Location is, without a doubt, one of the most important considerations when opening a restaurant. As a restaurateur, it’s easy to want to go for the more robust dining neighborhoods or downtown hot spots — but why not think outside of the city lines? We’re talking about the suburbs. Once the site of many a food and dining desert, the suburbs are becoming one of the most strategic spots to open a restaurant, with the promise of lower rent, less red tape, and an instant crowd of regulars.
Traditional wisdom says to open up in a city simply because the population is higher there. But according to Aaron Robins, chef of SOCA and Boneyard Bistro in Sherman Oaks, California, “The suburbs mimic the city in that there are dense pockets.” This means that while there are fewer people, those individuals tend to form concentrated communities within their respective neighborhoods. This translates to restaurateurs having a manageable but very captive audience to cater to. On top of that, because there are fewer restaurants, “You usually don’t have the same competition level,” he adds.
And yes, rent is often cheaper, but most successful restaurateurs in the suburbs will tell you that the biggest benefit of opening up outside the city is the community feel in each neighborhood — and the loyal regulars that come with it. Robins, for example, has been in Sherman Oaks for 12 years and says that he has customers who will eat at SOCA five nights a week. Adds David DiBari, chef of The Cookery in Westchester, New York, and The Parlor in Dobbs Ferry, New York, “Together with our customers, our employees, and our farms, it just feels a lot more tight and intimate.”
Restaurants in the suburbs become “one of the centers of the community,” according to Paul Virant, the chef-owner of Vie in Western Springs, Ilinois. “People feel like it is their restaurant — it’s the place where people always invite their friends from the city. People like having their own hangout spot.”
There is also a lot less potential bureaucracy to have to contend with. Whereas in cities there is a constant barrage of theoretical restaurants filing applications with the government, “Up in the suburbs, the mentality with the local officials is more like, ‘We don’t want businesses to die because we are so strict; we want them to flourish,’” DiBari says. “So the restaurants get better treatment because there is this feeling like we are all in this together.”
Suburban crowds are also more interested than they have been in the past in boundary-pushing restaurants — they’re no longer limited to generic burger and salad fare. Robins points to groundbreaking chefs like Ludo Lefebvre opening up nearby as evidence of the population’s evolving dining habits. “The Valley has come so far in wanting and accepting higher-quality restaurants,” he says. “We are getting some real players.”
It’s also interesting to note that what people define as a city is a fluid entity. In Los Angeles, for example, neighborhoods like Silver Lake and Echo Park used to be considered suburbs — now they are bustling neighborhoods with major restaurant scenes that are very much seen as part of the heartbeat of the city, Robins says. This means opening up outside of the city is, more often than not, a strong bet for the future, and a chance to get into a soon-to-be-bustling dining neighborhood at the ground level.
Of course, there are certain challenges to consider. DiBari points out that finding employees can be more difficult in the suburbs as opposed to urban areas, as qualified people in the city are less willing to reverse commute, and the suburbs themselves can often have a limited talent pool. He adds, too, that weather has a bigger effect on customers choosing to dine out — particularly those driving in from the city after work. One of the biggest challenges at Vie, according to Virant, is weeknight traffic: Because a lot of people who live in the suburbs are families, it’s harder to convince them to dine out early in the week.
Still, if you’re looking for that sweet spot of an interested, perpetually underserved dining population, the suburbs are a solid bet. As Robins says, “these neighborhoods deserve great restaurants, too.”
Here are some of the top tips for opening a restaurant in the suburbs.
Aim to be as accessible as possible to a highway. For Robins, being right off of one of Los Angeles’ major thoroughfares has been a big driver of his traffic, literally, especially for those just passing through for a quick dinner.
Cater to a more budget-conscious population. “In the suburbs, there is a different mindset of going out in that people are much more value-driven,” Robins says. “People are living there because they are getting bigger property for the same dollar, and that forms their attitude toward everything.” Translation: the suburbs are not necessarily the place for a tasting menu.
Open near office buildings. Everyone is always looking for a spot to grab dinner or a drink after work — for maximum traffic on weeknights, Virant recommends positioning your spot strategically near a collection of offices. Bonus points if you can offer a happy hour. “I’ve seen places in the suburbs that are busier than those in the city, just because they offer a happy hour,” he says.
Malls are a very solid location option, too. According to Virant, the restaurants in his local mall are some of the most trafficked spots he sees, period. If you’re a casual dinner or lunch spot, it’s worth checking out the mall option — shoppers are one of the more captive crowds out there.
Do your homework on your suburb. “Look at where you want to be and what level of restaurant you want, and make sure you are apropos to the neighborhood,” Robins says. “And understand that change is different and difficult, especially when you are the first one to open up in a suburb, but opening up your spot will be rewarding in the end if you line everything up correctly.”
Don’t feel like you have to conform to the restaurant scene that came before you. “Restaurants used to be conservative, but now people in the suburbs are looking for something great,” DiBari says. “Thanks to the Food Network and social media, even those in the suburbs are more knowledgeable about food and want to explore different avenues. Just go balls to the wall and do what you do, and people will latch onto it.”