One of Houston’s most popular neighborhood restaurants takes another step forward on Monday when the fourth location of The Union Kitchen opens on Ella Boulevard. Part of the Gr8 Plate Hospitality Group (The Merrill House, Jax’s Grill, The Rollin’ Kitchen), the latest Union Kitchen builds on the company’s reputation for good food, high levels of customer satisfaction, and reasonable prices.
At 5,000 square feet, TUK Ella (as the company calls it), offers seating for over 200 people in the dining room, with another 80 seats on the patio and a 60 person private dining room. As the first location built from a clean space in a renovated shopping plaza, the decor has been upgraded with better finishes like shiplap on the walls and table tops made from reclaimed, 100-year-old oak. Those touches are all part of owner Paul Miller’s plan to make the Union Kitchen a place where as many people as possible want to eat as often as possible.
“People come in, they feel like they’re getting value, they come back. I don’t need to make a ton of money at one restaurant. I want to build the community,” Miller tells CultureMap. Later, he adds, “I want to be the neighborhood restaurant. I want to be able to satisfy that guest who’s getting off, and they want to have a happy hour, they want to take some to-go food back to the family. They can come in for a celebration.”
Even though he’s studied competitors like Plonk and the Garden Oaks location of Liberty Kitchen, Miller says isn’t sure which of his other locations the new outpost will most closely resemble. In Bellaire, the crowd skews younger, with adventurous eaters who embrace ingredients like foie gras when they pop up as specials. In Memorial, the average cost of wines sold is higher ($75 versus $45), and the restaurant sells more steaks.
“This neighborhood, I’m not 100-percent sure yet. We’re doing a funky wine list. We’re changing some things up a little bit. I’ve given Adam Sabir a lot more leeway on bringing stuff in, because he’s very knowledgeable about wine, and I want to see what the community wants,” Miller says.
In addition to wine, craft beer will play a big role at the new location. The restaurant will feature eight taps, including two dedicated to locally-owned Spindletap brewery. Miller says that Spindletap owner Brody Chapman will make regular appearances at the bar to introduce new products and interact with patrons. He also expects to expand on the beer dinners that the restaurant has held with Saint Arnold owner Brock Wagner and others.
“Karbach is right up the street, and we’re already talking to them,” Miller says. “Basically, if the neighborhood wants it, we’re going to do it. No two ways about it.”
At opening, the food will feature the restaurant’s broad mix of crowd-pleasing dishes; 75 percent will overlap with the other three locations, including signature items like pistachio-crusted chicken and thin crust pizzas. After that, it will be up to the chef to determine what’s working.
“We’re a battleship. We’re not an aircraft carrier,” Miller says. “It doesn’t take us three-and-a-half days to turn around. If we put something out there as a feature and it sells well, that’s going on the next menu.”
Although the restaurant hasn’t even opened, Miller says he’s already been approached by developers who want to bring the company to their properties. Whether that means another project with his current landlord Braun Enterprises or someone else remains to be seen, but Miller’s already thinking about what’s next. Expect Gr8 Plate to grow again — as soon as everything is stable at Ella, of course — either with an existing concept like Union Kitchen or Jax Grill or a one-off.
“I love trying to figure out what the next hot thing is going to be,” Miller says. “Burgers are blowing up right now, and you’ve got all these guys moving to town. At some point, people are going to get tired of paying $12 or $15 for a burger, and they’re going to go on to the next hot concept. It’s our job to figure out what that’s going to be and find a good neighborhood for it.”
Whatever that restaurant is and wherever it’s located, expect it to meet Miller’s core requirements for any of his businesses.
“I enjoy eating a meal with full service on a white tablecloth, but I want people to feel like it’s ridiculously approachable,” he says. “You can wear shorts and flip flops and still sit at a table in our dining room with a white tablecloth. That’s the way I want everyone to feel.”