America’s Next Great Restaurants Are in the Suburbs. But Can They Thrive There?

Owner of St. Charles’ Graceful Ordinary restaurant, 35-year-old Megan Curren said the city’s restaurants are recovering faster from the pandemic than those in Chicago. People are moving into the area, not out of it, she said, because there is plenty of room for outdoor dining in places like hers.

Even so, there are kinks in this seemingly win-win relationship between restaurants and diners.

According to University of Maryland’s Willow Lung-Amam, an associate professor of urban studies and planning, the success of diverse businesses in the suburbs can attract developers. Entrepreneurs who helped make the area desirable in the first place may be forced out of the area as a result of the new developments.

Oculto, a Latin restaurant in Castro Valley, California, was opened by Mikey Ochoa in December. But he can’t afford to live close by. Just three miles away in Hayward, “the price of a one-bedroom is more than my two-bedroom apartment” in Castro Valley.

Ochoa, 31, said that Castro Valley isn’t equipped to handle an influx of restaurants, adding that the area is currently underdeveloped. Building a restaurant in rural areas could end up costing more than in the city because many of the spaces for rent do not have refrigeration, a hood or a grease trap, he said. At the Castro Valley Marketplace, he was able to secure a low-cost lease for Oculto.

The design of some suburbs makes it even more difficult for independent restaurateurs to succeed in those areas.

Dr. Samina Raja, a professor of urban planning at the University at Buffalo, said that while not all suburbs are alike, in general, suburban planners are not well-versed in how to best support independent restaurants. Planners are less likely to grant economic development grants or loosen zoning restrictions because they don’t understand that these businesses often have a shorter financial runway than large restaurant groups or chains.

Many local government departments, such as health, planning, and zoning may not be as well prepared to handle independent owners’ needs as cities are. Restaurateurs must also navigate these departments.

According to Dr. Raja, “I have not come across suburbs that do a great job of streamlining.”

There are many suburbs that lack public transportation and are not zoned for mixed-use development, according to Dr. Lung-Amam, a professor of urban studies and planning. As a result, local residents who don’t have to travel far to eat at a restaurant are few and far between.