Bobby Katsabas said low prices and good food are behind his 18 years of success running his Katy restaurant, Snappy’s Cafe & Grill.
“I have customers who have been eating here since I opened in 2002,” Katsabas said. “Katy is very nice. They support me, and I support them. It’s an old mom and pop store. We still have the same people working here after all these years, and everybody knows everybody.”
Conversely, various big-name and locally owned •restaurants around the Katy area closed in 2019. Some examples include Corky’s Ribs & BBQ, Mason Jar, Tom + Chee, The Blue Fish and Kay’s Tea Parlour.
“Kitschy chain restaurants like Corky’s or Dickey’s BBQ for instance can’t compete with a place like Brett’s BBQ on Mason,” Katy resident Mark Williams said in an exchange on Facebook. “Brett’s has customers lined up outside before they even unlock the door.”
Meeting demographic changes
Restaurant owners are trying to survive competition in the Katy area, and experts said many are not open more than a few months due to demographic changes, rent prices and operational deficiencies.
U.S. sources widely differ on data, but about 15%-20% of restaurants do not survive their first year, which is in line with small-business failure across all industries, per the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The turnover in the restaurant business in the Katy area is a bit higher because it has had a lot of growth,” said David Littwitz, the president of Houston site selection company Littwitz Investments Inc. “People read about how things are wonderful in Katy, and it attracts new business owners. Sometimes they don’t do their homework, so you get more turnover.”
Owner of Astor Farm to Table, Casey Castro first opened his restaurant in December 2014 as Argentina Cafe. Castro rebranded it as Astor Cafe Bar & Grill within a year and finally to Astor Farm to Table, located at 1520 S. Mason Road, in April 2019.
“We were an Argentinian restaurant, but I don’t think that appealed to the community,” Castro said. “Katy is very global. Bringing the South African and Venezuelan cuisine changed everything. Now we are getting people from everywhere. It was the best decision that I ever made.”
A Mediterranean eatery called Kabobish Café & Grill opened in January 2019 at 5205 S. Mason Road, Katy. Co-owner Rahul Singh said he recognized the growing Pakistani and Indian population then changed the restaurant’s concept to adapt and increase sales. By January 2020, the restaurant was newly named Nawab’s Kitchen Indo-Pak Cuisine.
Andrew Leeper, an administrator and member of the Facebook Fort Bend Foodies group, said Katy is a destination for many cultures, and one of the best perks movement brings is international food.
“A great example is Phat Eatery in Katy Asian Town,” he said. “The owner has been successful in introducing Malaysian street food to us.”
Josie Lin, a principal of Katy Asian Town, said she began marketing the center in 2016 because she noticed the Asian population growing with the overall numbers.
Many restaurant owners leasing space in the center have been successful because they, too, saw the diversity in the area and the multicultural demands increasing, Lin said.
“Indian and Pakistani restaurants are highly demanded,” Lin said. “We need Persian, South Indian and also more of a taste of North Asia like Japanese and Korean cuisine.”
Price and location
Competition within the restaurant industry has increased dramatically in all areas in and around Houston, including suburbs such as Katy, said Jonathan Horowitz, CEO of Houston-based Convive Hospitality Consulting.
Because rental rates for commercial spaces inside Houston have skyrocketed, Littwitz said many operators are looking to open restaurants in places such as Katy to find a space at a reasonable rental rate.
“That combined with the continued pace of growth in these areas makes them ripe for increased restaurant openings,” Horowitz said. “The growth feeds the growth, which in turn increases the level of competition.”
According to Loopnet and commercial real estate brokerage firms, the annual rate per square foot ranges from $21-$25 in Mason Park to as high as $33-$45 in Katy Asian Town.
Katsabas, who has leased a space for Snappy’s for nearly two decades, said he estimates the average base rent to be $4-$7 per square foot per year in the city of Katy. Loopnet shows a range of $8-18.
Experts said high visibility means high rent prices in places such as the intersection of I-10 and Grand Parkway, where businesses are exposed to about 200,000 vehicles per day.
Castro said as a small-business owner, he had to do everything himself with limited finances.
“I was looking all around Katy to see if I could find something I could afford,” he said. “Most other locations start their leases at $8,000 and go up. My lease is less than $3,000 [on Mason Road] and I can balance my budget a lot better than if I had a $10,000 lease.”
Astor Farm to Table was a medical office when Castro bought it.
“Choosing this location did have to do a lot with financing because I didn’t have all the money I needed to go and get a better place,” he said. “Maybe in the future, when we have created that demand and have consistency, we will be able to find something better.”
Local vs. chains
Littwitz said the growth in the Katy area attracted more chain restaurants, which typically have name recognition and more advertising money, and locals could be choosing to eat there over local restaurants.
But in Katy, locals can compete with chain restaurants as long as they offer good food and good service, Littwitz said.
“You know what you are getting when you walk in an Applebee’s or Chili’s,’ he said. “The question for a local is what can they do to offer customers something the chain restaurant can’t give. Personalized service, better food [or] a wider and adventurous menu.”
Scott Taylor, a University of Houston restaurant expert, agreed.
“A lot of consumers will say, ‘Food was OK, but the service was excellent. I’ll definitely go back,’ but rarely will consumers say, ‘Food was great, but service was terrible. Can’t wait to return,’” Taylor said. “Bad service will ruin good food every time.”
At Astor Farm to Table, Castro said socializing with customers is one reason for his success.
“We are a little old school in the way people come in,” Castro said. “My customers get to know me, and they want to sit down with me to have a conversation, talk about family. ... Ninety-nine percent of my customers appreciate when I answer questions and just ask them about their daily lives.”
Katsabas shares the same idea for success.
“When you open something new here in Katy, people are going to come in to try you out,” he said. “It’s up to you if you can keep them coming back. You can't cut corners with the quality of the food”