What do Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Houston all have in common? They've all been named among the ten best food cities in America by the Washington Post. Todd Romero is a history professor and co-director of the University of Houston's Gulf Coast Food Project. He joins Andrew Schneider on this week's "Bauer Business Focus" to discuss Houston's food culture and restaurant industry.
What defines Houston's food culture?
"I think Houstonians often lament that we live on a swamp that's hot and humid, but we forget that we're also on the edge of a number of great regional cuisines [e.g., Creole, Cajun, Mexican, other Latin American cuisines]...Economically...the two main sectors of the economy, one energy and the other the Medical Center...draw a diverse range of people... that not only bring their foods and food ways, but create a market for a variety of different restaurants."
How do you translate a distinct food scene into a thriving restaurant industry?
"Money...Restaurants run on thin margins. There's an often quoted but, I gather, inaccurate statistic that says that 90 percent of restaurants that start fail. It's probably closer...to 50 to 60 percent. And so, cities that have robust economies like ours are better able to support robust restaurant scenes."
What happens when there's a downturn in the local economy, as we're seeing now, tied to the price of oil?
"At least so far, it appears the restaurant industry is continuing to move and grow at a rapid pace...One of the things I do worry about is that...until recently, the fact that rents were relatively low in Houston benefited a lot of restaurateurs, and as both the real estate market residentially, but also in terms businesses become more expensive, I worry about the ability of lots of different kinds of restaurants, from mom-and-pop immigrant restaurants to fine dining, being able to maintain their ability to open new places."