Houston’s Chris Shepherd on Restaurant Musical Chairs

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From exchanging addresses to new spinoffs to permanent residencies for previous concepts, all while navigating the changes brought on by the pandemic.

Chris Shepherd is Chief Owner of Belly hospitality in Houston. The serial restaurateur has spent the last year making big changes to its existing venues and opening new ones. His first restaurant, Underbelly, had already been transformed into Georgia James Steakhouse. The existing Hay Merchant, UB Preserv and One Fifth all closed. Then Georgia James Steakhouse moved to a temporary location while a new permanent home was built, while a spin-off called Georgia James Tavern open. Then Burger under the belly originated at the Houston Farmers Market. And the new wild oats just opened, followed by a new Italian restaurant, Pastore, this spring.

We made a bunch of changes in the middle of 2017. There was the Underbelly Restaurant and Hay Merchant. What was going to be next? We got the lease down the street for what became One Fifth. It was an interesting five-year contract. So we started One Fifth as a five-year concept to try to figure out what we were going to do in the future. I said I would change the concept every year, just to try to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. We made One Fifth Steak, and we really liked it. And then we did One Fifth Romance. And then our town was devastated by Hurricane Harvey.

There was another place nearby, but the whole project would have cost me around $6 million. And I thought, “I don’t really want to do this.” This prompted the decision to change Underbelly to Georgia James Steakhouse and for me to get out of the kitchen and have chefs in all places.

We opened UB Preserv, which is across from One Fifth. It was a small restaurant with 74 seats. We had Nick Wang, the head of Momofuko Ssam Bar At New York. So at that time we had One Fifth, Georgia James, Hay Merchant and UB Preserv. We started seeing Georgia James grow up, and every time I walked in, I just saw Underbelly. But it was fine.

And then the thought process was that at some point I wanted to do a Georgia James Tavern – small, not as fancy. Going out is expensive. You can’t do this all the time. I wanted to have an everyday place. We actually talked about turning Hay Merchant into a Tavern, so that the Tavern and Georgia James are connected in the same building. But it was $1 million to do. After this pandemic, everything changed.

Georgia James Tavern in Houston. Photo: Claudia Casbarian.

Of all the things we do now, perhaps the only one we really planned before the pandemic was Underbelly Burger. My business partner Todd Mason and his group bought the Houston Farmer’s Market in 2017 and started remodeling it in 2018 or 2019. A friend of ours was setting up a butcher shop, so putting a burger shop next door made sense.

The burger was planned because we buy our beef from a few small farmers around us. They’re not that small anymore, but I mean local Texas farmers. The way the cattle industry works, when 2020 came along they stopped harvesting. Not only did they stop harvesting, but they stopped inseminating. They stopped breeding. Once that happened, they kept the cattle they didn’t harvest and harvested slowly along the way. You go from 200 heads per week to 100 heads per month.

Underbelly Burger at the Houston Farmers Market. Photo courtesy Underbelly Hospitality.

I would go to my 44 Farms guy and say, “Hey, I need to have some rib eye.” He just laughed at me. He was like, “Man, I don’t have them. I have grind. When you start looking at the size of a cow, it’s a 28% or 30% grind. That was really the reason the burger shop started. If burger shops could use backyard beef, we’d have no problem getting rib eye steaks, striploin steaks, and all the cuts people want. So we only use 44 farms and RC Ranch Wagyu. We would do an Angus burger and we would do a Wagyu burger. This gives them the ability to get through the grind and make it more sustainable to slaughter or harvest more animals.

When the pandemic started to spread, a luxury high-rise apartment asked us to come and do the downstairs restaurant, which is now Georgia James Tavern. The economy had to be really, really fair.

I learned with this that I want to be more of a convenience. You have to look at real estate differently now. If you don’t own the property, you need to work on your business to be financially better off for yourself. What if this crisis happens again? The high rents we all paid, you can’t do it anymore. You’ve seen it all over the country. If everything is still going to shit, you work more on percentages. Some people don’t like percentage rent. They like to know exactly what they are getting. You must have a base ceiling. If I make money, you make money. But if I don’t make money, you don’t make money.

As an industry, we have to look for what is best for us. It was something I said before the pandemic. A developer can come up to us and say, “Man, we’ve got this really nice place.” I’d say, “Who the hell are you going to put in there?” Who will enter at $95 per square foot? You want me to take 10,000 square feet? No! What are you even thinking? You are crazy!”

You saw it happen just before the pandemic. A lot of places have been left empty because no one is going to pay for it. No one can, unless it’s a big business. Developers wanted small, local, chic, fun, and city-focused places. But we can’t afford it right now. Now we try to buy local. We try to support our economy, our local systems. You can’t do that with that kind of rent.

Our new spot, Wild Oats, takes a deep dive into Houston and Texas food. It’s a kitchen that has been historically thought out, redone, rethought. And it’s at the Houston Farmer’s Market right next to the burger shop. So we have Underbelly Burger next to the RC Ranch butcher shop. Just across the driveway is Wild Oats. My business partner owns the property, so he is my landlord. He is in fact his own owner. It just makes more sense, right? He’s here to earn it. He understands how the restaurant model really works.

Wild oat restaurant. Photo: Claudia Casbarian.

Before the pandemic, we looked at a place around the corner from the restaurants in this new up and coming complex. It’s probably the biggest development Houston has seen in a long time. It’s residential, it’s commercial. It is a privileged place. I had this vision of making a real fire restaurant with 14 legs of fire table, and blah, blah, blah, blah. It was going to be my dream place. But finding someone other than me to direct it was kind of interesting.

They had two other restaurants on site, and their savings for this deal were really, really good. They told me, “We’re going to make it work. But I was told that before the pandemic. When the pandemic hit, my owners came back and said, “Guess what? All that stuff we made work? We need to be reimbursed for this. It’s their thing. It is their priority. No matter.

But looking at this space, I thought, man, this place isn’t big enough for what I need, but it’s perfect for Pastore, which is the latest One Fifth concept we’ve done. It’s American Italian, the stuff I grew up with as a kid. Lasagna and things like that, just delicious food. We walked by it, and it’s this huge building. I was like, “Oh my God, this thing is like an aircraft carrier!” I was like, get me out of this. I said, “I have to go.” They’re like, “We’ll share it for you!” I was like “I have to go!”

We had our conversation with our landlord at Georgia James. It made sense in my mind that this was the last big rent I paid. My 10 year lease is over. You need to do a lot more renovations here. And yes, we flipped it from Underbelly to Georgia James. I told my business partners, “I know we just pay. We are literally in the clear now. But let’s go. You have to think about the future. If something like the pandemic happens again, you still have that huge rent.

I had no other place in mind for Georgia James until I stepped onto this giant aircraft carrier. I was like, “Todd, look what the economy looks like on this.” He was like, “Man, that’s basically the same, if not better, than what we have in the square next door for Pastore.” I was like, “It’s time to go.”

These two places are literally shells, and we build them exactly how we want them. So at this point we closed Hay Merchant and Georgia James. We transferred Georgia James to One Fifth. We closed UB Preserv and moved that team to Georgian James Tavern. Now we have Underbelly Burger, open and we’re taking Team One Fifth to Wild Oats. Over the next three to six months, every restaurant and every employee we have will be in a brand new facility.

We opened three new restaurants in six months ago, and we did it well. People say, “You open up so many new things.” I’m like, “We’re not really. We are just moving the concept to a new building. The steakhouse was done. Pastore was done.

These days, I’m more hands-on with design. Before, I was more in the kitchen. I would come out and say, “Oh, is this what we do? These walls look great. This art looks great. But now I have chefs and culinary directors running everything. I have a team around me who can help me make decisions. And these things happen beautifully.

My wife Lindsey already made me promise that’s all for a while. She said, “You don’t do anything else for two years. People would say, “The word is you’re trying to expand your empire. I say to myself: “What empire? I do not do it. It’s colonial, or even before. It is the Roman era. I try to make things work for our staff. I try to make sure that all of our staff have beautiful, brand new homes.

We are actually losing a restaurant in total. So it’s more about focusing on how to do it perfectly. I say I will never do it again. At some point, we have to figure out how to appreciate what we’ve done. I’m 50 this year. I don’t want to do this until I’m 70. I want to stand in front of Walmart in black socks, sandals and shorts and wave to people. “Hey, man! Between! Lawn equipment is in aisle 42!

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