America's Changing Suburban Food Landscape

The rise of fast casual and the outward movement of immigrants has completely changed the game.
By Scott Beyer | Jan 23, 2018 |
By Scott Beyer | Jan 23, 2018 |
Poke bowls, a Hawaiian dish, are just one of the many esoteric food options making inroads into California's suburbs. / Flickr

Dublin, CA—When people think of the food options in suburban America, they likely envision something more basic than what can be found inside big cities. McDonalds, Wendys, KFC, in others words...blah.

And yet I was seeing more than that late one winter night in the booming San Francisco suburb of Dublin. In a dark parking lot of an outdoor shopping center, there were multiple esoteric and relatively upscale takeout food options. A place called Urban Plates offered a buffet-line of gourmet entrees to go, from mixed-beet salads to chimichurri grass fed steak. Yalla Mediterranean served a better, more "farm loving" version of Baba Ganoush, Kefta and Tabouli. And similar options on that same block included Habit Burger, Patxi's Pizza, and the sit-down seafood restaurant Pacific Catch.

Rather than an anomaly, this small food hub, inside a parking lot 30 miles east of San Francisco, epitomized what I have seen across the country. Restaurants within any given strip mall outside of major cities will have a diversity of food styles, price ranges and countries of origin. It seems that two trends in particular are driving it: the rise of the fast casual dining genre and the outward movement of immigrants to the 'burbs has completely changed the game.

Fast casual restaurants, while vague in definition, are considered ones that provide the convenience of a fast food joint with the quality of a sit-down restaurant. Chipotle has become the most renowned fast-casual success story, offering much better Mexican cuisine--and just as fast--at slightly higher prices than Taco Bell. But the trend has exploded to include every food style. According to a 2014 Washington Post report, the percentage sales growth of traditional fast food chains has nearly flat-lined since 1999. But for fast casual it has increased by 550%, and the genre now has 7.7% of market share. One restaurant industry analysis found that in 2015, there were 35 fast-casual chains that did over $200 million in U.S. sales.

And there is a region-based quality that causes many of them to seep into the suburbs, and smaller outlying towns, around major cities. The Caribbean-food chain Pollo Tropical is, naturally, popular throughout South Florida; Mod Pizza--a build-your-own-pizza brand--is particularly intensive up and down the West Coast; and the sub shop Which Wich is most common in Texas, with the strongest concentration in the northern suburbs of Austin. Other fast casual chains are humbler in scope. For example Urban Plates and Yalla Mediterranean--two of the restaurants in that Dublin parking lot--each have about a half-dozen stores spread around California, all of them in suburban communities. Mainland Poke Shop--which sells a Hawaiian dish called Poke consisting of sushi ingredients mixed into a bowl--has 4 locations, with all of them in the Los Angeles area, and 3 outside the city proper. The presumed advantage of the suburbs for these smaller chains is cheaper land, lower taxes and weaker zoning regulations.

The other big factor behind America's changing suburban food landscape is the outward movement of immigrants. A Brookings Institution analysis found that between 2000 and 2013, the share of America's immigrants living in the suburbs of major metros went from about half, up to 61%. The reason, said Jill Wilson, author of the report, to the Atlantic Magazine, was that "immigrants are going for the same thing that everybody else is—an affordable place to live, good schools, safety, closeness to jobs, as jobs have also moved out to the suburbs." A disclaimer she might have added is that many immigrants have been involuntarily pushed out of center cities by high prices. This is due, in particular, to land-use regulations that artificially limit housing supply, causing prices to rise amid vast population growth. This has caused cities--which have historically been safe havens for immigrants--to cede this role to their suburbs.

The result is that a multitude of small-scale immigrant food entrepreneurialism has been unleashed onto the strip malls of urban America.

Visit any given one of them--whether in the East Bay across from San Francisco, the northern suburbs of Dallas, Tigard outside of Portland, or Glendale outside of Los Angeles--and one will often find restaurants representing a handful of different nationalities. They are often rinky-dink little takeouts that offer great food in large portions at dirt cheap prices--the type of joints one would sooner associate with the inner-city.

In this respect, America's changing food landscape is another sign of how its suburbs are urbanizing. This phenomenon is usually described in respect to built pattern, as many of suburban America's new developments are dense, mixed-use, master-planned communities that have a quasi-urban quality. This was reflected in some of the housing developments around the strip mall I was standing in that night in Dublin.

But the food situation tells an even more complex story. The fact that an exurban municipality like Dublin can support, among other options, multiple niche burger chains shows the area's growing critical mass of customers. That the 15-square mile city also supports multiple restaurants for authentic Chinese, Mexican, Italian and Thai cuisine shows its growing ethnic diversity. It all speaks to the way that center cities, thanks to their hellish business climates, are exporting vast economic and social capital to the suburbs. After settling that night on Yalla Mediterranean's shalafel dish, I realized that the former's loss is the latter's gain.

[This article was originally published by Forbes.]