The Small Town Aesthetic

While many new communities embrace clean lines, modernism, and trendy, high-priced chains, Tomball embraces history and the small town aesthetic.

By Crystal Simmons

Rodney Hutson has always been picky about his tenants.
He had a waitlist full of applicants wanting to rent his property near the Tomball Depot, but he couldn’t settle on any.

For years, he’d leased the space to an ice cream parlor that had provided sweet treats for families attending summer movie nights at the depot. But after the shop closed last year, Rodney worried the tradition would end.
He decided to intervene.

When Nicole and John Rich, who ran the popular Every-Bellies restaurant next door, pitched their plan to open a gourmet hot dog restaurant, he asked if they’d consider serving ice cream.
They agreed, and soon Skeeters Dogs & Desserts was born.

Family Business

At a time when many developers are simply looking to fill vacancies, Rodney’s approach may seem counterintuitive at first. But his children, Bryan Hutson and Teresa Latsis, are quick to point out that it works. After joining the family business as adults, they adopted the same methods. “Most landlords look at a place and say we want this place leased, and we want to make money,” says Bryan. “We look at a building and say, ‘Hmm, that would be a good bakery. Let’s find us a bakery.’ Then we wait until a bakery comes along.”

That’s how Bryan brought Tomball’s first wine bar to the area a few years ago. He’d seen their popularity in other downtown areas and decided Tomball needed one. The Empty Glass is now a hip downtown destination for couples and friends to grab drinks and enjoy a charcuterie board.

“I put up a banner that said, ‘Wine bar preferred,'” he says. “There’s never been a wine bar in Tomball. It took a month before we found someone, but it was worth the wait.”

Building Communities

Small Town AestheticThe Hutsons have been active in Tomball for decades. Rodney, a career physician, started buying Old Town Tomball properties in 1986. Bryan, an attorney, joined the family business in 2007, and his sister, Teresa, who worked in finance, followed in 2017. The trio now runs the Hutson Group, a development company specializing in restoring and leasing historical properties in downtown Tomball.

As a new developer, Bryan focused on attracting diverse businesses to historic Tomball, an area with few restaurants and dominated by antique stores.

“To get the most people coming in, you want to anchor the block on the corner with food service – a restaurant or a bakery or an organic kitchen,” he says. “And then, in the middle, you can throw in something service-oriented – like the yoga place next door and things like that. That’s what we really try to do. We look at the big picture. We design by the block and not by the building, which is what most people do.”

The Hutsons now own about 90 properties in historic Tomball, housing everything from restaurants and wineries to yoga studios and boutiques. They’ve found success by shaping historic Tomball into an area in which independent businesses can thrive.

Difficult Times

Although the Hutsons have experienced the effects of the COVID pandemic, they say it hasn’t hit them nearly as hard as many others in the commercial real estate business. While the rest of the nation struggles to fill empty office buildings and strip centers, the Hutsons say they are turning applicants away.

“We’re 99% leased across 88 addresses,” Bryan says. “We’re sort of at a critical mass now. We don’t really have to worry about filling vacancies. It’s what we think would be the best fit for the community and the block.”

Some of those tenants are famous. One of Old Town’s most popular eateries, Tejas Barbecue and Chocolate serves award-winning barbecue that regularly has people lining up out the door. It’s been featured in The New York Times, the Houston Press, the Houston Chronicle and Texas Monthly multiple times.

“Tejas Barbecue and Chocolate is so well known that we will not have another tenant that sells barbecue,” says Teresa.

Changing Shopping Habits

Unlike most developers, the Hutsons do not lease to chains, preferring independent businesses that will invest in the community. Most of their tenants are mom-and-pop shops and first-time business owners who started at the Tomball Farmers Market. After building a solid customer base at the local market, many small business owners contact the Hutson Group when they’re ready to expand.

“It’s tough to get in one of our buildings because we have a waiting list,” says Bryan. “But once you’re in, we do everything possible to keep you in.”

With financial analysts having predicted the end of mom-and-pops and small businesses for decades, it’s a curious business plan.

Over the past century, the rise of supercenters and chain groceries put many independent shops out of business by enticing customers with low prices, longer hours, convenient locations, and wide selections. Towns and cities began to look alike, with the same stores, strip centers, and restaurants. Shoppers flocked to these supercenters easily identified along roadways by their branded colors, logos, oversized parking lots, and sprawling warehouses.

That may be changing. With the rise in online shopping, malls and big-box stores are closing in record numbers. UBS, a finance and research firm based in Switzerland, predicts that roughly 80,000 retail stores, making up 9% of the retail market, will close in the United States by 2026. That’s in addition to the 12,200 stores that closed in 2020 and the 10,000 that shuttered in 2019, commercial real estate firm CoStar Group reported. Approximately one-third of those were department stores, clothing chains, or other chains associated with malls, according to CoStar. In contrast, e-commerce is expected to make up 27% of total retail sales in 2026, up from 18% today, UBS predicts.

Small Town Aesthetic

Small Town Aesthetic

Although the outlook for retail seems bleak, some retailers are fighting back by distinguishing themselves from big-box stores and chain restaurants.

Developers like the Hutsons cater to these independent businesses. They specialize in designing unique spaces for craft breweries, wineries, boutiques, and restaurants in hip downtown areas. Most of their buildings include restored craftsman houses, rustic barns, and vintage brick plazas using reclaimed building materials.

“We try to preserve the look and feel of each building,” says Bryan.

“That one started as a craftsman, so we tried to preserve it as we expanded it to a larger, commercial building,” he says, pointing to a property under construction across the street.

The Power of Beautification

Part of Old Town’s appeal is aesthetic. Developers have long known the power of beautification in selling a community. The Woodlands and City Place, which boast miles of tree-lined, landscaped trails, colorful lights, and water features, have some of the highest rental prices outside of downtown Houston. But while these locations embrace clean lines, modernism, and trendy, high-priced chains, Tomball embraces history.

Its customers tend to be older millennials who want new and exciting flavors and spaces that promise an experience – buildings steeped in culture, cobblestone streets, Victorian lights, and weathered architecture. And that’s what the Hutsons aim to deliver.

“We harvested all the siding you see on the north side – almost every stick of it,” says Teresa. “We harvested it from another building because you can’t run out and get that stuff. It’s important to us to make our buildings look like they have always been there – with maybe just a little zhuzh.

“We sourced the brick from five different brickyards to find the vintage brick that would match as closely as possible and then had the bricklayer come and build it as closely as possible to the ones in the front. It was a labor of love. It takes extra time, but, man, is it worth it.”

Small Town Aesthetic

Reusing Old Buildings

Historical buildings abound in Downtown Tomball, giving the Hutsons ample inventory. For example, the property that now houses the Empty Wine Glass started as a barn.

“The barns were a challenge,” says Bryan. “They were built in 1941 by the Brautigam family and weren’t in the best shape. We wanted to keep the barns, so we built inside them and kept the outside completely authentic.”

Walkability has also boosted Old Town’s appeal. As more businesses moved in, the City of Tomball installed parking lots around Old Town’s periphery, allowing visitors to park and stroll the business district. City planners also work with developers like the Hutson Group and other partners to install sidewalks through a grant program.

Craig T. Meyers, the City of Tomball’s Community Development director, says the city plans to add stamped brick to three alleys in historic Tomball to resemble the alleys of Telgte, Germany. A new parking lot is also a possibility. When complete, visitors can traverse three city blocks to and from some of historic Tomball’s most popular establishments, including the Tomball Farmer’s Market. The improvements could boost the area’s appeal as a tourist destination, especially during the popular Tomball German Heritage Festival.

As younger families move to Tomball, the Hutsons believe demand for unique shopping and dining experiences will continue to grow. Despite the rise in online shopping, they believe brick-and-mortar is here to stay – at least for the businesses that know how to adapt.

“The younger generations want something more personal and authentic,” says Teresa. “Whatever business or service they are spending time and money on, they just want it to be meaningful – and that’s what we try to build.”