Published Jul 17, 2019 by A.J. Mistretta
The restaurant industry is a vital part of Houston’s economy, employing hundreds of thousands throughout the region and contributing billions of dollars to the local economy. But the sector faces tough headwinds from increased competition, rising costs and labor shortages, according to two industry leaders who spoke to members of the Partnership this week.
“For many reasons, this is a great time to be in this industry in Houston,” said former Greater Houston Restaurant Association President and Legacy Restaurants CEO Jonathan Horowitz. “Our economy is good, cost of living is relatively low and Houston is growing.” However, the growing challenges of narrowing profit margins, lack of workers and other factors are making success more difficult, he said.
There are nearly 12,500 restaurants and food related establishments across the metropolitan area and roughly 300,000 people are employed in the restaurant and hospitality sector, according to figures from the Greater Houston Restaurant Association. Restaurants are a $863 billion industry nationally and $66 billion in Texas. The latest figures from the Texas Comptroller’s office show food and drinking establishments had sales totaling just over $18 billion last year.
Houston’s dining scene is finally getting the recognition it deserves nationally thanks to a mix of high-profile articles in the media, critical acclaim and word of mouth. “The rest of the world is catching up to the fact that when you bring people from all over the globe to a city like Houston amazing things happen,” said Melissa Stewart, executive director of the Greater Houston Restaurant Association.
Stewart and Horowitz presented their take on the industry to those gathered for the Partnership’s Arts, Culture, Tourism & Sports Council on July 16. Restaurants including Harold’s in the Heights, Three Brothers Bakery, Truluck’s and Citadel Houston provided bites for attendees.
Stewart said for many in the industry, serving food is a calling that goes beyond just having a job or running a business. “Food is very personal for people; it’s how you show love and care for people and that’s what our industry does.”
The restaurant industry continues to be an area of opportunity for people willing to learn the craft and put in the time and effort to run a business, Horowitz said. But rising costs, tariffs on imported foods and other challenges are making it increasingly difficult to operate today.
Horowitz stressed that prospective restaurateurs must first and foremost know how to run a business and balance the books before leaping into the competitive landscape. “It might seem like a fun idea, but if you don’t know the basics you won’t make it,” he said.
According to Yelp.com, Houston has nearly 160 categories of cuisine, including Afghan, Georgian and Polish restaurants. Houston is also home to over 650 food trucks and stands, nearly 140 delis and about 100 wine bars.
In December 2018, Houston was ranked second on Food & Wine’s “32 Places to Go (And Eat) in 2019.” This ranking was echoed in Yelp’s “Top 100 Places to Eat for 2019,” which includes five greater Houston eateries.
Houston’s reputation as a culinary hotspot has also been recognized by the James Beard Foundation. The Greater Houston area received 11 semifinalist nominations for the 2019 James Beard Awards, recognized as the “Oscars of the food world.” In recent years three local chefs have been honored by the Beard Awards as Best Chef in the Southwest.