Room at the Table for OKC Restaurants
Is the metro’s restaurant scene on the verge of eating itself?
Photos by Quit Nguyen
Signs of increased volatility in Oklahoma City’s restaurant industry started last year with the closing of Urban Wine Works in the Plaza District. Late in January this year, Pete Holloway, owner of Park House in the Myriad Gardens, announced that the restaurant would cease day-to-day operations in favor of a more conservative schedule that involves being open for special events and Thunder games. By the end of January, seafood restaurant The Drake was preparing to switch to serving brunch and dinner only, dropping its weekday lunch hours.
As if those announcements were not indicative of a possible oversaturation of the market, longtime Bricktown restaurant Spaghetti Warehouse announced – without prior notice to staff – that it would cease operations Feb. 1. The company declined to offer an explanation at the time, but the Tulsa World reported a possible “real estate play” in the works, and industry insiders say we may see more of the same.
The precipitous drop in oil prices has created some economic turmoil in the state concurrent with the restaurant closings or curtailing of hours, signaling to some in the industry that another recession will affect our food service sector.
“I have lived through a couple of recessions related to oil prices,” Chris Lower says. Lower, who owns several concepts, including Big Truck Tacos and Pizzeria Gusto, said he would not be developing any new concepts in 2016 because the oil prices likely would trigger larger economic problems for the state.
“The economy isn’t diversified enough to handle a drop in prices like this one,” Lower continues. “I wouldn’t open a new restaurant now because I don’t think it’s the time to be aggressive.”
That’s not a unanimously held opinion, however. Beginning in late 2015, restaurants opening or slated to open before the end of 2016 numbered roughly 30 between North Memorial Road and the urban core. Chisholm Creek at Western and Memorial attracted several concepts, at least partly due to its proximity to Top Golf. One of those concepts will be a second location of A Good Egg’s RePUBlic Gastropub; owner and founder Keith Paul said he intends to go forward with plans to open three new concepts in 2016.
“We are not planning on slowing down,” Paul says. “I don’t know if this is a recession or just a stall on oil prices, but I do know that when I moved here 20 years ago, I couldn’t walk five feet without running into someone in the oil business. That’s not true anymore.”
SERVING UP NEW CONCEPTS
A Good Egg is partnering with Dave Wanzer to open Barrios, a Mexican concept, in the old Swanson Tires building in Midtown. Paul said they’re also planning to open a Tucker’s Onion Burgers in Norman and another RePUBlic in Tulsa.
While most of the concepts we looked at are local, at least one Tulsa eatery will be opening an Oklahoma City location: Asian fusion restaurant Yokozuna. Locally owned Asian restaurants are breaking out of their NW 23rd corridor following the success of Tamashii Ramen House in Midtown. Rachel Cope, owner of Empire Slice House and founder of new hospitality group 84HG, is also opening Goro Ramen + Izakaya just east of The Mule in the Plaza District this year.
“We’ll be opening two other concepts in addition to Goro,” Cope says. “We do have a smidge of concern about market saturation, but we like our business model, and as a new hospitality group, we can attract creative, energetic people who are looking for room to move up.”
Revolucion will be an “authentic as we can make it” taqueria and cantina 84HG is opening on Classen and NW 6th in the old Midtown Service Center building. The space will be shared with Sunnyside Diner, a new concept from Shannon Roper and Aly Branstetter (S&B Burger Joint). Wanzer, whose buildings in the urban core will house more than a dozen new food/beverage businesses, owns the facility.
“We don’t think Oklahoma City has reached the saturation point yet,” Wanzer says. “We’re being very bullish.”
The property owned by Wanzer and his partners also includes the Main Street Arcade (two concepts), Tower Theater (four concepts), spaces around the Farmers Public Market and the old Sunshine Cleaners. Wanzer said that a new-to-market brewery and restaurant would occupy one of his properties.
“Trained staff is always hard to come by, so who will staff these places when there are so many restaurants?”
– Kurt Fleischfresser
Western Avenue finally has finished its streetscape project, and the area is shaping up to be one of the city’s most stable in 2016. Only The Coach House is slated to change, and as of press time, negotiations were still ongoing with the possibility that owner and founder Kurt Fleischfresser would let the property go after the lease expires in June.
Calling this his fourth time through an oil bust, Fleischfresser said he believed the market has hit saturation in the current economy. “Quality will begin to suffer, if it hasn’t already,” he says. “Trained staff is always hard to come by, so who will staff these places when there are so many restaurants?”
“Trading down” was a phrase that Oklahomans tossed around a great deal in 2008. Even as the worst of the nationwide recession missed us, people still took steps to spend less on eating and drinking. Fleischfresser, Paul and Lower all cited the need to trade down on ticket prices to survive. In other words, opening fine dining in this climate might not carry the best chance of success, but burger joints such as Tucker’s have better odds, and tacos are exceedingly inexpensive compared to other entrees.
EATING RIGHT IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD
Shaun Fiaccone, co-owner of Picasso Café and The Other Room, is opening Villa Paseo on the corner of NW 28th and Paseo. He said a neighborhood-based concept likely has a better chance of surviving in the oil downturn.
“The city is quickly approaching the restaurant saturation point,” Fiaccone says. “Still, though, our neighborhood surrounds and insulates us, and there is no Mexican concept in the Paseo district. Organic and fit-eating restaurants in these redeveloped neighborhoods should be OK.”
Speaking of healthy eating, Fit Pig opened in early January – and its deceptive name is based on a sandwich, not a category of eater. The food is superbly healthy, and like Provision Kitchen in Nichols Hills Plaza, the meals are packaged to be reheated at home. The Fit Pig is one of at least four new concepts planned – or already opened – along Automobile Alley. Cultivar, yet another taco concept, opened in February, and two diners are also planned for the area.
Whether we are at saturation likely will be determined this year. Park House may have suffered from location and parking issues, or it may have been the first victim of over-saturation in 2016. Rachel Cope was the hopeful voice for the bullish team, though.
“People are still eating in chain restaurants,” she says. “What we need to do is move them out of chain restaurants and into local joints.”