Many new area eateries help create more dining variety

More Cedar Park and Leander residents are eating local than ever before because of the influx of new restaurants to enter the market in 2012.

Approximately two dozen new eateries debuted in the area last year, with more restaurants expected to open in 2013. The Texas Restaurant Association expects the industry to grow 5 percent statewide this year—a higher anticipated rate than any other state.

Phil Brewer, Cedar Park economic development director, credits the city's increased daytime population for the local increase. And as Costco and a second Walmart enter the local market this year, Brewer expects smaller anchors and new restaurants to accompany both projects.

"I still think we're going to see some franchise and chain restaurants expand to this area," he said.

As many of the new restaurant operators can attest: There are business opportunities in both cities given the right concept.

Sit down and relax

One such original concept, Shea's Place, opened in July in Leander's Old Town district. Co-owners Bill and Kim Shea canvassed the community before opening to learn what area residents truly want in a new restaurant.

Using that information, they created a menu that combines Texas comfort food, steaks and seafood, yet trial by fire has proven more effective after six-plus months in business.

"Everything on the menu must sell, or it's not holding its weight," Bill Shea said.

An order of two entrees comes with free beer or wine in an attempt to help establish Shea's Place as a longtime Leander staple.

"Leander is literally on the cusp of exploding, and we want to be part of that," he said.

Another new option, Reunion Grille in Cedar Park, became the first area restaurant to include a live, family-friendly outdoor music venue. Co-owner Jason Schnurr is responsible for balancing the dining and musical tastes of area residents.

"There's our comfort food on one side, but then there's this other faction that enjoys more exploratory dishes," Schnurr said. "Also, the taste in music has been a surprise. We've found the more entertainment-driven a band is, the more successful they tend to be."

However, the demand for big group space has most surprised Schnurr and the Sheas. Both restaurants have overflow space ideal for private parties, and that extra seating often goes toward first-time customers who become exposed to the new restaurant, the Sheas agreed.

"We always intended on marketing to companies, but we didn't have to," Bill Shea said. "It all started on its own."

Or in a hurry?

Many "fast-casual" restaurants have also capitalized on the area's expanded lunch crowd. Out-of-state chains Del Taco and Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers opted to first establish themselves in Cedar Park instead of elsewhere in the Austin metropolitan area. By the end of 2013, both fast-food restaurant chains expect to have a significant presence throughout the Austin area.

The success so far of Raising Cane's can be measured in parking spaces—or lack thereof. The Louisiana-based chicken finger chain plans to add 15 parking spots early this year to accommodate the large crowds during peak hours, store manager Mary Ann Rodriguez said.

The company also places a strong emphasis on community involvement, she said, making Cedar Park the ideal first location.

"We hope [Cedar Park residents] start to see us so often that it feels like we're a local restaurant," Rodriguez said.

Cedar Park also became the first home of Naanfull Indian Grill, a concept similar to Chipotle or Subway that allows customers to pick ingredients on a food assembly line. There is no other Indian restaurant of its kind nationally, said co-owner Binu Thomas, who previously operated the Round Rock–based Chola for five years. He hopes to expand the Naanfull concept nationally but thought it important to first establish in Cedar Park.

"We wanted to go to a market where there were no Indian restaurants [at the time]," Thomas said. "People will try it once, and if they like it, they're hooked."

Overcoming obstacles

The rapid rise in the number of area restaurants, combined with increased food costs, can make it very difficult to succeed in the area, said Kert Kveton, owner of Rudino's Pizza and Grinders, which closed its Cedar Park location in October. He continues to operate his Northwest Austin location.

Kveton also attributes increased rent and lack of visibility as key factors behind his restaurant's closure after four years in business. He also cautioned anyone considering entry into the market.

"A lot of people assume it's growing so fast they can change the way Cedar Park eats, but I found it pretty challenging to do business there," Kveton said.

Rent and parking constraints have also proven difficult for Naanfull, Thomas said. Fortunately, he said, the Retail Properties of America Inc., which now operates the 1890 Ranch shopping center, is working with Naanfull on rent rates and future marketing opportunities.

Similar to the niche filled by Reunion Grille, Schnurr said the market still has many untapped opportunities.

"I don't think the Cedar Park market is crowded," he said. "There could be different types of concepts that would still succeed."

The Sheas agreed, explaining how "worthy opponents" would make their restaurant accountable to a more seasoned customer base.

"An improved market only makes us better," Bill Shea said.

By Joe Lanane
Joe Lanane’s career is rooted in community journalism, having worked for a variety of Midwest-area publications before landing south of the Mason-Dixon line in 2011 as the Stillwater News-Press news editor. He arrived at Community Impact Newspaper in 2012, gaining experience as editor of the company’s second-oldest publication in Leander/Cedar Park. He eventually became Central Austin editor, covering City Hall and the urban core of the city. Lanane leveraged that experience to become Austin managing editor in 2016. He managed eight Central Texas editions from Georgetown to San Marcos. Working from company headquarters, Lanane also became heavily involved in enacting corporate-wide editorial improvements. In 2017, Lanane was promoted to executive editor, overseeing editorial operations throughout the company. The Illinois native received his bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University and his journalism master’s degree from Ball State University.