More restaurants are opening than closing in Fort Worth area, and packing them in

Posted 7:24am on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013

Restaurants in Tarrant County, hurt by the Great Recession, are beginning to roar back.

“We exceeded our opening expectations of 3,500 by serving 4,400 [customers] opening week,” marveled Mike O’Donnell, manager of the new Bravo Cucina Italiana restaurant on South Hulen Street near Bellaire Drive. It’s on the site of a failed upscale brewpub, The Covey, which in turn had replaced an all-you-can-eat salad chain. The building had been vacant since Sept 2010.

Adam Jones, owner of Grace, the white-tablecloth downtown eatery, felt the timing was right to expand across the street with a more casual gourmet concept, Little Red Wasp. It will open this fall at 808 Main St.

Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House, similarly, is readying a more affordable concept, Del Frisco’s Grille, nearby at 154 E. 3rd. St. Earlier this year, Campisi’s brought its take on pizzas and pasta over from Dallas to a spot on Camp Bowie.

Austin burrito specialist Torchy’s Tacos has planted a Tarrant foothold, while Freebird’s, also from the state capital, has continued to expand along with homegrown Fuzzy’s Taco Shop and BoomerJack’s Grill and Bar. Costa Vida, a “fresh” Mexican concept, from (this is not a misprint) Utah, has opened in Colleyville and is launching another location on Fort Worth’s far north side. And there’s Cane Rosso, the Dallas-based, Neapolitan-style pizzeria that had come to town periodically as a food truck and is now making over what had been Ryan’s Fine Grocer and Delicatessen on West Magnolia Avenue.

“In 2008, we had too many restaurant seats,” Jones said of the year the recession took hold. “It felt better in 2010, good in 2011; 2012 was pretty evenly solid and this year is a match of ’12.”

After a painful market correction, he said those that made it through the recession are in a good position to take advantage of the improving economy.

“The restaurants that have gone out of business are because of mismanagement, either in daily operations or they signed a bad lease,” said Mike Micallef, president of Reata, the Sundance Square haute cowboy cuisine institution in Sundance Square.

While the restaurant trade is risky at the best of times, the downturn tested the viability of approaches. Notable among the concepts that have disappeared, or scaled way down, was The Vault, the Turkish restaurant Flying Carpet and the highly affordable Pancho’s Mexican Buffet chain.

Tim Love’s Trinity River location, The Woodshed, opened early last year and survived 2012’s scorching summer, while his short-lived Love Shack on Bluebonnet Circle is being replaced by Fred’s, the iconic hamburger purveyor.

The number of food service and drinking places in Tarrant County grew by just four restaurants, to 2,596 in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the end of 2012, that number had jumped to 2,926, a 12.7 percent gain.

Half of the increase came in 2012 alone, BLS figures show. Restaurant and bar employment ended last year at 67,647, up from 60,391 in 2009.

“There was no recession for us,” insists Chuck Bush, who took a single-location Fuzzy’s in 2008 and expanded it to 65 stores in 11 states. “What helped is our value points. People who were dining at higher-priced restaurants came down to us. They discovered what a value we were and stayed with us. So it was a good time for us. I would guess it wasn’t a very pleasant time for a lot of other people.”

Bush’s plan was to keep Tarrant County locations all company-owned, while franchising other territories. There are now eight Fuzzy’s in Tarrant County, including a part-time outlet at Texas Motor Speedway that serves at five events a year.

The right mix

The Hulen location was a no-brainer for Bravo Cucina Italiana, said Saed Mohseni,, CEO of Bravo Brio Restaurant Group, based in Columbus, Ohio. He insists it was this area’s demographics, not economic timing, that swayed him after spending four years fruitlessly sniffing out locations in or near Sundance Square.

“We had a couple of Brio [Tuscan Grille restaurants] in North Texas already, Southlake and Allen, so we’re familiar with the market,” said Mohseni, referring to the chain’s Italian steak-centered concept. Brio and Bravo restaurants, with main courses ranging up to $29 and $20 respectively, fall into the “polished casual” category, sort of what P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is to Asian fusion, he said.

“We always felt Fort Worth has the right demographics and household income and doesn’t have as many higher-end restaurants as in Dallas, with the exception of Sundance Square,” he said. “And looking throughout the country, we think Fort Worth is definitely a market at times that is underserved in this category.”

His idea of the right area profile is a median household income of about $70,000, with a daytime population of 50,000 workers and 130,000 residents in a 5-mile radius. The area near the new Trader Joe’s on South Hulen, including the Tanglewood neighborhood, fits that model, Mohseni said. “We felt it was a good first step in Fort Worth.”

Unlike many chains, Brio didn’t stop growing during the downturn. Eight opened in 2008, seven in 2009, five in 2010, eight in 2011, nine in 2012, and this year there will be eight openings, he said, explaining: “I wasn’t smart enough to recognize recession was going on.”

The 7,800-square-foot location on South Hulen cost roughly $2 million, including remodeling, he said. No two Brio and Bravo restaurants are exactly alike, with each designed in-house, mainly by one of the founding brothers.

Brandon Norrell, a vice president at Buxton Co., which among other things advises chains on site selection, said Bravo may soon be joined by other out-of-town concepts looking seriously at Tarrant County and nearby counties. He cited two Austin pan-Asian chains, Mama Fu’s and How Do You Roll custom sushi, along with Hopdoddy Burger Bar, which already has a Dallas store.

“The area almost qualifies as underserved,” Norrell said.

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718 Twitter: @bshlachter

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