Dripping Springs Keeps Growing, But Can the Dining Scene Keep Up?
Austin real estate pushes restaurateurs beyond city limits
There were about 80 people in my graduating class at Dripping Springs High School in 1990. Back then, about 1,000 people lived in Dripping, and the landscape between it and Austin along Highway 290 was a whole lot of nothing. These days, about 2,000 people live in Dripping Springs proper, and about 30,000 live in what's known as the ETJ (extraterritorial jurisdiction), the unincorporated "no-man's-land" that stretches from just west of Oak Hill to the Dripping Springs city limit.
This growth has meant great things for dining out in Dripping. When I was a teenager, our options were limited to Dairy Queen, a crappy Tex-Mex joint, and Hamburger Hill, where we would frequently decamp after school for late-afternoon mozzarella sticks and hamburgers. The nearest "real" restaurant was the Salt Lick, where many of us worked during the summer.
These days, while there's still a generous complement of barbecue and pizza joints, more and more locally owned restaurants are popping up along Highway 290, making Dripping Springs and its surrounds a much more compelling place to eat than ever before. But does all this growth spell success for all of these new local restaurants?
Everyone knows by now about Pieous and its attached coffee shop, Pie-é-Tea, where the presence of kouign-amann and Vietnamese coffee on the menu speak to the area's growing cosmopolitanism. In fact, Pieous' near-instantaneous success was a likely clue to entrepreneurs that people between Austin and Dripping Springs were starving for interesting food. Stanley's Farmhouse Pizza cohabitates with Jester King Brewery quite comfortably, and Treaty Oak Distilling enjoys prime positioning on the highway.
There's also the excellent Lox, Box & Barrel, which recently celebrated its first year in business and serves a breathtakingly delicious Reuben sandwich, along with house-made pickles, bacon, and the namesake smoked salmon. Lunch and brunch do a brisk trade, although proprietor Sebastien Caillabet, who previously operated the Celtic Seafare supper club and smoked salmon operation, admits to having to make adjustments to the menu and operating hours to adjust to the area's habits and tastes. "We're trying to figure out what the community wants," he says as a steady trickle of regulars start to show up for weekday lunch.
You also see established Austin brands setting up shop in the ETJ, most recently the beloved vegan bakery Skull & Cakebones, who through pure happenstance (and tough economic reality) wound up with an enormous space to call their own on the cusp of the Hill Country.
After raising nearly $38,000 in a December 2015 crowdfunding campaign, co-owners Sascha Biesi and Yauss Berenji found themselves at a crossroads. They'd raised all this money, but it wasn't nearly enough to put down roots in Austin. "We had this Kickstarter campaign in which we claimed we'd open a food truck in Central Austin," says Berenji. "But as we started to think about what we wanted our business model to be and the logistics of having a facility that's far away from our retail space, we realized that maybe we should think about allocating these funds to something more permanent, rather than something that would be a stepping stone."
The pair were looking seriously at a place on the Eastside, one that would put them right in the heart of their established market. But the realities of Austin real estate deflated that idea like so much stale baking powder.
"It was $30,000 a month and it was going to take 16 to 18 months to renovate, during which we were going to have to pay rent, and it was going to be $400,000 in renovation fees," says Berenji.
"It was a wake-up call for what it was really going to cost to put something down in Austin," Biesi adds.
Ultimately, the barriers to access presented by the City of Austin's permitting process and the unreasonable cost of square footage made it effectively impossible for Skull & Cakebones to set up permanent shop in Austin. And the mushrooming growth of the greater Dripping Springs area made a move outside the Austin city limits doable. The combined retail cafe and commercial kitchen opened for business in January of this year after about nine months of renovation and construction.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Biesi. "We thought it would take about five years for us to take off out here, but we've been embraced by this community and they want us to succeed here. I'm overwhelmed by how welcoming everyone is out here. Not that people aren't like that in Austin, but the business side of it, the money side of it, the wheeling and dealing side of it ..."
"That part doesn't really exist out here," says Berenji, completing her partner's thought.
A couple of weeks later, on a Saturday morning at Rolling in Thyme & Dough, situated in the heart of Dripping Springs, just past the intersection of Highway 290 and Ranch Road 12 (there's a traffic light there now; it used to just be a four-way stop), there's a line about 10 people deep at the counter, patiently perusing the menu and waiting to place their orders for freshly made pastries and sandwiches.
The vibe is relaxed; no one is in a hurry to get anywhere anytime soon. There are young parents with small children and babies, older couples lingering over coffee, and young couples who'd look perfectly at home at the nearest comic book store. There's a table with a sign indicating that it's reserved on weekday mornings for the shop's "regular gentleman's group" that has taken up residence around 8am. For the past decade-plus (Thyme & Dough will mark 12 years in business in October), the bakery has guaranteed its longevity by listening to its growing customer base while holding firm to its values.
"Basically, I did what people were asking for," says Fabienne Bollom, who hails from Belgium. "They asked if I was going to make cinnamon rolls. I never heard of it before, but I make it. I want freshness and to create a place where people want to sit and enjoy good food." Bollom, whose son Jerome helps manage the restaurant, negotiates the demands of the town's changing population via Thursday night bistro dinners and a newly relaunched Friday night beer garden on the patio, which finds Jerome flipping burgers both carnivore and vegan from a food trailer outside.
"I want to be separate from a hole in the wall; I make the order one by one. If you need to wait 45 minutes, I'm sorry. That's us, and that's who I want to stay. The city people are just rush, rush, rush. A few years ago, I wanted to do fast and fast and fast. And I realized I cannot change, they need to change. If they want to move to the country, you are in the country."
On the other end of town is Epicure, a tiny bistro with a sprawling, impeccably curated wine list and a sophisticated menu, aiming to bring a little bit of the city to the country. Co-owner and wine connoisseur Jerry Gray, who moved to Dripping Springs a few years ago with his partner, executive chef Julio Llop, explains, "We opened out here because we didn't feel like there was great food out here. We also had gone to several wine bars in Austin and were rather nonplussed by the lack of choice in wines by the glass and the fact that wine bars don't have a robust menu offering from the kitchen. And why should you have to leave Dripping Springs to get this?"
"We've been so embraced," says Gray. "The entire time we were building and developing this concept and building out the space, I was anxious that somebody else was going to beat us to the punch. And right up to the moment when we were just about to open and I realized that nobody was behind us, then you begin to think, well, are we insane? And then we opened up and we realized, no, we're not." Epicure marked one year in business on April 28.
But having a successful restaurant in Dripping Springs isn't necessarily all top-flight wine and delicious pastries enjoyed at a leisurely pace. The rampant, unchecked growth of the area presents some huge, potentially insurmountable challenges. Dripping Springs is, effectively, the Wild West for developers, with thousands of new homes in 13 neighborhoods slated for construction in the near future.
The median home price in the Dripping Springs area is approximately $390,000, which poses an affordability problem for service industry workers (and teachers, and firefighters, and custodians, and so on). The lack of affordable housing in Dripping Springs and the ETJ means that the labor pool is extraordinarily shallow. Restaurants have a hard time attracting potential candidates, and turnover is high. "Now Hiring" signs stay up in perpetuity, and restaurateurs must learn how to operate without sufficient staff.
Llop says, "It's a big challenge. It affects your creativity, it affects what you're capable of doing. Whenever we change the menu we have to think about executability. I'm about two to three people short in the kitchen, so I have to base the menu on that. The current menu is based on when I had another cook in the kitchen, and he lasted two weeks, so there's more on here than we can handle.
"We do everything from scratch here. We don't have a freezer, microwave, or can openers. So everything we do is fresh and we prep daily. For two people, it's a ginormous menu. So I'm going to go back and make the menu smaller."
But there's also the issue of traffic. The rapid growth in the area has contributed to the rise in traffic fatalities along Highway 290. Indeed, what used to take a cool 20 minutes door to door from Dripping Springs to South Austin now takes at least twice that, depending on the time of day, and often in bumper-to-bumper traffic. From May to October 2016, eight people were killed in accidents on Highway 290, which the Hays County Sheriff's office attributes to the housing boom alongside a 60 mile-per-hour thoroughfare. As such, potential laborers from Austin are socked in by congestion along a deadly stretch of highway – would a $12 an hour job be worth that kind of hassle?
Rapid expansion and unchecked development. A rising cost of living and labor shortages. Horrific, dangerous traffic. All of this sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? What on the surface sounds like an antidote to the stressors of life in Austin looks more and more like the same problems on a smaller scale under closer inspection. After the contentious city council election in May, Dripping Springs faces a defining moment: remain a charming hamlet with its own unique personality informed by locally owned restaurants and shops, or become just another nondescript exurb dotted with chain coffee shops and fast-food joints on the way to somewhere else?