Updated 9:45 a.m., July 1: Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mislabeled the color of Sugar Land and Missouri City population data. This has been addressed with a corrected version.
Since opening Kenshin Sushi in September 2002, owner Thang Ho said he has relied on word of mouth to keep customers coming back to his Missouri City restaurant.
“We are a family restaurant, and our goal is to take care of our customers and make sure they enjoy the food each time they come back,” Ho said.
He said his customers continue to return because he takes the time to listen to them.
Based on customer feedback over
the last 17 years, Ho added lunch specials to the menu and created happy hour as well as traditional menu options at different price points. In addition, he said he will custom-make food items based on customer tastes.
Community Impact Newspaper reported more than 40 restaurant openings in 2018 and during the same period of time reported on eight closings. In the last five years, 121 family or full-service restaurants based in Sugar Land and Missouri City show an active sales tax permit by the state of Texas, which is needed to be in business.
“In order to succeed, you have to know what your customer wants,” Fanoosh Burgers & Bites co-owner Sufian Rasheed said about his Sugar Land restaurant’s philosophy. “I am always open to listening to suggestions if it has to do with customer service. It is a relationship—it has a benefit to both parties.”
KEEPING UP WITH COSTS
There is also competition for space. Before opening Missouri City-based Texas Biergarten—serving German food and craft beer—in May 2018 with her husband, Tom, Laura Abraham said they spent nine months looking for a restaurant site before choosing a former Indian restaurant site at Hwy. 6 and Glenn Lakes Lane in Missouri City.
“We could have gone into Houston, but we wanted to create this environment with our craft beer and style of food in Missouri City because nothing else here offered that,” Abraham said.
Depending on location and visibility, annual rental rates across Sugar Land and Missouri City can be anywhere from $10 per square foot up to more than $30, according to LoopNet, a service that tracks commercial real estate for sale and lease.
Expensive rental rates are typically near master-planned communities and shopping areas where there is likely to be more traffic, according to restaurant owners.
To help clients find the right space, David Littwitz, the president of site selection company Houston-based Littwitz Investments Inc., said he gives clients a crash course on the economics of their deals so restaurant owners have the full picture before signing on the dotted line.
“I want them to go into this with eyes wide open,” Littwitz said. “The restaurant opens strong if owners have done their homework.”
Sugar Land and Missouri City officials said they do not have formal plans for attracting restaurants. However, Missouri City City Manager Anthony Snipes said his city is open to any investment, and zoning will dictate where in the city they can locate.
Once a space is secured, construction on a restaurant space can come with its own challenges, as Cliff Philips found out while building his delivery-only shop BFW Pizza in Sugar Land earlier this year.
While the space build-out went well, a subcontractor handling the kitchen equipment and fire suppression system caused him nearly two months of delays and extra costs, Philips said in an email.
In addition to those challenges, Abraham said she also encountered issues finding employees. She said she wants to pay her employees a fair wage, but it has been difficult to hire employees who want to make the drive from Houston or who already live nearby because living expenses in Missouri City and Sugar Land are often higher.
WHAT CUSTOMERS THINK
Once a restaurant opens, it has to attract customers. Local owners said this is more difficult as tastes change, and online reviews can make or break a restaurant.
DDK Kabab & Grill owner Muhammed Dhaduk said customers expect clean restaurants, high-quality food and good customer service. If one of those is missing, it makes a difference, he said.
Dhaduk also increased his social marketing to promote his 5-year-old Sugar Land restaurant.
“Potential customers will read the first three reviews and make their choice from there, so if they are not the best reviews, it will have an effect,” he said.
Nationwide 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, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As part of a Community Impact Newspaper-generated post in the Katy/Fort Bend Foodies Facebook group about successful restaurants, Sugar Land resident Robert Le wrote he thought it was not viable for two dessert restaurants to open at the same time in Sugar Land.
“I didn’t think it was a good idea, and sure enough they both closed their doors this year,” Le wrote. “Sugar Land is oversaturated with retails and restaurants of not very good caliber.”
Meanwhile, Missouri City resident Valerie Tolman wrote that a locally owned restaurant cannot afford to have one bad day because people will not go back, she said.
Some of the change in customer tastes also includes the increasing diversity as more people move into Sugar Land and Missouri City.
“There are a lot of mom and pop places around here, so every time families make a decision to go out, the next question is where,” Abraham said. “We are competing with any answer they would put out.”
Over the past five years, the population in Sugar Land and Missouri City has increased 36% and 8%, respectively. Meanwhile, both populations have become more diverse, particularly with growth from the Asian and Indian communities.
Robert Linn, sous chef with Bosscat Kitchen and Libations in Houston, previously worked in Sugar Land Town Square for Bacon Bros. Public House, which closed in 2018. He said one of the biggest issues for restaurants is communicating with the community about what is needed and wanted.
“We also have to present food that meets ethnic and religious backgrounds, which is hard,” Linn said. “Just because the restaurant had ‘bacon’ in the title, all of my friends from the Middle East totally scratched it out as some place they would go. Those same people, in turn, also influenced other people.”
Lincoln Ward opened Pacific Coast Tacos in November 2017, as well as a Wing Station location in Sienna Plantation in 2018 and one in Riverstone this year. He said he welcomes the diversity in Sugar Land and Missouri City, which has enabled his restaurants to be creative and adventurous with their menu items.
For example, at both restaurants, he offers sauces and items inspired by Indian and Asian cuisine, as well as vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.
Meanwhile, competition is not always bad for restaurants. Abraham said the opening of Bernie’s Burger Bus in March in the same shopping center also gave Texas Biergarten more exposure.
“They already had a following, so we got some of that spillover,” she said. “People came in saying they didn’t realize we were here or that they had been meaning to come in. It was a good thing for us.”