Landry’s Growing River Walk Presence Concerns Some Restaurateurs

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Lunchtime guests eat at Boudro's Texas Bistro along the riverwalk.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Lunchtime guests eat at Boudro's Texas Bistro on the River Walk.

When City Council awarded Go Rio Cruises the multimillion contract to operate the City’s new fleet of river barges, the Landry’s footprint on the San Antonio River Walk expanded substantially. And that was just the beginning.

Although Go Rio is considered a locally owned company, one of its partners is Houston-based Landry’s, which already operates four River Walk eateries: Morton’s The Steakhouse, Landry’s Seafood House, Saltgrass Steak House, and the Rainforest Café. Landry’s also owns the lease to manage and operate another nearby tourist destination, the City-owned Tower of the Americas and its Chart House restaurant.

Now Landry’s parent company, Fertitta Entertainment, has won a bidding war for the assets of the company that owns another River Walk restaurant, Joe’s Crab Shack, which filed for bankruptcy protection in June. There is speculation that it will become a Bubba Gump’s restaurant, another Landry’s brand.

While a consolidation of River Walk restaurant ownership may matter little to most locals who rarely visit the downtown tourist destination for lunch or dinner, other River Walk restaurant owners are concerned that Go Rio has yet to inform them of its plans for the long-held San Antonio tradition of river barge dining.

Fertitta Entertainment, a dining, hospitality, and gaming company based in Houston, ranks 126th on Forbes’ list of America’s Largest Private Companies, with $3.4 billion in annual revenues. The company is owned by Tilman Fertitta, 60, who is considered one of Texas’ wealthiest people.

With the 2006 installation of Saltgrass, the Landry company’s fourth restaurant on the river, former Mayor Phil Hardberger took notice of changes to the River Walk dining scene, changes he and others called “a very big concern.”

When Saltgrass took over the space occupied by longtime River Walk establishments Justin’s Ice Cream Co., Hunan River Garden, and Italia Ristorante, Hardberger raised the issue with the Zoning Commission.

“I would like to have prohibited chain restaurants on the river,” Hardberger told the Rivard Report last week. “They cheapen the experience when you eat at a place that you could eat at in 100 other places. The Pearl, for instance, rules out any chains on their properties.

A child poses for a photo outside the Rainforest Cafe on the riverwalk.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A child stands outside the Rainforest Café on the River Walk.

“After researching the issue, though, I felt the City would probably be unsuccessful in upholding such an ordinance, so we took no action. The Pearl can do it because they own the property.”

San Antonio River Walk Association Executive Director Maggie Thompson said though there are rules prohibiting gambling and strip clubs on the River Walk, there are no ordinances governing chain restaurants. There are currently 37 restaurants on the San Antonio River Walk.

“[Chain restaurants] are good for tourism because a lot of people visit from all around the world, and there are some who might be more comfortable dining at places they are familiar with, so I haven’t seen it become an overwhelming problem,” said Elizabeth Lyons Houston, director of marketing at Schilo’s and Casa Rio.

“There’s still a nice mix of local and chain, and to me, all the operators work really well together. But, of course, I will always advocate for local restaurants because I just think it offers the most authentic experience for a visitor.”

Houston is, however, concerned about the future of river barge dining. Casa Rio has been serving dinner aboard private cruises since the 1960s. Her great-grandfather developed river barge dining. But she’s been asked not to book any river barge catering contracts past October, when the new barge contract starts.

“It’s something locals enjoy doing on the river. It’s something our staff loves doing. It’s special and unique for our city and I would hate to see [Landry’s] start monopolizing that part of the river experience by utilizing all of their own catering services or restaurants,” she said. “It’s on the minds of everyone down here.”

Go Rio co-owner Lisa Wong told the Rivard Report that river barge dining will not change, with a few exceptions.

“We will have barges allocated specifically to dinner barges, where all the River Walk stakeholders up and down the river would have access to supplement any of their dining barge needs,” she said.

Go Rio plans to make an online booking calendar available for consumers to help expedite the reservation process, she said. “So it’s going to work very similar, but you’ll know instantaneously the available time slots with a little more ease that will be greatly appreciated, and also help restaurateurs and hoteliers manage their time efficiently.”

Wong, a local restaurateur, and VIA Metropolitan Transit Chair Hope Andrade own 51% of Go Rio. Andrade is also the former Texas secretary of state (2013-15) and owns several small businesses, including a political/business consulting firm. Go Rio was able to secure local preference points in the scoring matrix for the 10-year, more than $100 million contract that allowed it to receive more points than its main competitor, Chicago-based Entertainment Cruises. Another bidder for the contract, Buena Vista Barges, is challenging the legitimacy of those points.

Go Rio team led by Hope Andrade and Lisa Wong in partnership with Landry's Inc.

Scott Ball / Rivard report

The Go Rio team is led by Hope Andrade (center) and Lisa Wong (second from right) in partnership with Landry’s Inc.

Landry’s representatives did not respond to several requests for information or interviews for this article.

Other restaurants that provide river barge dining include Landry’s, Saltgrass, Biga on the Banks, Boudro’s, and others, as well as the Republic of Texas, which opened on the River Walk in 1975.

“No one wanted to be on the River Walk then,” Republic of Texas owner Rick Grinnan said. “It was a sewer trap. It was dangerous. It didn’t take off until 1982 with [major hotels] opening.”

Grinnan said it worries him that he can’t book river barges for dining past October, and he’s not sure he ever will again.

“It concerns me that the City is not handling this fairly. It just doesn’t pass the smell test,” Grinnan said. “They never asked any of us to get on a boat and see if you can load food and liquor. It just got done. [The river barge contract was] supposed to be an open process, but if you dig into it, it wasn’t an open process.”

City officials said Boudro’s had been invited to host a dinner cruise on the prototype for the new river barge earlier this year.

“For 50 years, the restaurants and hotels have been doing boats,” Grinnan said. “It’s a horrible design. I’m not sure we’re going to do any boats. And we don’t know the price [for barge dining]. It seems like the [barge dining] value is gone. It would be nice for a family to come and for it to be affordable, but the cost to ride a boat is crazy.”

A river barge passes Rita's On the River on the San Antonio River.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A river barge passes Rita’s On the River on the San Antonio River.

Go Rio has plans to deploy some of the 43 barges for unique programming, working with local chefs in town to offer foodie experiences and wine tastings, Wong said.

Go Rio takes over Oct. 1 using some of the new, City-owned fleet of barges. The rest of the new barges are scheduled to arrive in November, according to city officials.

“We are very excited,” Wong said. “The [barges] are absolutely beautiful and will be a huge complement to our River Walk experience. The City did an outstanding job designing them.”

In April 2016, Houston-based Metalab’s design won the City’s International River Barge Design Competition, aimed at replacing the decades-old design that had been in place since Hemisfair ’68.  The prototype was unveiled in September 2016.

San Antonio community members and elected officials ride on the concept river barge approaching the Arneson River Theater. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio community members and elected officials ride on the new river barge as it approaches the Arneson River Theater.

Amid the uncertainty involved in changing river barge operators, rumors have circulated about the fate of other River Walk eateries and bars.

“I don’t have a clue on what Landry’s’ intentions are, but I can assure you that they will not be purchasing any of Paesanos Restaurant Group’s current concepts,” said Steven Bartlett, the restaurant group’s director of operations. “There is no merit to this rumor” that Paesanos may be sold.

The longtime River Walk bar Dick’s Last Resort – known as “the joint your mom warned you about” – will move from its current location, but “remain downtown,” according to a manager who referred us to the general manager, who didn’t respond to calls. Rumors about the watering hole’s fate began circulating after the chain that owns it abruptly closed several locations across the country late last year.

Carrie Carillo, a manager at The County Line, said the barbecue restaurant has no plans to move.

Grinnan said chain restaurants have an advantage over locally owned establishments because they are better able to absorb rising rents.

“[Chain restaurants] have the wherewithal to spend a lot of money, and they are buying up the place,” Grinnan said. “I don’t like it because you can go to those anywhere. The River Walk has a lot of family-owned restaurants that are going away.”

 

This story was originally published on Aug. 15, 2017.

20 thoughts on “Landry’s Growing River Walk Presence Concerns Some Restaurateurs

  1. Flying back from New York, I heard a passenger doing business in San Antonio complaining about the number of Fertita owned businesses already on the river,
    “It’s becoming just like any mall”. That was over a year ago.

  2. What a sad fate for San Antonio. Being a former Galvestonian I know all too well the history of the Fertitta empire. When will we turn the river into another Las Vegas? We can have a fake sphinx enclosed in glass next to the Alamo!
    Local restaurants support the local economy, and gives local chefs a chance.
    Houston has become a culinary spot due to local re: NON chain restaurants.
    Seems SA doesn’t know what it wants to be? If you want to continue to cater to the party crowd, why bother changing a thing with the Alamo? Let’s face it, people who are here to see history and art, are not going to go on the river and eat at a Landry’s (no matter how you tout it).

  3. Shari, I noticed you made some corrections to the article. Another thing you should already know, if you did any research, is that the current fleet is NOT from Hemisfair ’68. The current fleet hit the water in 1995 and they run on compressed natural gas. Some of the original fleet was donated to what is now called the River Walk Assoc. & can be seen today in the river parades. They belong to a completely separate entity.

    • Rachael, thank you for your input. You are correct, the fleet was updated in the ’90s to be more energy-efficient. The design, however, is from the Hemisfair days.

      • Thank you, Hannah.
        If by design, you simply mean the boats were square, then yes, you’re correct. It’s the same.
        However, the design of the barges comes down to more than just aesthetics.
        There have been significant changes (hull, seating, helm, accessibility, wiring, railing, height, life jacket storage, engines) made with each fleet throughout the history of this concession.

  4. I am very disappointed in the burgeoning chain restaurant scene on the River Walk. If the city wants more locals to dine on the river, they need to do better than chain restaurants. Nothing about a Landry’s restaurant is special, nor does any Landry’s restaurant invoke “San Antonio”.

  5. Please make the Rainforest Cafe and their ilk go away. Keep the Riverwalk unique. Or, can we create a separate Riverwalk for all the chains? But, I continue to be amazed at the number of tourists walking on the Riverwalk that will stop you and ask “How do we get to Howl at the Moon (or Hard Rock Cafe)?” You suggest other local options, but …. they still want to go to Howl at the Moon. I have had this happen two or three times in recent years. Sad.

  6. Why is anyone surprised?

    Whether Ms Wong and Ms Andrade are certified as small and/or local and/or minority shouldn’t have mattered the second Mr. Fertitta and Landry’s became part of the bid. The overwhelming presence of Landry’s in this deal makes it NOT small, NOT local, and NOT minority.

    This is a perfect example of politics and gaming the game. Thank you, Mayor Taylor.

    Additionally, regardless of what the attorneys say, how can anyone say with a straight face that being Chair of VIA isn’t a conflict of interest? The COSA trains new board members in ethics and regulations. As I recall, one is NOT eligible to do business with COSA while serving in a City function/position, including board membership, nor for at least a year after.

  7. It is a real shame that the new operators have no plan at this time for arranging river boat dining. This certainly was part of the RFP and is a very popular option to diners and special events in San Antonio. To just be saying after the current operator ceases to operate, that there is no way to book a river dinner cruise at this time is a travesty, and a sign that the selected operator was not the best option after all. And to know only a portion of the new fleet will be ready for the new operator is going to mean a very disjointed experience once they take over with some new boats, some old boats…and no dinner cruises. Troubling….to say the least.

  8. If the city cannot mandate that all restaurants must be allowed to have dining cruises upon request (maybe with a maximum number per restaurant per month), then the next best way to deal with it is to let it start (probably with Landry’s restaurants being favored or having a monopoly) and have a law suit against the new riverboat franchisee by all the non-Landry restaurants who have regularly provided dining cruises.

  9. Will the City Council do something about this? It took many years for the Alamo chain situation to be even begin to be sorted out. I have been very disappointed with the quality of food at the many Laundry locations on the RiverWalk and at the Tower. What a shame…

  10. Landry is a shyster. His restaurants are nothing more than fast food joints with a theme. Run him off the River Walk. Run him out of town.

  11. Joe, no question Fertitta is a shrewd restaurateur. Lived in Harris County thirty five years and saw Landry’s explode with cheap carnival type eateries around the country. Returned to San Antonio last year after forty years. Someone made a poor decision that will ruin the famed SA River Walk.

  12. On the other hand, Landry’s supports a lot of jobs. And it’s no secret that mom & pop restaurants tend to be short lived. So the “let’s run him outta town” mentality is much the same as saying “let’s kill off a lot of jobs because we don’t like chains.”

  13. I have been going to the River Walk since the late 1950s/early 1960s when the only establishments there were the bar where “El Curro” had his flamenco show and The Landing with Jim Cullem’s jazz band. I used to wonder why the River Walk wasn’t lined with sidewalk cafes, international boutiques, etc.; it was the perfect setting for something elegant. It is now lined, but not with anything elegant. I still go to the River Walk often for activities at the Arnesen River Theater, to sit on the quiet parts and read while watching the tourist boats go by, to mingle with the crowds, etc., but I have only eaten there twice in the past 30 years or so–at locally owned places both times. Here’s what I have observed:

    1. Tourists tend to not be explorers. They seem to prefer chains. It is common to hear people say, “Oh, there’s a Rainforest Cafe!,” and turn toward the entrance. They prefer familiarity or an experience at a place their friends at home will have heard about without concern that the meal may have been prepared at a factory, sealed in cryovac, and boiled to the right temperature just before cutting open the bag and serving it on a plate–a very common way of operating chain restaurants to assure the same experience at every location.

    2. There is enough business on the River Walk that even locally owned restaurants don’t have to put out the effort (and seldom do) to serve anything matching in quality the prices that they charge for it.

    3. Local residents do not want to pay River Walk prices, deal with the parking hassles and prices, deal with the difficulty of moving along the River Walk with the crowds that are normally wandering at a slow pace along there now; and they want to get better quality food for their money than they can get on the River Walk.

    In other words, there’s little hope for anything improving on the River Walk.

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