A Houston dining institution has closed its last Inner Loop location. The James Coney Island at the corner of Shepherd Drive and Richmond Avenue closed quietly last week.
Signs posted in front of the restaurant read as follows:
Dear JCI Customer, We made the difficult decision to permanently close this location. We are tremendously grateful for your patronage at Shepherd for many years. We are a small, local business and we hope you will continue to support us at our other Houston Area locations. In fact, our 99-year Houston tradition depends on your support. Please know that all employees from the location have been offered employment within the company.
Founded in 1923, James Coney Island is known primarily for its hot dogs, which are traditionally served with mustard, onions, cheese, and the restaurant's signature chili sauce. In recent years, the company has tried to rebrand itself as a fast casual concept called JCI Grill; in 2015, it recruited Houston chef Matt Marcus (8th Wonder Brewery, the Eatsie Boys) to update some of the non-hot dog dishes on its menu. Still, president Darrin Straughan tells CultureMap the business isn't what it used to be.
"We’ve always been known as the Rodney Dangerfield of the sandwich category," he says. "It doesn’t seem to have the reverence the baby boomers gave James Coney Island."
For now, diners can satisfy their coney cravings at 11 Houston-area outposts, including Meyerland, Westheimer west of the Galleria, Humble, Webster, and The Woodlands. Straughan notes that closing certain locations has been part of a deliberate strategy to reconfigure the restaurant's operations.
"We bought a lot of real estate 25 years ago when we started expanding Coney Island. They’re worth a lot of money today," he says. "The unit economics is too much to sell hot dogs out of. We made a decision to start selling off our real estate. We're going to open Coney Islands in smaller footprints with drive-thrus."
The Shepherd restaurant is only the latest JCI to cease operations. Since 2021, the restaurant has also closed its locations in Town & County, Meadows Place, Katy (Mason Road), and in west Houston at Clay Road and the Sam Houston Parkway.
More locations could be closing in the future. Commercial real estate firm United Equities lists the Pasadena, east Houston (I-10 and Federal Rd.), and north Houston (I-45 and Crosstimbers) restaurants as being available for lease to new tenants.
In terms of specific stores, Straughan says that the Shepherd location's sales had suffered due to a difficult-to-access location and street construction in the area. Due to staffing difficulties, it had dwindled to drive-thru and to-go only. Similarly, the Town & Country store lacked a drive-thru and didn't have adequate parking.
"We’re not going away," Straughan says. "We are entertaining the possibility of selling the concept. We have people who want to keep the brand alive and flourishing. To use the current term, we’re pivoting."
In that mode, three former JCI locations — Mason Road, Meadows Place, and Willowbrook Mall (7103 Cutten Rd.) — will become new locations of Cabo Bob's, the Austin-based burrito restaurant known for its use of high quality ingredients and making tortillas to order. Cabo Bob’s founder Don Brinkman told CultureMap in March that the three locations appealed to him due to their similarities to some of the company's existing Austin restaurants.
As for James Coney Island, Straughan says fans can expect a 100-year anniversary celebration in 2023 that honors the founding Papadakis family. Expect details to be announced in the months to come.