It sounded like a good plan: Open your restaurant on a Tuesday so the staff can work out kinks before the weekend rush. That was Ali Kashi’s intent, and at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 1, things were going smoothly at the Cheers Bar & Grill in Renton, the sixth in Kashi’s chain. Six tables were filled in the expansive dining room. Customers were getting their food quickly, pitchers of beer weren’t left empty, and the wait staff was sailing through orders.
But the tranquil soft opening wasn’t to be. An hour and a half later, Cheers was packed, far more so than one would expect on a Tuesday. Servers were scurrying to take orders. Two women seated upstairs came to the bar after 20 unserved minutes to order wine from Kashi, who was now serving as the de facto bartender.
The unexpected Tuesday-night rush could have been patrons curious to see what replaced A Terrible Beauty, the once-popular Irish pub that preceded Cheers. Or, perhaps, the busy night was indicative of Renton’s becoming a restaurant boomtown.
Restaurants are popping up across Washington’s eighth-largest city. National chains such as Chipotle, small independent joints such as Fine Salads and Smoking Monkey Pizza, and regional chains such as Cheers all have come to town in recent years, recognizing Renton as a city large enough to provide a steady stream of customers and cheap enough for new ventures to afford rent. Those new restaurants joined a stable of established and reputable joints, including steakhouse Melrose Grill, vegetarian Vietnamese cuisine purveyor Blossom, gastropub Whistle Stop Ale House, and Indian cuisine mainstay Naan-N-Curry.
“It has a good population base, a lot of Boeing employees, and it was a great location,” Kashi said before Cheers’ evening rush on opening night.
Cheers’ downtown location would be considered prime real estate in many cities. Kashi favors standalone buildings he can purchase, and entire buildings for sale in neighboring cities are rare. Even for restaurateurs who can’t buy real estate, Renton’s commercial leases are among the cheapest on the Eastside — vacant spaces near Kashi’s new restaurant are advertising rates as low as $13 per square foot, less that half what downtown Bellevue space command.
Even national chains consider these factors. Dallas-based Which Wich, a fast-casual sandwich shop with a location in Seattle’s University District, is strongly considering Renton for its second area franchise. Connie Alires, Which Wich’s director of franchise development, said the company targets white-collar locations with “higher income, higher education” consumers seeking healthier fast food.
Those traits sound more like Renton’s Eastside neighbors to the north — Renton’s median income is 62 percent of Bellevue’s — but restaurants also want an area that hasn’t maxed out its potential. “Renton is one of those up and coming areas,” Alires said. “The sandwich segment is one of the most heavily populated within the quick-service restaurant industry today, so … a lot of times we have to be first in that location.”
That Renton doesn’t have as many sandwich shops as Bellevue or Seattle is one reason financial consulting firm Nerdwallet named Renton the 12th best city in the U.S. to open a restaurant today. Its logic: Core cities are saturated with eateries, so the best spots to open up shop these days are suburbs with large populations and a relatively low density of restaurants.
Armondo Pavone has been watching this change since 1986, when he opened an Italian restaurant downtown. Now the owner of Melrose Grill and a City Councilmember, Pavone said the growing interest shows a maturation of the area’s dining scene, which is clustered around downtown and The Landing development.
“It used to be, if you wanted to take your family to a chain-style restaurant, you went to the Southcenter area,” Pavone said. “Now there are lots of options, and that’s a nice thing in the restaurant business — keeping the dollars in the community.”
Though more restaurants are more competition for owners like Pavone, a dining cluster also helps establish a location as a destination, which could bring more customers in. This effect is why Pavone isn’t scared of chain restaurants stealing from his steakhouse. “It’s a testament to our growing up,” Pavone said, “when chains start looking at our area and saying, well there’s a viable area.”