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VOL. 42 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2018

Restaurant, small business boom heads east to Donelson

‘You can feel it in the air around here’

By Tom Wood

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Donelson has always had its share of friendly neighborhood restaurants that served up good food and conversation.

But if you wanted to go someplace hip, hot or happening, that meant driving across town to one of Nashville’s trendier areas like East Nashville, Germantown, The Gulch, 12South or The Nations.

That’s no longer the case.

With locally owned Party Fowl, Urban Nectar Cantina, Caliber Coffee Co. and Zulema’s Taqueria all opening in the last year, the heart of Donelson – a two-mile stretch off Lebanon Pike – is now a dining destination rather than afterthought.

“Donelson is heart healthy. It’s eaten its oatmeal,” says Austin Smith, who opened his third Party Fowl location in Donelson on Aug. 1. “I wouldn’t have invested this much in this community if I didn’t believe in it, and I always have believed in it.

“I see nothing but potential.”

Supply and demand

Smith says his restaurant’s reception – about 900 customers a day for the first five days before leveling off at about 650 – isn’t an abnormality, and that people in Donelson are packing every restaurant. He saw it firsthand during that hectic first week when wait times were long and operational kinks were still being worked out at the two-story, 13,011-square-foot hot chicken hangout.

“We were full on Friday night, and I had to run to the Nashville store to pick up more French fries,” Smith recounts. “On my way back, I drove by Nectar, I drove by Caliber Coffee, I drove by McNamara’s, I drove by Home-Grown, I drove by Darfon’s, just to see if everybody else was kicking, if everybody was full and busy.

“And you know what? Even with us coming in and doing 900 people, they were all slammed. And that’s what I’m saying – there’s supply and demand. Right now, there’s demand – and we’re creating more supply.”

Other Donelson restaurateurs agree.

“We all are a great thing for Donelson. I don’t think any of us are competition for each other. We are all in a pretty symbiotic place right now,” adds Julie Buhler, who recently closed Ellendale’s after 19 years to focus on Phat Bites, a funky little restaurant she’s owned for 17 years at two different locations.

Nectar Urban Cantina on McGavock Pike, which specializes in a “fresh, healthy, happy” menu and vibe, will celebrate its one-year anniversary on Sept. 18. The McGavock Pike restaurant is owned by Jessalynn and Hunter Hakanson and Tina and Bruce Fields.

“It tells you the demand is there, and that’s a good thing,” explains Hunter Hakanson, who says his restaurant draws about 4,000 customers each week. “The businesses around us are supporting us, helping us with parking when we need it, and they’ve also seen an influx of business, as well.”

And the growth of locally owned restaurants extends beyond the heart of Donelson. Semper Sliders – a stationary take-out trailer off Music Valley Drive – and Sindoore Indian restaurant on Donelson Pike both opened in the last year.

“It’s not only where I am here (on Old Lebanon Road next to Ace Hardware),” Buhler says, “but it’s down Elm Hill Pike and down Donelson Pike. I mean, the whole area of Donelson is exciting and just bursting at the seams right now.”

And it’s not just the new restaurants that are seeing overflow crowds. Fletcher’s Pizza on Old Lebanon Road has been a Donelson favorite for decades, and 2019 will mark the 40th year as a family-owned business.

Gary Fletcher, whose son Dalton is a manager and owner-in-training, says today’s additional competition has helped his business rather than hurt it.

“A lot of people get the wrong idea, they’re seeing all these new restaurants come in, and they’re like, ‘Man, is that hurting you? Is it hurting your business?’ Gosh, it just helps,” Gary Fletcher replies. “The last couple weeks are the busiest we’ve had in 40 years.

“There are just more people coming to the neighborhood. It’s just good to make Donelson a destination point. I’m just loving seeing it grow.”

That makes a lot of sense. If someone goes to Party Fowl and the line’s too long, they don’t go home for dinner. They drive down the street to Homegrown, Nectar, McNamara’s or wherever.

“With the way this community is growing, it’s going to take all of us to keep everybody happy. It’s good to have variety,” explains Michael Chandler, manager of Caliber Coffee, which is owned by Keith and Alaina Schultz. “It’s one of those things that we all want to see each other succeed because each of the successes is just bringing more people to the area.”

‘So it’s our time now’

Patrons enjoy their lunch at the newest location of Party Fowl in Donelson. Full restaurants have become a familiar site in Donelson, despite the growing competition.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

Donelson’s growth in the last three years also goes far beyond the restaurant industry, with a boom in business, real estate and transportation.

Two men’s barbershops (one which includes a coffee house next door), yoga centers, gift emporiums, a dog grooming center and music shops are just some of the businesses that have taken root in the last year. It’s expected that Donelson will get its first vegan restaurant within the next year.

Blues Vintage Guitars & More is in the cluster of new businesses near Nectar on McGavock Pike, and Williams Fine Violins on Donelson Pike will feature more than 7,000 square feet of work space, show space, private lessons rooms and a small recital hall. It is slated to open this fall.

And much more is on the horizon with the soon-to-be redeveloped Donelson Plaza. It will include a state-of-the-art public library and the much-anticipated Donelson Station transit development that would include retail and housing a station for the Music City Star commuter train that makes six trips each weekday between Lebanon and Nashville’s Riverfront Park.

Donelson is the first eastbound stop out of Nashville.

The Donelson Transit-Oriented Development District, a government-subsidized, planned dense commercial and residential corridor, was scheduled to be considered on third reading at Metro Council Aug. 21.

In discussing the vote, District 15 Councilman Jeff Syracuse says that Donelson – because of the numerous hotels and motels near the airport and Opryland area – pulled in roughly 35 percent of Davidson County’s hotel occupancy tax or about $23.1 million of the $66 million collected “a couple of years ago.”

“Donelson has been patient, and obviously, we have been supporting the growth and development of Nashville because overall, the 15th District is fourth insofar as all tax revenue in all of Metro.

“So, it’s our time now.’’

‘It’s going to explode’

Keith Weiser, owner of Bowtie Barber Club and Bowtie Coffee, says those upcoming projects will take Donelson’s burgeoning growth to an even higher level.

The Bowtie Barista Coffee and Juice Bar is next door to Bowtie Barber Club.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“We’ve grown since Day One and we’re growing in a positive direction each month. So, it’s good to see, good to build and good relationships with people,” says Weiser, a former professional baseball pitcher in the Colorado Rockies organization.

“You can feel it in the air around here, just the excitement, the growth, the plans for the community. What’s going to continue to make Donelson special is that it’s going to remain more of a small-business feel. With what I’m trying to do with the barber shop and the coffee shop is to keep it truly old-school but have some exciting new modern-ness to it.”

Monty’s Barber Shop, with other locations in The Arcade and on Charlotte Pike, came to Donelson in June 2017.

Also, in the works are building projects from affordable apartments, condos and townhomes to a subdivision of $400,000-plus homes being built farther out Lebanon Pike across from the Donelson YMCA.

“Donelson is just a great place to be for both the businesses here and the residential consumers,” says Robert McDonald, vice-president, loan officer and relationship manager at CedarStone Bank, where Donelson Pike intersects with Lebanon Pike. “Donelson is kind of re-emerging as both a leader in both consumer and business growth.

“It’s going to explode. It’s going to look a little different in five years, the footprint will definitely change. There’s not a lot of space as it stands right now, but with the sale of (Donelson Plaza) across the way, there’s going to be some more development come in. And people will see how attractive it is for growth, so it’s going to be a lot different.”

Better than East Nashville?

Comparisons of Donelson’s growth to East Nashville and other Music City hotspots are inevitable but off-base, Syracuse points out.

“We’ll always have our own unique charm and individual character. When people say we’re going to be the next this or that, I think what they really mean is that we’re just the next area to see energy come back to it. And certainly Donelson needs it,” Syracuse adds.

Smith and other Donelson business owners agree.

Keith Weiser, owner of Bowtie Barber Club on Lebanon Pike.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“We are looking for more things to do, more options close to home,” Smith says. “You’re going to see more business owners looking to this area and seeing that there’s potential because my wife and my kids and I are looking for more things to do in the Donelson area.

“We don’t want to drive into downtown Nashville – we want to play here. And I think you’re going to see more and more people respond to that.”

Homegrown Taproom and Marketplace has been in Donelson since 2015, the brainchild of Robin Davis and Jennifer Starks. Aug. 19 was their third anniversary at the Old Lebanon Rd. location.

“My partner and I lived in East Nashville when we came up with the idea for this place,” Starks explains. “We realized how much time we were spending here and wanted a place where we could hang out, do whatever we wanted to do and have a good meal in the process, so we built it from scratch.”

Starks says the big difference between Donelson and East Nashville is the affordability.

“People in their 20s and 30s who want to raise a family and kids in a nice house with a big yard, they can’t do that in East Nashville or Inglewood,” she says.

Land sets Donelson apart

Those big yards and well-maintained, established neighborhoods are what really sets Donelson apart from other parts of Nashville.

The affordable ranch homes built in the 1950s and 60s on 1.5-acre lots are now being occupied by a new generation of families who want property for the kids to play, and not feel squeezed by the urbanization of Nashville.

Laurie Eakes Ford, who operates property management, bookkeeping and tax services firms in Donelson, recently opened Mill Creek Mercantile across the street from Nectar. The shop, a converted home, focuses on artisan, vintage and repurposed products and will hold its grand opening on Sept. 1.

“I don’t think I would compare it to The Gulch because to me The Gulch is all high-rise residential and no place to park, but is attractive to the young, single business people,” says Ford, who was born and raised in Donelson. “This is more of a family community. We’re maybe more like East Nashville in that you’ve got young couples making their homes and raising children their here.

“East Nashville has the historic homes and therefore they are a little more expensive. Donelson is more postwar and therefore a little more affordable, more the brick ranch homes. But we have the yards – the acre lots and half-acre lots, whereas East Nashville doesn’t.”

Nectar owner Hakanson notes that’s what drew his family to Donelson.

“It’s still a little bit of an affordable area compared to other neighborhoods like 12South, East Nashville or somewhere like that,” he adds. “It’s an attractive area for young families to start maybe the first time as homeowners. There’s a lot of buzz about the transit and the development that might be coming. We’re excited about it. We think it can only help the community.”

Past, present and future

One man who has seen it all is Willie McDonald, who has spent 69 of his 86 years as a banker and has lived in Donelson since 1955. He currently works alongside his grandson Robert at CedarStone Bank, and says he likes the direction that Donelson is headed.

“I’ve certainly seen the place change from when it was no street lights, two-lane road, no sewers. Everything was septic tanks, and everything was privately owned with no chains of any kind at all,” McDonald recalls.

“It’s good for the community to have change and to see new young people who are moving to this community. We’re seeing a lot of young people moving to Donelson because of the real estate, and the school system is much better. So, I personally welcome it.

“I love to see young people being involved in the community and moving here. I believe the young people are looking for this type of new local restaurants.”

Adds Syracuse: “Those of us who live here know the heart of Donelson is the (soon-to-be-renovated Donelson) Plaza, near the train station. And so the renewed energy is coming back to the heart of Donelson. It’s going to help us have some renewed identity.”

Syracuse has been the point man in urging the redevelopment of the heart of Donelson, focusing much of his attention on the library and Donelson Station projects. Metro is expected to close on the library property (the east end of Donelson Plaza) in September, and that a library ribbon-cutting could take place in 2021 “if all goes well.”

He also says the Downtown Donelson Urban Design Overlay, which passed in 2009 “really set the long-term vision for what is happening today with the heart of the community. And even back then, even before we really started talking about transit, that plan envisioned a transit-oriented, walkable, mixed-use town center.

“So the Donelson Library will be the first opportunity to utilize the tax increment financing – known as TIF – that’s available in this now Transit-Oriented Development district. The TOD utilizes TIF for infrastructure, economic development and affordable housing.

“The thing I’ve been telling a lot of folks is that TIF in the past has usually been used for big business. But this is really the first opportunity outside of the downtown core to be able to use TIF for community building, not corporate welfare.

“This is TIF for Main Street, not Wall Street.”

Shaq parties at Party Fowl

NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal was a guest at Party Fowl a couple of weeks ago, taping a segment with his business partners for an eight-episode Facebook Watch online reality TV show called “Big Chicken Shaq,” produced by The Content Group and Asylum Entertainment.

The fried chicken restaurant to be called Big Chicken will open in Las Vegas this fall and possibly will expand to Los Angeles and Atlanta. O’Neal, who last year was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, says he picked up a lot of good tips at the new Donelson restaurant.

“I like how (Smith) manages his chefs in the back. He has a great family, a great upbringing and surrounding, and that’s why his restaurant does so well,” adds O’Neal, who posed for pictures with customers. “Party Fowl’s a great place, I saw a lot of different people in there, it’s nice friendly place.”

Las Vegas chef Matthew Silverman also liked the Donelson vibe.

“Shaquille was here for a speaking engagement, and we decided to bring him to our favorite places and have chicken,” he says. “Party Fowl and Austin was one of our No. 1s on the list, so we wanted to bring him out and have Shaquille try the chicken. We love Party Fowl, we think they’ve got great food. We love hot chicken.”

And so, apparently, does Donelson.

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