In the Know: Readers ask about iconic In-N-Out Burger, Chicago favorite Portillo's

Phil Fernandez
Naples Daily News

Next Monday begins the latest phase of the wacky, oh so wacky, Southwest Florida real estate market.

Vaccinated international travelers start arriving in greater numbers with new COVID-19 travel rules in place, and it's no mystery they're going to buy property and lots else with their long-dormant penchants for purchases here and overstuffed wallets.

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They've been pretty much shut out of the region since the 2020 start of the pandemic. Consider that all these local records were set without them even though they had previously been an active part of a lot of purchases.

"This is a huge step forward for immigration and economic stimulation in the U.S. This means foreign investors can again scout out opportunities," said Renata Castro, an immigration and investments attorney and founder of The Castro Legal Group. "I foresee a jump in investment and a win-win for all involved."

In its latest survey, Research Data Services found that nearly 60% of European travelers fall into the "green light" category, meaning they are ready to travel and will probably do so in the next three months, said Anne Wittine, the firm's director of data analysis.

More than half of those visitors indicated they're interested in traveling to Florida, Wittine told my colleague Laura Layden.

This coincides with the early arrivals of the snowbirds who also drive seasonal property sales, and those out-of-state plates cruising in the left lane have been already noticeable in recent weeks.

And finally that refreshing weekend air certainly is a signal of change, along with the increasing later season rivalry college football games. Did someone say Michigan State-Michigan?

A lot of Spartan green and Wolverine blue flags fluttered in the breeze around Southwest Florida Saturday. Now, with our newest guests, you'll start hearing more about that other kind of football, like from blokes reveling or suffering after next Saturday's highly anticipated rivalry match between Man United and Man City, the Manchester derby that dates to 1881.

Soccer isn't probably the biggest draw for these visitors to come here, but about 10 days ago, Fort Myers did rank 44th out of 160 smaller cities newly studied as the best communities for the sport. WalletHub financial analysts looked at a variety of metrics, such as fan engagement and most favorable conditions for them.

A Michigan State Spartans fan rides his bike and waves a flag around Michigan Stadium, before the game against Michigan Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020.

Turning $1M into $5.6M in 10 months

Southwest Florida's favorable conditions and booming market have also drawn investors who are scouring the region for deals, as we've reported. Part of that interest stems from not being able to get desired quick returns from new construction and other investments hammered by the maddening supply chain issues.

As he was building and upgrading convenience stores and other projects across Southwest Florida, Cape Coral developer Dan Creighton talked about how it was "probably adding 20 to 30% on the build times." 

In the Know: The Airport-Pulling Road corridor in Naples is part of the convenience store wars going on in Southwest Florida and beyond, with 7-Eleven opening or upgrading locations.

However, Creighton Development can afford delays that might be a challenge for others.

On Thursday afternoon, Creighton was celebrating the $5.6 million sale of its fancied-up 3,155-square-foot 7-Eleven on less than an acre on the outer edge of Naples's Green Tree Center at Immokalee and Airport-Pulling roads. Collier County public records show its LLC had purchased the spot for $980,000 in December.

“This was a development flip by the developer in an established shopping center in a very affluent area with high-traffic counts and many rooftops,” said Austin Blodgett, vice president of investment sales for RealSource Group, which was involved in the new transaction. "In the case of 7-Eleven, you have an investment grade tenant on the lease, which is considered one of the most secure investments available."

For the residential industry, it may not come as easy. The Florida Home Builders Association says the time to construct has more than doubled from the typical eight months back in 2019.

A lonely roofer works on one of many new unfinished Southwest Florida houses in August.

Contributing to those challenges is the labor gap In the Know first showcased months ago, with a heads up that long lines and wait times might be more commonplace this winter for us all. Just on state-sponsored sites alone, there are more than 520,000 vacancies, many of them in construction, in what Career Source Southwest Florida's Janeth Castrejon has dubbed a "hiring crisis.

"We're seeing left and right, construction booming in Southwest Florida. They can't build them fast enough, and we're running out of inventory (for) many reasons," Castrejon said. "One of them is the lack of finding talent. (Construction) still has a lot of challenges to overcome. And definitely not having enough talent is part of that equation."

In addition to what's offered by Castrejon's organization, companies have even just begun free skilled trades training, such as Home Depot's program. It has virtual live sessions launching this afternoon and later in the week and month.

Housing affordability 10-year low

Even if the industry finds more workers, for consumers, there's still the escalating expenses, which Florida Gulf Coast University's Chris Westley has talked about with me.

"I've seen supply chain issues happening in minerals, lumber. The problem is that increases the cost of construction and building," said Westley, economist and dean of the Lutgert School of Business. "What it usually ends up meaning is that it slows production, which then leads to higher prices because goods are more scarce."

Every time there's a $1,000 increase in the median new home price this year, another 150,000 U.S. households can't afford to buy, said National Association of Home Builders Chairman Chuck Fowke, a Tampa Bay custom builder.

"According to NAHB (research), housing affordability in the single-family market remains near a 10-year low," said Fowke, who testified before a Congressional committee earlier this year. "Housing affordability continues to be a concern for households across the nation. Many people cannot afford to purchase a new home."

All this has kept the lane wide open for existing housing.

NAHB data that came out Thursday found that 32% of prospective American buyers were looking for a freshly built home, down from 42% last year. And for an emerging group of buyers, Generation Z, defined by NAHB as those born 1997 to 2003, they're not as interested in flashy new digs: 30% a year ago to 20% now.

And in a depleted Southwest Florida market that we reported last week is lean and picked over, with the Naples Area Board of Realtors, for example, reporting 76% fewer available abodes than a year ago, there's another bright spot in the NAHB findings: We might be getting less fussy.

The share of potential buyers who will accept a smaller/older home, rose to 29% from 24% only a quarter ago.

Construction of the new air traffic control tower at Southwest Florida International Airport continued on Sept. 30, ahead of the many overseas visitors who will begin arriving next week.

Euros, pounds, dinars come in handy

But here's a buzzkill, with price tags in Florida reaching record highs.

As In the Know reported, only two Peninsula metro areas ranked in the nation's Top Eight biggest rises in median sale prices as compared to a year ago, according to the latest National Association of Realtors quarterly data.

Both are in Southwest Florida.

Collier finished third in the nation with a 42% surge, behind the 47% of Pittsfield, Mass. at the New York border near Albany and 45% of the Austin, Texas area. Lee checked in at eighth with 36%.

Such factors are contributing to the decreasing share of U.S. buyers actively searching for a home, in particular the South, where it's dropped to 51% from 58% quarter to quarter in the NAHB data. That's well behind both the Northeast and West, where it's 65% active.

Overseas travelers will begin arriving at Southwest Florida International Airport next week.

Now, enter next week, our friends from around the world, with their usually more valuable euros, pounds and dinars than our dollars and who may not be facing the same kind of limitations.

And many come from cultures that celebrate older housing and promote preservation, potentially giving our fixer-uppers a little love.

California's In-N-Out Burger

In-N-Out Burger and Portillo's

Some of the more popular questions I receive from the thousands of you who have reached out involve California's iconic In-N-Out Burger and Chicago favorite, Portillo's.

As Debi Alameda told me, "In-N-Out Burger has everyone beat. I wish they’d come to Florida."

This is a Portillo's restaurant. Photo provided

And Lyniece Salvatore of Naples asked me just the other day about Portillo's, a Chicago beef and hot dog restaurant, which also has other many fans including Jay Siegall and Diane Farina of Bonita Springs, who gave me the lowdown:

"Ask almost any Chicagoan, including the city of Chicago and all of the suburbs and parts of Wisconsin and Indiana and they will tell you their favorite hot dog/beef/all-around take-out chain is Portillo's. Some of the Portillo's restaurants also have Barnelli's inside, which is pastas, salads and other items. Some also serve wine. They have the best chocolate cake as well."

Wow, hot dogs, chocolate cake and wine all sound mighty fine.

Based on brand new developments, the outlook for Southwest Florida looks really good, too, even though the companies aren't talking publicly about it.

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And:Pandemic-driven furniture demand brings record sales, 'decimated' supply chain, long waits

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Store wars:In the Know: What's the new construction along Airport-Pulling Road?

Portillo's Hot Dogs in Chicago is best fast casual restaurant, according to TripAdvisor readers.

First, we have a pretty powerful cookie recruiting the Golden State chain of 378 burgers. My colleague James Call is reporting that Florida CFO and clearly fast food aficionado Jimmy Patronis is trying to entice those slider kings to set up shop on this side of the world.

And wandering through the records of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, I came across and got lost in a 246-page filing Portillo's just filed. I would have rather been reading its menu, but in it, the company, with 60 or so spots, plans to expand to 600, and Florida is in its crosshairs. It recently added the Disney area to its roster, and trade and St. Petersburg publications have reported their fair city has one in the works.

Order up.

More:In the Know: 'Gangbusters' economy fueling jobs at a time when unemployment normally goes up

And:In the Know: With more real estate records, fewer in SWFL can afford home ownership

Plus:In the Know: 'We have a hiring crisis' in Southwest Florida. How will this affect you?

Stevie Tomato's Sports Page

Some movement near Colonial Boulevard and Winkler Avenue although it's probably not the cars, which as you know in Fort Myers don't shimmy so well at times around there.

NYAC2021 LLC purchased the 5,050-square-foot former Fuzzy’s Taco Shop at 4420 Colonial Blvd. from Terracap CW Partners LP for $1.98 million, according to Frank Kupiec, a LandQwest senior broker associate.

The Chicago Combo, an Italian Beef Sandwich and a Chicago Style Vienna Beef Hot Dog, pictured at Stevie Tomato’s.

Speaking of Chicago-style, Stevie Tomato's Sports Page is the future occupant, Kupiec said Friday, “underlining the increasing demand for food and beverage along the Colonial corridor.”

Sounds like a perfect stop during a traffic jam.

Based at the Naples Daily News, Columnist Phil Fernandez ( writes In the Know as part of the USA TODAY NETWORK. Support Democracy and subscribe to a newspaper.