In 2014, Plant Love House opened inside a triangle-shaped restaurant in Elmhurst, serving Thai noodle soups in the largest Thai neighborhood in the city. Within two years the restaurant became so popular — due in part to the cooking and a glowing review in the Times — that it expanded into Brooklyn.
Although the family-owned place first opened for its neighbors, the audience quickly grew. But by 2016, its success took a twist: Plant Love House closed in its original Queens location, leaving the very people the restaurant was originally trying to serve. Owner Benjaporn Chua was “heartbroken” about the decision, but the move made the most financial sense, she says.
“In Queens, customers are more price sensitive,” she tells Eater, saying that in their Brooklyn restaurants, they could charge around $1 or $2 more on some dishes. It wasn’t a major price change, she says, but it helped their bottom line. “We were not trying to make a profit; we were trying to survive,” Chua says.
Plant Love House, now in Prospect Heights at 622 Washington Ave. and in Ditmas Park at 752 Coney Island Ave., is just one of several restaurants that have left the borough after receiving citywide acclaim. Restaurants move or close for many reasons, not all of them economic, but for many business owners in Queens, they’ve been pushed elsewhere due to finances — often finding it’s cheaper to leave what many would think of as a more affordable borough.
There’s an expectation in Queens, known as the “cheap eats” borough, for food costs to stay cheap, restaurant owners say, and combined with increasingly challenging rents, running a restaurant in Queens isn’t as low-cost as many people assume.
Late last year, Uncle Zhou — a beloved noodle shop in Elmhurst — suddenly closed. The building’s owner said chef Steven Zhou plans to open in Manhattan, although he could not be reached for comment. The borough’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Danny Brown Kitchen, decamped to the Upper East Side in 2016 after lease issues with the owner in Forest Hills. Vietnamese hit Bunker moved from its small Ridgewood restaurant to a large space in neighboring Bushwick. And the street food phenom Arepa Lady has struggled to stay in Queens after the family owners were forced out of their brick-and-mortar store when it was bought by a developer.
“I have a territorialism towards Queens, and I hate to see anyone go,” says Rob MacKay, the director of marketing, public relations, and tourism for the Queens Economic Development Corporation. “But they’re in the business to make money, and they can’t be loyal to the borough if it’s going to make them poor.”
Commercial rents in Queens are hard to track, and data on increases aren’t easy to come by, MacKay says. Scott Plasky, vice-president at real estate investment company Marcus & Millichap and a specialist in retail and commercial rents, says some building owners in some Queens neighborhoods have “inflated ideas of what rents are based on a gentrifying community.”
“You have these restaurants that ultimately can’t pay the rents that some of the landlords want, and they’re moving on,” he says. “Rent is going up, taxes going up, minimum wage going up, and you can’t increase the cost of your food. You’re up against a wall.”
Many business owners say that as a result, rents in Queens aren’t any cheaper than similar spaces in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Chua says that the rent on their “hole in the wall” in Elmhurst cost more than some spaces they viewed in Manhattan, though she declined to name the price. The Prospect Heights location of Plant Love House costs about the same as the Elmhurst one, but they’re able to charge more in Brooklyn, she says. For example, a pork blood soup costs $12 in Brooklyn but used to cost $9.95 in Elmhurst.
Alejandro Osorio, who opened the Arepa Lady restaurant in 2014 a few blocks from where his mom Maria Cano first had a cart on Roosevelt Avenue, also pointed to rent as a major issue when they looked to open a new restaurant in Queens.
“Given the rent in Jackson Heights, it’s actually easier to go to Brooklyn or even the city,” he says. A new owner bought the lot where the original outpost is and plans to build a 7-story building there, forcing Osorio to close the location by March 18. Plans to move into a former hair salon — which would prevent him from selling coffee and tea due to a lease clause from a neighboring Starbucks — fell through after a few weeks. Meanwhile, the restaurant’s stall inside the new DeKalb Market food hall had a comparatively easy process, with low rent locked in for the first five years, Osorio says.
The restaurateur now plans to open inside former City Coffee shop at 77-17 37th Ave. in Jackson Heights and expects to open within a few months after construction. Still, all of the work comes at a price, and they’ve been pressured to keep food prices down, Osorio says. “People think, ‘it’s in Queens so it must be cheap’,” he says. “It’s not easy.”
Even more upscale restaurants have been pushed out due to rising rents. Chef Danny Brown, who had the borough’s first Michelin-starred restaurant with Danny Brown Kitchen in Forest Hills, was forced out of his original location after a dispute with his landlord, he says. It closed in 2015. “We did everything we could to try to stay in Queens,” he says, including trying to buy the Metropolitan Avenue building where the restaurant was.
To find a space that was larger or as nice as the original location was difficult, he says. Brown moved out of Queens because “you know you can’t replicate what you did here” and other retail rents in Forest Hills “are out of control,” he says. He planned to open another restaurant in Long Island City, but that deal fell through, too.
After years of trying to nail down a space in the borough, in late 2017 he opened Charc, a charcuterie wine bar on the Upper East Side at 316 East 84th St., after stumbling upon a “for rent” sign outside. The rent and location, right near the new Second Avenue train stop, ended up meeting his needs in a way he couldn’t find in Queens, though he declined to say the exact rent.
He’s had many old customers cross the river to visit him, but he says others were angry at him for leaving. “You built those relationships with people,” Brown says. “They came over a 10 year period and the last thing you want to do is get up and say ‘I’m leaving.’ You don’t just get up and go to Manhattan, and I hear them. That was a really rough thing to do.”
For Chua, they were happily surprised to find that people who weren’t Thai immigrants were interested in Plant Love House’s food, but she was similarly disappointed to leave Queens. “It was the place we called home,” she says.
Some businesses have been able to expand beyond their Queens beginnings while staying in the borough — notably Xi’an Famous Foods, which opened inside a stall in Flushing Golden Mall more than a decade ago serving spicy noodles.
David Shi “didn’t really know how [his food] would be seen by people who are not Chinese,” his son Jason Wang, now the company’s co-owner, says. But a Times article, Chowhound obsessives, and a spot on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations increased their profile so much they started looking at expansion. “To get the name out from [Flushing] Chinatown, there’s a barrier, it’s not so simple,” he says.
Now they have nine locations all over the city, with plans to grow outside of New York. But these success stories — from a food stall to a veritable chain — could be threatened as rents continue to rise, MacKay fears.
Queens has always been an “immigrant haven,” MacKay says, and that is reflected in the food. “In the near future, I always see people coming here with energy and willing to take a risk,” he says. “But there are structural issues, specifically rents and regulations. And the fact that the price of doing business is just too high.”