Why not open a restaurant in a small city?

I was lucky enough to spend a few days this month in Portland, or. This is a city i love dearly, I used to live there and I don’t visit enough. I was on my own in the city, and I had 2 entire days to do whatever pleased me. So, I ate. I ate everywhere on my list. I ate as many meals as I could fit in. I ubered across the city for meals, I sat by myself in fancy dining rooms. I fit a snack in between each meal. I really did the city justice.

On my last afternoon, I had 2 hours before my bus left and I wanted to get lunch for now, and dinner for the ride home. I pulled up the map of where I was standing and started to look at the surrounding blocks to choose the places I was heading next. One was a sure thing- a sandwich shop I used to go to in SE that now had a location downtown, just a few blocks from where I was. I started in that direction, expecting to wait in line in front of this shop, since it was noon. As I approached, I noticed that there was not a line. There were 2 people inside. A few more people cycled in and out during my stay but it was not what I had expected, it was not what i remembered from being there in years past. As I looked around, it started to make sense. There were a lot of awesome sounding restaurants on that street. And on every street. The entire city is teeming with cool, creative, delicious, and very reasonably priced eating options. What a terrible place to own a restaurant!

I was reminded of a conversation that I had had with a guy a few weeks ago. He owned a small but very successful cafe in a small town. He was in the process of opening a pizza place next door and had secured the lease on the building next door on the other side to create a commissary kitchen and event space. And he owned a house a few blocks away where he was raising his kids with his wife. His businesses were flourishing in part because he was the only game in town. I remember thinking to myself, that is where you want to be!

Why don’t restaurants want to open in smaller cities?

Here are some numbers I grabbed from the internet for Portland and for my own small city, Bellingham, wa.

  • In 2017 the population of Portland, OR was 647,805

  • In 2017 the number of restaurants ( listed on tripadvisor) was 4,895.

  • That’s a ratio of 132 people to 1 restaurant.

Now let’s look at Bellingham:

  • In 2017 the population was 89,045

  • The number of restaurants ( from tripadvisor) was 357.

  • That’s a ratio of 249 people to 1 restaurant.

There are double the number of people per restaurant in Bellingham.

How about this:

In Portland, Or in 2018:

  • the average annual salary for a line cook was $25,401.

  • The average rent for a one bedroom apartment: $1428.

In Bellingham, Wa in 2018:

  • the average salary for a line cook was $25,148.

  • The average rent for a one bedroom apartment: $947.

The wages are the same, but the possible quality of life for your employees is much higher. In smaller cities we have more parks per capita, we have smaller homeless populations, and better schools. We (almost) never sit in traffic. An all day bus pass costs $1. Life is just easier.

I understand the attraction to the big food cities, I would probably go live in one if it wasn’t for the cost and the traffic and the crazy low wages compared to the cost of living. I just don’t understand why businesses want to move into such a competitive market.

Especially restaurants. In Portland, you would literally have to reinvent the wheel to stand out. You need to be doing something very, very, unique, or something incredibly high quality, or be famous already. In little old Bellingham, WA, you can still be the first person to do something. There are still international cuisines that aren’t represented here! If you have a good product, consistent hours, competitive pricing, and service staff that is competent- you will shine. You will stand out as a place that people want to go. Add some special big city style flair to your place and you will be busy all of the time.

In this country, we are facing a big problem in our food cities, and it is labor. The people who work in restaurants live hours away or live in hovels in order to work in those places. It is not a sustainable way to run a business. You can only afford to pay people so much, right? Why not open up shop somewhere that your employees can have a good quality of life on that salary? It’s only a matter of time before a reckoning hits the big cities, and you don’t want to be in business there when it comes.