Behind the churn in Tyler’s restaurant scene

No one felt like cooking the other night, so we decided to eat out. Feeling bored of our usual haunts, our son suggested the Korean barbecue place on Broadway we tried not long after it opened last year. “Oh, that place? It’s been gone for months,” Tasneem said. Fine, how about the new sushi place? It took several minutes to determine which new sushi place we all meant—there’ve been so many of late—and in the meantime, someone suggested sandwiches. Everyone momentarily perked up, and then deflated upon remembering that Lola’s, home of the best Chicago beef we’ve had outside the Windy City, abruptly shut its doors in January.

We ended up, as we often do, enjoying a meal at Don Juan’s on the Square. But we couldn’t shake the feeling that all is not right in the world of food and dining in Tyler. It seems that for every Mikoto that opens, a Seoul Garden closes its doors. Having spent most of our adult lives in larger cities, we’re used to turnover in our dining options, but the rate of change in Tyler right now feels positively dizzying.

The stats bear this out. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of restaurants in the Tyler metro area has grown every year since 2011. There was a particularly large spike in 2016, when nearly 30 new restaurants opened in one year. Sure, Tyler is also growing, but it’s important to note that restaurant openings have rapidly outpaced population growth. Regionally speaking, this trend isn’t unique to Tyler. It’s happening in Dallas and Longview, too. But nor is the trend universal. Compare Tyler to Waco and College Station in the chart below:

Too much of a good thing

Some of the factors driving this growth are well understood. As reported last year by The Tyler Morning Telegraph, when Tyler’s population passed 100,000 residents in 2013, our city became much more appealing to corporate-backed chains like Saltgrass Steak House and Texas de Brazil. Add to this an expanding U.S. economy and the fact that all Americans are eating out more, and you have a recipe for explosive growth.

On the surface, this sounds great for diners: the surge in new openings has resulted in a dazzling number of new choices. But there’s a dark side. New restaurants tend to enjoy big crowds of curious diners for a few months. Then the next new thing comes along, and the crowd moves on. Local restaurateurs have taken to calling it the six-month “cliff.” In January, we asked Lloyd Nichols, owner of The Diner on Broadway and current president of the East Texas Restaurant Association, how industry insiders are feeling about Tyler’s restaurant market right now. “We all are tired of restaurants being opened,” he said. “That’s for sure.”

Small restaurant operators say it’s nearly impossible to hire—and retain—qualified staff in this environment. In any city, “you’ve got a finite amount of people who have experience in the food and beverage industry,” says Nick Pencis, co-owner of Stanley’s Famous and Roast Social Kitchen, who began sensing over-saturation in Tyler’s restaurant market about two years ago. “When new restaurants come into town with guns a-blazing, offering a dollar more an hour, people jump ship to catch that increase in wage. Then, when the initial enthusiasm dies down and business gets slower, people’s hours get cut and they’re in the same position as before—until someone else comes in offering them an extra ten hours a week. It’s a vicious cycle.”

Though restaurant association president Nichols seems confident about his restaurant, The Diner, recent failures have included other well-loved indie offerings, like Jul’s and Lola’s. According to one study, around a quarter of all new restaurants fail in their first year. The same research found that independent restaurants are somewhat more likely to fail than chains. This can happen for a host of reasons, but especially when other parts of a small restaurant owner’s life intrude on their business, like a divorce or a death in the family.

Last month, we hosted a Facebook conversation inviting our readers to weigh in on what’s behind Tyler’s frothy restaurant scene. Chains—and Tylerites who seldom venture beyond them—got a lot of scrutiny. Commenter Russell Patterson, who was born and raised in Tyler, wrote that Tyler residents have “always (unfortunately) gravitated toward chain restaurants. Why would somebody choose a pizza from Old Chicago over a pizza of higher quality and flavor from Roast Social Kitchen? Why get a steak from Outback when Bernard has just as good a steak at a comparable price? I appreciate the jobs provided by the chains, but it is the mom and pop shops that are truly interested in our community.”

Some commenters stood up for local owner-operators of national outfits like Chick-fil-A, which, unlike most chains, contracts only with operators who will live in the community and work in the store full-time.

Other theories about Tyler’s restaurant churn included inexperienced founders, trend-hunting diners, and too much overlap in available cuisines.

Blueprint for success?

Whichever theory you buy in to, Tyler’s restaurant growth shows no signs of slowing down. And we’ll vouch that, despite not being able to keep up with all the new openings, we still find ourselves on many a Friday night wishing for more varied—and more original—options. We know we’re not the only ones excited that Tyler is about to get two local, independent brewery-centric dining options. Next month, Sola Bread & Pizza Company is slated to open as part of True Vine’s new home near the west Loop, and downtown’s East Texas Brewing Company plans to unveil a limited food menu billed as The Porch.

Blaine Davis, who since 2013 has run Sola Bread out of his home with his wife, Karin, and several other family members, readily admits that they’re launching their first brick-and-mortar restaurant in an overheated market. But when True Vine approached them about joining their brewery expansion, Davis says they just couldn’t say no. Currently, all of Sola’s pastries and pizza are produced out of the Davis’s own kitchen, thanks to Texas’s Cottage Food Law. The family also built an Italian-brick wood-fired oven in the backyard, where Sola Bread’s popular semi-regular pizza parties take place. “The plan was always to do something bigger,” Davis says. “It was a matter of figuring out how to do it right.”

When Davis talks about what’s driving him to take on one of the riskiest of all business ventures—opening a restaurant, and in Tyler’s current climate at that—he sounds like plenty of other aspiring food moguls. “I’m thirty three, and if I don’t do this now, I never will,” he says. “I’d rather have a failure on my hands than always wonder what could have been.”

But the way Davis and the rest of the Sola Bread crew arrived at this point is notably unique. For one thing, well before going anywhere near a property lease, Sola Bread began establishing a loyal customer base through lower-stakes methods. They sell baked goods at the Rose City Farmer’s Market, host those backyard pizza nights, and let customers place small orders via Instagram comments. (We’ve taken advantage of this lo-fi system several times; it works.)

In the meantime, Davis kept his day job; he chairs the English and Humanities department at Grace Community School. When it finally came time to expand, Sola Bread hitched its wagon to another well-established local brand—True Vine—instead of going it alone. “We’re in it together,” says Davis. “That’s one of the things that added to the ‘yes’ factor in deciding to do this.” If Sola Bread thrives, there’s likely to be a spillover effect for True Vine, and vice versa.

Whether it works remains to be seen, but Sola Bread’s digitally savvy, slow-growth, collaborative advance into the brick-and-mortar restaurant game could offer a blueprint for other aspiring local food entrepreneurs debating whether or not to take the plunge—and hoping to avoid “the cliff.” In the meantime, take a lesson from heartbroken fan’s of Lola’s Handcrafted Sandwiches, which lasted just over three years: if you love a restaurant in Tyler, don’t take it for granted.

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Chris Groskopf is co-founder of The Tyler Loop and present deputy editor for graphics and interactives at FiveThirtyEight. He is a pioneer in the field of data-driven storytelling, having worked at The Chicago Tribune, NPR, and Quartz. @onyxfish
Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.