Outdoor dining

A couple raises their glasses during a toast on the patio of The Rouxpour Restaurant & Bar in Sugar Land. A growing number of Fort Bend County restaurants are investing to expand outdoor dining, betting the trend will last beyond the pandemic. (Photo from Facebook)

Standing out as something of an anomaly in the restaurant scene, 2021 was a record year for the Rouxpour Restaurant & Bar in Sugar Land’s Town Square.

The restaurant chain’s Sugar Land location generated about $7 million in profit last year, far outpacing its pre-pandemic record of about $4.2 million in 2019, according to Mack McDonald, the chain’s owner.

And now, McDonald and business administrators are making a big bet on the chain’s future, recently inking a $75,000 agreement with the city of Sugar Land to almost double the restaurant’s outdoor seating capacity, up to about 130 outdoor seats, McDonald said.

“We think people are more comfortable outside these days, especially if the weather is decent,” he said. “If it is covered and has heating, that’s even better.”

Restaurants pivoting during the early months of the pandemic to offer more to-go and outdoor dining options became a common refrain in 2020 and 2021. But these days, a growing number of restaurants across Fort Bend County are making investments to expand outdoor dining, betting that the trend will persist beyond the pandemic.

“You’ve seen patios and outdoor dining really blow up all over the country over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Matt Ragan, the director of retail programming and operations for Rebees, a Dallas-based real estate company that handles development on much of Sugar Land Town Square. “In Houston, because of the realities of being a city in a sub-tropic climate, it’s hot here a lot. And the traditional thinking was that it was miserable six months out of the year, and people wouldn’t want to dine outdoors. But our thinking, and what we’ve seen from tenants across the board is that people have really discovered outdoor dining. They’ve discovered how nice it is to be outside.”

The city of Sugar Land in the summer of 2020 passed an ordinance allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor dining capacity without having to increase parking as well, in hopes of helping businesses recover from the pandemic, said Elizabeth Huff, economic development director for Sugar Land.

But what began as a temporary measure has more recently developed into a full-on trend, she said.

“I think some businesses tried it out to see if it would work or if they were interested,” she said. “They found that, yes, it’s definitely a trend that’s not going away. So, now they’re investing in it.”

Representatives for Rouxpour recently signed a Chapter 380 tax incentive agreement with the city of Sugar Land, under which the city will give the business about $75,000 and Rouxpour will expand its outdoor seating capacity from about 80 seats up to 132, and will make other improvements to allow outdoor dining in inclement weather as well as construct a new curbside takeout area, according to city documents.

The project is set for completion in March, according to city documents.

The agreement is meant to serve as an example for other restaurants in the area, according to the city.

“If the weather is good, our patio will often fill up before our interior,” McDonald said of the trend toward more outdoor dining.

Tenants in Sugar Land Town Square are taking major steps toward expanding outdoor dining across the board, Ragan said.

Perry’s Steakhouse and the Flying Saucer are also joining the Rouxpour in expanding outdoor dining in the center, Ragan said.

Crews are also at work on new landscaping on the western half of City Walk, adding new green and outdoor common spaces, Ragan said. The construction will remove a few street parking spots to make room for more outdoor dining, he said.

“Even as coronavirus cases dropped through the year, you saw a commitment to patios,” Ragan said. “Outdoor dining is a lot more sticky.”

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