Two of Asheville’s most enduring examples of art deco architecture are downtown commercial buildings that both opened in 1929: The Grove Arcade claims an entire city block, and the nearby S&W Building is settled into a far smaller footprint on Patton Avenue. Both have drawn thousands of visitors over the decades and also suffered significant downturns, closures and not-always-successful resurrections.
Today, as Asheville businesses begin to resurface from the crushing effects of COVID-19, both locations are being reimagined as vibrant community gathering spots.
It doesn’t take a business genius or marketing maven to recognize that people tend to put their money where their mouths are: Food and beverage draw customers, and positioning several options near one another is a smart strategy.
“I’ve been in commercial real estate for 10 years,” says Emily Dresbeck, leasing agent with Dewey Property Advisors, which purchased Grove Arcade two years ago. “There is a reason a Crate & Barrel is beside a Pottery Barn. Clusters work, they drive traffic, and all traffic is good traffic.”
Not everyone wiles away hours in bookstores or shops until they drop, but eventually, everybody needs to eat. The seven — soon to be nine — hospitality businesses on the Page Avenue side of the arcade (recently tagged as Restaurant Row) and three others elsewhere on the property are ready to serve. The arcade dozen and the six at the S&W Market, which opens Wednesday, June 16, are not only all locally owned and operated but have ties to one another that create an environment of support and a common goal of mutual success.
“One of the things that makes a small city like Asheville so special is our arm’s length connections,” observes Dresbeck. “When we came in, the arcade felt a little bit like a very quiet library. But we saw the restaurant groups and community chefs we had in the building — like Modesto and Baba Nahm — and said, ‘Let’s build on that.’ We went forward with the intent of filling Page Avenue with food and beverage, and as that happened, Restaurant Row became the tag line we all loved.”
Brothers Douglas and Kenneth Ellington — nephews of Douglas Ellington, the architect of the S&W Building — are principals of Ellington Realty Group and purchased the piece of family history in 2017 with the intent of modernizing the building’s original purpose as a cafeteria. Past attempts to turn it into a single restaurant had not been successful, so in 2019, the siblings and the ERG team overseeing the development of the property went back to the drawing board with the assistance of chef and restaurateur Meherwan Irani.
“They took some time to think about what to do, knowing it had to be a home run,” says Anne Aldridge, director of operations for ERG and manager of the S&W Market. “The food hall concept felt like something Asheville needed and perfect for activating this space.”
The initial challenge, notes Irani, was the building’s size and layout: 10,000 square feet over a main-level floor and a mezzanine. “The mezzanine was kind of a nightmare for a restaurant but works as a taproom,” he says. That understanding resulted in the project’s first partner, Highland Brewing Co.
Irani then made a list of objectives for finding occupants for the five food stalls on the first floor. Local was No. 1 and a must, he says. He also wanted to work with restaurants open to new concepts. Farm Dogs (Farm Burger), Peace Love Tacos (Mountain Madre), Buxton Chicken Palace (Buxton Hall Barbecue, part of the Chai Pani Restaurant Group), and The Hop Ice Cream fit the bill.
Finally, Irani and ERG wanted to offer a small local business with a stellar reputation an affordable opportunity to open its first brick-and-mortar location. No one checked that box more emphatically than Bun Intended, which also shared an arm’s length connection to Irani.
Launched in late 2016 by partners Kyle James, Carter James, Cody Burchett, Gordon Gibbs and chef Erica Glaubitz to serve street food from Thailand’s Isan region, Bun Intended beat 25 competitors to win the 2019 Asheville Food Truck Showdown; Irani was one of the judges. The winning dish was a fried salapao with papaya salad and homemade kefir lime powder.
“I think he appreciated that not only was our steamed bun homemade, but so were all the spices and sauces,” Kyle James says. Afterward, he and Carter reached out to Irani for advice and to let him know they were serious about building their business. “We understand there is a lot riding on this, and we feel ready for that challenge,” Kyle says. “It is very important for all of us to succeed in order for the market to succeed.”
We are family
Building a shared feeling of one for all and all for one is key to the symbiotic success of Grove Arcade and its tenants as well. Though the quarters aren’t as close as in the S&W, the Grove Arcade tenants are all in it together, says Aimee Diaz, vice president of Diaz Restaurant Group and president of the Grove Arcade Public Market Merchants Association.
She and her husband, chef Hector Diaz, opened Modesto in the newly renovated and reopened arcade in 2005, and it remains one of the longest-tenured eateries in the building. It was not their first downtown restaurant, having opened Salsa in 1994.
“We’re downtown people,” says Aimee. “For decades we’ve been in this community of downtown and helping and supporting one another. Downtown businesses are a family, and this building is an even closer family.”
Dresbeck echoes that sentiment. “Sitting in on a merchants associations meeting is so inspirational. There is a lot of respect and mentors in that group, bouncing ideas about what works, what doesn’t and how to help each other.”
Aimee Diaz sees all of the pieces and the timing coming together for success. “There is a big difference between potential and performance,” she points out. “For a long time, there was kind of this gray area between the two, and now we are so much closer to meeting the potential with performance.”
Dresbeck says that while it took two years for her to convince Judy Glicken, owner of the 20-year-old Well Bred Bakery & Café, to open a downtown location in the arcade, Ben Krueger and Lisa Vann, partners in new concept Huli Sue’s BBQ and Grill — the sister restaurant of their restaurant, The Fish and The Hog on the Big Island of Hawaii — came to Dewey Property Advisors to request one of the last remaining storefronts on Page. And Wedge Brewery recently announced it will be the bookend tenant filling the 2,000-square-foot north corner of the row.
Watch and learn
Years of observing another historic and repurposed commercial entity downtown — the Woolworth building — showed Irani the pull of an iconic structure. “People don’t necessarily go into the Woolworth to see a particular artist or craftsperson,” he notes. “They go in because it’s an intriguing building, and they are curious about what’s inside. Setting up tables, chairs and umbrellas on the sidewalks outside the Grove and the S&W was crucial to letting people know this place will feed you and inviting them inside.”
Kyle James agrees. “I think the S&W Market will offer a big-city experience with small-town customer service, and we feel confident this will succeed.”
Back at Restaurant Row, Dresbeck is also confident. “E.W. Grove’s original vision for the arcade was that it be a community hub,” she notes. “We believe we are responsible for preserving the history and carrying out his vision for the community today.”