Tom Montgomery looked south and spied opportunity.
By last year, 12 Bones Smokehouse, the rib shack in Asheville's River Arts District co-owned by Montgomery and Sabra Kelley, had racked up three successful years. Powered by strong demand for their smoky barbecue and a talented staff itching to do still more, they decided to launch a second restaurant on Sweeten Creek Road in Arden.
South Asheville "was the obvious choice, with the population growth coming this way and the lack of hometown feel," says Montgomery. "There are so many chain restaurants down here; somebody needed to do something."
A number of other independent local businesspeople have made similar decisions recently. While their specific reasons may vary, they say the lack of community meeting places in the area and an abundance of built-out commercial space piqued their interest. Meanwhile, growth driven by one of Asheville's biggest new developments, Biltmore Park Town Square, has made moving south even more attractive to optimistic business owners.
As an independent opening in an area marked by large commercial developments that cater mostly to chains, "We're kind of jumping in the face of the big guys, for sure," Montgomery concedes. But so far, it's paying off. His company just bought the building next door to the Sweeten Creek Road location to provide parking, Montgomery reports, adding that they'd planned from the beginning to buy the neighboring property when it became available.
A perfect fit
The south side of Asheville was also a perfect fit for Tupelo Honey Cafe's second location, says owner Steve Frabitore. The original downtown eatery, now a tourist destination, is consistently near capacity, he says, adding that the 62-seat space makes it hard to honor customers' desire to make reservations and bring in large groups. Meanwhile, he'd heard that south Asheville residents were hungry for a homey breakfast-and-brunch place.
The spot Frabitore found on Hendersonville Road meets all those needs. The former Stir Fry Cafe space will seat 170 people, enabling his restaurant to take reservations and offer semiprivate rooms accommodating up to 60 diners, he says. The location has plenty of parking and was recently upfitted with new restaurant equipment.
"It's a tremendous facility; the space is right where we want it to be. I guess you could say we're moving our product to the burbs," observes Frabitore.
The restaurateur has a three-day job fair slated for Monday, Nov. 30, through Wednesday, Dec. 2, to fill 70 new jobs. Offers will be extended about a week after that, and Frabitore says he plans to open Tupelo Honey's south location Feb. 1. Aside from meeting customers' needs, Frabitore says he's excited about growing his business and creating new opportunities for his dedicated employees.
"That's what's most rewarding for me as an owner."
Tommy Tsiros, proprietor of Pomodoros Greek and Italian Café, says he decided to open a second restaurant on Long Shoals Road last year after researching south Asheville's increasing population density. Tsiros saw Biltmore Park Town Square, in particular, as a "people magnet."
"There's really no tourism draw down south, not like what we have with the Blue Ridge Parkway entrance so close to our east Asheville location on Tunnel Road," he explains. "We felt like Biltmore Park would offset that. For us, it was part of the decision to move south."
Six restaurants, notes Tsiros, have opened in the last year in Biltmore Park alone: Brixx Wood Fired Pizza, the Hickory Tavern, 131 MAIN, P.F. Chang's, a small sandwich shop and Roux (in the Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park). That increased competition, plus a sluggish economy, has meant sales at his south restaurant have been down about 8 percent since the opening early in 2008.
But that doesn't worry Tsiros. As the economy picks up and consumers regain some lost confidence, he says he's hopeful his customers will return.
"We're not upset with what's going on with Biltmore Park. Competition is a good thing. We feel like eventually all those restaurant seats will be filled. The outlook is positive, and I'm very optimistic."
While a number of other planned projects in south Asheville have languished, Biltmore Park Town Square has forged ahead. The $204 million mixed-use development, a joint venture by the Asheville-based Biltmore Farms LLC and Crosland LLC of Charlotte, features a 15-screen movie theater, 285,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space, 270,000 square feet of office space and 274 condominiums, town homes and apartments.
Attracting a mix of chain and locally owned stores, the massive project just announced the addition of six more businesses: Echo Gallery, a cooperative founded by six River Arts District artists, opened recently next to Dwellings, a second location for a locally owned furniture store. Bon Bebe specializes in children's gifts, clothes and furnishings, and Moda features women's clothing. The Sparrow Spa has opened in the Hilton Asheville, and Travinia Italian Kitchen adjoins the Regal Biltmore Grande Stadium theater and 131 MAIN.
"We are delighted to welcome these local stores to the mixture of regional and national tenants located in Biltmore Park Town Square.," Biltmore Farms President Jack Cecil said in a press release. "From the initial planning we wanted Town Square to become a community whereby our shoppers could find local, regional and national goods as well as dine at a variety of restaurants."
Old-fashioned social networking
For Thirsty Monk pub owner Barry Bialik, opening a second watering hole off Hendersonville Road was as much about building community as it was about building his business.
"I live down there, and for selfish reasons, I wanted to have a place there," says Bialik. After noting that a number of his beer-loving friends hailed from the south side, and recognizing the lack of a viable social gathering place in the area, Bialik got serious about launching another location. Building on the success of his downtown pub, which specializes in Belgian beers, he found a vacant space and opened Monk South Sept. 10.
One key, says Bialik, was the fact that the space had recently been outfitted with all new equipment for a coffee shop. "A lot of independent small businesses can get by sometimes by riding on the coattails of other, unsuccessful businesses. We took over a space that was recently built out, so we leased the space and bought the equipment for literally pennies on the dollar."
It's not all about the money, though. Bialik also sees his mission as helping build community. Curious about the history of his south Asheville neighborhood, Bialik says he recently met a couple in his pub who knew much of it and invited him to see their collection of local property deeds dating back to the 1700s.
"Before the Monk South, there really was no opportunity to sit down and meet my neighbors in a public house. Here, I'm meeting my neighbors for the first time," says Bialik, adding, "I think this is good for south Asheville."