Park.
As the area’s population grows, its diversity presents opportunities for diners to explore different restaurants and try new types of food.
Clay Alling, who operates literature-themed The Provisioner’s Tale—which opened last November— in Old Town Spring said the area’s diversity is especially apparent when groups of people from different cultural backgrounds dine together and encourage each other to try new foods.
Despite The Provisioner’s Tale’s primarily American menu, Alling said he has prepared Chilean, French, Chinese and South African cuisines. He said he is happy to prepare off-the-menu items—as long as he has the ingredients and the time—because it generally encourages diners to experiment.
Cultural diversity also influences the type of cuisines chefs want to make. Stewart said fusion restaurants—which blend several cuisines on one menu—are often a reflection of what many families eat at home.
“You have got a Latino and Vietnamese family that is blended together—they are going to figure out a way to combine their cultures when cooking,” Stewart said.
This can be seen at the Gulf Coast Cafe—a Cajun and Mexican fusion restaurant that opened last December on Spring Cypress Road. Wanda Garza—whose family is from Northern Mexico—owns the restaurant with her husband, Carson Menard, who is from Louisiana. Garza said items on the menu blend the seasonings and ingredients of the two cultures.
Food trucks represent another culinary approach that has scored success in Spring and Klein. Jeff Handojo, one of the founders of 11 Below Brewing Company in Spring, said his brewery hosts food trucks—including Mingo’s Latin Kitchen—in its parking lot on Thursday, Friday and Saturday every week. Handojo, who grew up in Cy-Fair, credits the area’s diversity for Spring and Klein’s successful food truck business.
“You look at Houston—Bellaire has Chinatown, but out here in the suburbs you get a mix of a lot of things,” Handojo said. “And I think that it has been interesting to see that.”
Myeshi Briley, president of the Spring-Klein Chamber of Commerce, said the collaboration between restaurants and food trucks is a key aspect of the developing food scene in the area.
“Spring right now is one of the greatest places to be when it comes to that market,” Briley said. “It is almost like a breeding ground for something unique.”
Before opening in Vintage Marketplace, Lee said he planned to open U-Maki in downtown Houston. However, when he began looking at properties and their prices, he shifted his search to the suburbs.
“Based on value, based on size and what we would get, [downtown Houston] was ... not attractive or appealing to us,” Lee said.
Handojo said he and the other two co-owners of 11 Below Brewing also looked at properties closer to Houston before they decided on the Willowbrook area, where they opened in March 2015. Affordability was one of the determining factors, as the properties they looked at in Houston’s Heights area were more expensive than the warehouse they currently rent. Another major factor was the three owners’ desire to set up in the area where they live, Handojo said.
Despite being in the suburbs, Handojo said the brewery is still close enough to Houston to attract the downtown crowd. This ability to benefit from cheaper property values while remaining close to the Houston market is a significant incentive for businesses to open in the Spring and Klein area, Briley said.
Restaurateurs are also finding Spring and Klein to be more affordable than The Woodlands. Alling said he initially planned on opening The Provisioner’s Tale in The Woodlands, but he found the rent far too high.
“It was like $30,000 a month for what I was trying to create, and now [in Old Town Spring] it is $1,000 a month,” Alling said.
While affordability is important, an area has to have the right population to make it worth opening a restaurant, Stewart said. Restaurateurs have to compromise between affordability and potential customers.
“You can go out in the middle of a field, and it would be super cheap to open a restaurant, but you have to have the customers,” Stewart said.