From swapping addresses to new spinoffs to permanent homes for previous concepts, while navigating pandemic-driven change.
Chris Shepherd is chef-owner at Underbelly Hospitality in Houston. The serial restaurateur has spent the past year making big changes among his existing venues and opening new ones. His first restaurant, Underbelly, had already been converted into Georgia James Steakhouse. The existing Hay Merchant, UB Preserv, and One Fifth all closed. Then Georgia James Steakhouse moved to a temporary location during the buildout of a new permanent home, while a spinoff called Georgia James Tavern opened. Then Underbelly Burger sprang up in the Houston Farmers Market. And the new Wild Oats just opened, to be followed by a new Italian restaurant, Pastore, sometime this spring.
We made a bunch of changes back in the middle of 2017. There was 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 deal. So we started One Fifth as a five-year concept to try and understand what we were going to do in the future. I said that I would change the concept every year, just to try and figure out what I wanted to do when I grow up. We did One Fifth Steak, and we liked that a lot. And then we did One Fifth Romance. And then our city was devastated by Hurricane Harvey.
There was another location next door, but the whole project would have cost me about $6 million. And I was like, “I don’t really want to do that.” That motivated the decision to change Underbelly into Georgia James Steakhouse and for me to step out of the kitchen and have chefs at all the places.
We opened UB Preserv, which is across the street from One Fifth. It was a small 74-seat restaurant. We had Nick Wong, the chef from Momofuko Ssäm Bar in New York. So at that point, we had One Fifth, Georgia James, Hay Merchant, and UB Preserv. We started to see Georgia James grow, and every time I walked in I’d just see Underbelly. But that 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 that all the time. I wanted to have an everyday kind of place. We actually talked about redoing Hay Merchant into a tavern, so we would have the tavern and Georgia James connected in the same building. But that was $1 million to do. After this pandemic hit, that all changed.
Georgia James Tavern in Houston. Photo: Claudia Casbarian.
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