Is the Owner Operated Restaurant an Endangered Species?

Posted by on Apr 17, 2017 in Rob's Blog

We went to Dallas over the Easter holiday weekend to have brunch with our daughter. She lives near Plano in a lovely area called The Colony. We ate at a smallish chain restaurant near her apartment called Hash House a Go Go. The wait was well over an hour.

The food was decent but the servings were gigantic. This seems to be their calling card. My daughter and I both ordered a dish that was an amalgam of fried chicken breasts, eggs, a creamy chili sauce, semi-mashed potatoes, biscuits, bacon and cheddar cheese. They had a quote on the menu from Adam Rich, the star of Man v. Food on the Travel Channel; said he loved it. After attempting and failing to finish it, I could see why. My wife had one buttermilk pancake the size of an extra large pizza. She couldn’t finish hers either.

Plano Hash House a Go Go restaurant pancake

The giant pancake at Hash House a Go Go

While driving back, we took a little tour of Plano and though we saw dozens of restaurants, they all appeared to be chains. This got me to thinking about Austin’s own restaurant scene.

2016 was a rough year for owner operated restaurants, with a lot of closings for these folks but a bunch of openings at places like The Domain, for example. And if I’m correct, there’s not a single owner operated spot among them.

Fox Restaurant Concepts, a company out of Arizona, owns several eateries at The Domain including Culinary Dropout, North Italia, and Flower Child. I have nothing against these restaurants. In fact, North Italia has long been a favorite, but there’s something special about going into a restaurant and having the actual owner stop by your table for a chat. That’s not going to happen at The Domain.

And if the cost of opening a restaurant downtown gets any costlier, there will be more places like Perry’s Steakhouse & Grille, Bob’s Steak and Chop House, and Fleming’s Steakhouse coming on board (again, these are good restaurants) and high-end owner operated spots like Olivia will be forced either to close or drop down to a more manageable high volume comfort food concept like Lucy’s Fried Chicken. (Now I like Lucy’s, but I loved Olivia).

This may be a reflection of my own bias as a restaurant critic, but there is just something special about dining at a restaurant where the pride of ownership is obvious. I don’t want to see a Hash House a Go Go and its gigantic dishes announcing that Austin will be its next market. I’d much  rather see a local Sous Chef boot strapping his personal finances and taking the plunge where he’ll be the Exec and owner (a la Emmer & Rye on Rainey) of a new concept where real artistry and not gimmicky is celebrated.

Time will tell if my vision of chain restaurant Armageddon will come to pass. I hope it won’t in Austin, because there is simply too much talent here. But that local talent needs to be nurtured and supported by local foodies or the next owner-operated opening may well be our last!

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