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

Megan Curren, 35, an owner of the Graceful Ordinary, a fine-dining restaurant in St. Charles, Ill., said that while many Chicago restaurants are still hurting financially because of the pandemic, St. Charles’s are recovering faster. Spaces like hers have plentiful room for outdoor dining, she said, and people are moving into — not out of — the area.

Still, this seemingly symbiotic relationship between restaurants and diners has its complications.

As suburbs accommodate more diverse businesses that enrich the community, that success can attract the attention of developers, said Willow Lung-Amam, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland. The resulting developments can drive up costs, forcing out the same entrepreneurs who helped make the area more enticing in the first place.

Mikey Ochoa opened his Latin restaurant, Oculto, in Castro Valley, Calif., last December. But he can’t afford to live nearby. In Castro Valley, he said, “the price of a one-bedroom is more than my two-bedroom apartment” in Hayward, just three miles away.

Mr. Ochoa, 31, added that Castro Valley isn’t well equipped for an influx of restaurants. Many of the spaces for rent don’t have refrigeration, a hood or a grease trap, he said, and building a restaurant there could ultimately be more expensive than in the city. He opened Oculto in the Castro Valley Marketplace, a food hall where he was able to negotiate an affordable lease.

The design of some suburbs makes it even harder for independent restaurateurs to succeed there.

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

Restaurateurs also have to navigate numerous local government departments, including health, planning and zoning, which may not be as well prepared to handle independent owners’ needs as cities are.

“I have not come across suburbs that do a great job of streamlining the process,” Dr. Raja said.

Dr. Lung-Amam, the professor of urban studies and planning, said many suburbs lack public transportation and are not zoned for mixed-use development, so homes and businesses can’t exist in the same area. Restaurants, then, have few nearby residents who don’t have to drive there to eat.

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