A look into Houston's retail past

Steak ‘n Shake leaves Houston and Taco Bueno Arrives

Happy Fourth of July! To celebrate lets check out two chains both on their second run in Houston. Steak ‘n Shake returned to Houston in 2008 with their Eldridge and 1960 location. With the Katy, Pearland, and Webster locations opening 2012-2013. The previous incarnation of Steak n Shake dated from the mid-1970s and would only last until 1978. While I was never able to find an exact reason for them leaving Houston, it seems that lack of proper management was the largest cause.

The signs had been removed completely by July 2nd
While the Katy location has already been leased to Eggcellence I haven’t been able to visit Pearland or Webster to see their fate.

The second run of Steak ‘n Shake is deffinetly the winner for overall length, but there are gaps when the stores closed usually around a few months at a time. There were even times when signage was removed from the building in an attempt to lease but no tenants were found. While COVID has given major issues to many restaurant chains, Steak ‘n Shake was circling the drain before any of this began. For a while now, the company has tried to convert locations from corporate ownership, to franchises with many stores sitting empty awaiting a new fate.

The building is in rough shape, and looked this way prior to closing.
The closing was hasty, with menus being left in place and only handwritten signs informing customers.

Right across I-10 from the former Steak’n Shake is where Taco Bueno has decided reentered the Houston market. As previously mentioned this is the second go around for Taco Bueno in Houston. In the 1980s the chain opened a small number of locations around Houston. These buildings had very striking adobe style architecture,  with some former locations maintaining their themeing.

The Carl’s Jr sign was reused with the star extension removed   
The exterior elements like the stars around the build were sanded away, and the entrances received new stone facades
Much of the inside of the restaurant remains the same, including the soda fountain, which still has all the same drink selections.
All the read themed seating was left in place, and after a much needing cleaning actually looks pretty nice.

Carl’s Jr. leaving the Houston area happened in a similar manner to Steak ‘n Shake, a few months ago. It’s also worth noting that while Taco Bueno was once associated with Carl’s Jr. this ended about 20 years ago. Hopefully Taco Bueno will be successful, but only time will tell, and with the current pandemic this may be a challenge.

Check out Houston Historic Retail on Facebook for updates: https://www.facebook.com/HoustonHistoricRetail

Retail News: Closures and Openings

Welcome back loyal reader to another edition of Random Retail. This one comprises some photos from the past month as today we take a look at openings and closures in the Houston area.

Let’s start with the new Meyerland H-E-B. It had its grand opening January 29th, and I was there about three days prior. When Meyerland Plaza opened in 1957, it included a Henke & Pillot grocery store as one of the major tenants. Located in the Southeast corner of the shopping center, near where Cafe Express sits today. This store would eventually be converted to a Kroger, and would shut down in 1980. It was used by a number of short term liquidation businesses before being demolished during the 1990s renovation of Meyerland Plaza.

The store was built to the West of JCPenney which meant that they lost some parking space, and the former Meyerland State Bank was required to be demolished. The garage does have signage directing banking customers to the new location across Endicott Lane.
The elevated parking structure helps on two fronts. One it does add some parking back to JCPenney, with some spaces on the first level being reserved for the store. Second it helps prevent excessive flooding damage. The issue is bad enough that it required HEB to permanently close their old Meyerland store prior to building a replacement. Some infrastructure doe exist on the first floor, but it’s mostly off the ground by a bit.
This new parking structure has given JCPenney a new entrance. If you so desire you can either swap between stores, or even purposely try to fight HEB traffic to visit Penney’s!

Next, Xfinity is coming to Highland Village. Replacing long time tenant VisionWorks, previously known as EyeMasters, who replaced Workbench, a furniture store in 1989. This new store represents a growth in retail presence by Xfinity. The goal of the stores is to boost technology sales, including mobile phones.

VisionWorks closed prior to (or right at?) Christmas, with Xfinity immediately starting demolition and renovation. At this point it looks like the new store should be poised to open by the end of February.

Other previous tenants included Chez Orleans Creole Restaurant, however the building has been substantially rebuilt from those days. Older readers may even remember when Suffolk street went all the way through Highland Village into Oak Estates.

The next story takes us Southwest of Houston. The former New Territory Randalls has a new tenant, Al-Rabba an international food store with a decidedly Arabian name. This Randalls was one of the last non-Safeway locations to be built. It was the 70th location (likely including the Austin stores) and rightly opened to quite a bit of fanfare. It was a concept store, ditching a drop ceiling for exposed roofing. It also included new features like in store dry cleaning, photo and video processing, along with a full in store restaurant. It was painted in a hunter green color scheme that was also used in the Woodlands store. New Territory was also rumoured to have sold beer and wine prior to any other location.

This very Randalls was actually my first job during high school. While the store had recently been converted to the standard Safeway lifestyle format it still had hunter green shelves in the back.

The store did quite well serving not just New Territory but the quickly developing Greatwood and Riverpark subdivisions as well. They were initially open 24 hours and would remain so for many years. The scaling back in hours would actually happened slightly before I started working there, but it did not affect me as I worked in the deli. The stores decline began in the mid 2000s when the Riverpark Shopping Center was developed. A pad side which had been purchased by Albertsons was sold to HEB when the prior company exited Houston. This new HEB was the first in what would become the Richmond (later to become Sugar Land) area. Both stores were able to maintain steady traffic for many years. With HEB handling the majority and Randall’s getting the overflow.  However conveniences like Curbside pickup, and lower prices led to HEB winning out.

I visited a day or two after the store’s lease had finally expired. Everything left in the store was for the new owner to deal with. There was actually a meeting going on inside of the store. Even ripped apart this store still looks so much nicer than a standard location.

Finally it seems that Carl’s Jr. has exited the Houston market for good. Right after Christmas I stopped by the North Shepherd location to snap a couple of pictures. Via Google Reviews it has been confirmed that all except the N. Highway 6 locations have closed. The company website has not been updated and lists all locations as open, except for the missing N. Highway 6 location. Carl’s Jr. entered the West Houston market in full force in the early 2010s with aggressive growth. The plan was to get a steady foothold on the well developed West, and then build to the newly developing East.

Although all signage had been removed everything else was pretty much business as usual in terms of a store closure. It does raise the question, could these stores come back?
All product in the store had been removed so it was obvious that this store had a proper shutdown. However it was filthy, which leads me to believe they have little intent to return.
While most of the lights were off, enough were on that you could get a sense of everything left in the building. Electronics were mostly still in place. With the only thing missing being food and packaging.

Open 24 hours Carl’s Jr. attempted to compete with the likes of Whataburger and Jack in the Box. Their food initially was good for the price, but the quality dropped quickly and prices rose. The restaurants also generally had a reputation of poor customer service, and long wait times. Ultimately poor management/franchising was likely a key, as the Houston locations had a history of randomly opening and closing with little to no notice to employees.

The single location may be where the product from these stores ended up. We will see if this round of closures is permanent or if the stores reopen. Although with Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s trying to seperate themselves at the moment I doubt they’re focusing on a slow market like Houston.

Katy Mills Opening Day

All images in this post were taken by Darel Rex Finley. With his permission, I have used them to write this post.

When Katy Mills Mall opened in 1999, it wasn’t surrounded by much. To the South two recently developed, and unfinished neighborhoods, Pin Oak Village and Falcon Point. To the North, downtown “Old Katy”. With no development to the East or West. Even the outparcels of the mall were underdeveloped, with a Walmart and Toys ‘R Us, being the only other retail nearby.

The sign remains on the feeder of I-10 Unchanged to this day.
Photo Credit: Darel Rex Finley

The idea of building a mall here puzzled some, as it seemed to be “out in the sticks”. The reality is that this was a prime location for a mall. The suburbs were booming, and the developer, The Mills Corporation, had gone through tons of trouble to build this mall. The land on which the mall sits was part of the Katy Prairie, specifically they were wetlands.

Although, no longer in such great shape most outdoor decor is still around. However, many lighted elements have burned out.
Photo Credit: Darel Rex Finley

The Mills Corporation had given a large donation to the Katy Prairie Conservacy to help purchase new land, and prevent environmental backlash. The Army Corps of engineers had to permit and supervise the draining of the wetlands as they had a protected status. As well, the land was owned by the City of Houston, it was sold to Katy who then sold it to the developer. During development competing companies tried to open two rival malls both of which would fail.

While the Field Day theme is still used, chairs and tables have been thinned out to make room for more retail opportunities
Photo Credit: Darel Rex Finley

The mills corporation was finally able to build the mall pushing the original goal of early 1999 to late December, just in time for Christmas. The mall was sold on the outlet concept, but in a traditional mall setting. Many stores in the nearby Sealy outlets would jump ship to Katy Mills. This would help to make Katy Mills the premier shopping destination for most of West Houston.

Johnny Rockets was definitely a cool feature, but it did not last closing in 2010.
Photo Credit: Darel Rex Finley

The mall was designed in the standard “Mills fashion” the mall had a racetrack layout with a center food court. Each segment of the racetrack was considered a neighborhood. Each neighborhood was sponsored by a company. Upon entering the mall you were told by an automatic speaker which neighborhood you had just entered.

The AMC movie theater, which is still open, is located at the “end” of the track.
Photo Credit: Daniel Rex Finley

The mall had a theme of a day out at the mall with the Star Family. The colors and styles were meant to evoke the idea of children creating the decor using only construction paper and scissors. The food court had its own unique theme, entitled Katy Field Day the individual stalls were each themes to look like a child’s lunchbox, and the ends of the food court were flanked by full service restaurants.

The main corridors which were mainly vacant when the mall opened, have had kiosks placed throughout.
Photo Credit: Darel Rex Finley

The corridors were designed with a rising and falling pattern. The changes were dealt with by a combination of ramps and stairs. The floors were wood under a heavy coat of lacquer. Trees were placed at certain intervals in planters built into the ground. The ceiling was unique in that no drop ceilings were used or required by stores. Meaning that for the most part if you looked up you could see straight to the roof.

Until recently most of the mall has retained this color scheme.
Photo Credit: Darel Rex Finley

With the exception of anchors and the two full service restaurants, store fronts were limited to their logo and minimal branding. They could add some individual touches but for the most part they were very standardized. The ideal behind this probably fell to the fact that Katy Mills was considered to be an Outlet Mall, but the conformity would diminish over the years.

The spot to the left of Vitamin World, was a restaurant. However like the other corner spots (Johnny Rocket’s) it has since become a Tommy Bahama store.
Photo Credit: Darel Rex Finley

Certain areas were themed based on their sponsor, such as the Coca-Cola neighborhood. It featured a giant white polar bear (Coke’s mascot at the time) sled shaped benches and moving spotlights with snowflake shaped filters. The theming reflected the company, and save for the sled shaped benches would be stripped when Coca-Cola was no longer sponsor.

Notice the Pacsun in the back using the old full name of “Pacific Sunwear”. It is still in the same location, however they have updated the sign.
Photo Credit: Darel Rex Finley

Please take some time to visit Darel’s website. Not only does he have more pictures of Katy Mills on opening day. He also has tons of tutorials for cool things.