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VOL. 38 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 14, 2014

The right side of the tracks: Restaurants, retailers bet on Sidco Drive after watching other areas take flight

By Tim Ghianni

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Standing outside the door of a nondescript building, Jeff Hunter directs his eyes up and down Sidco Drive and reckons a guy would have to be “really smart or really crazy” to open a restaurant in the middle of Nashville’s landmark industrial park.

He’s banking on the former, as he’s the restaurateur in question.

“You won’t recognize it in 10 years,” says Hunter, who years ago bought this building as an investment with unknown – at the time, even to him – potential.

Now he’s mining that potential with his new Wholly Chow – a Southern-style restaurant featuring healthy comfort foods at 2948 Sidco, three-tenths of a mile south of Thompson Lane – in this warehouse district that on a gray day appears more like a “Sopranos” set than the soon-to-be-thriving commercial and retail hub featured in his mind’s eye.

This weathered urban stretch of low-slung brick and block buildings, including one where this writer screwed the tops on water heaters 42 summers ago, doesn’t appear in the midst of change – unless you slow down and take a look. Dreams aplenty are being cooked, bought, sold, even brewed, behind the staid old industrial facades and office buildings.

Most noticeable, perhaps, is Merridian Home Furnishings, which is putting cosmetic touches on the building it has just occupied after a decade and a half on Franklin Pike in nearby Berry Hill.

And right next to Wholly Chow, there’s Black Abbey Brewery, a destination for small-batch enthusiasts and other hops hounds and hobbyists.

“You can go in there Thursdays and Fridays and Saturdays and have a freshly made, small-batch beer,” says Hunter of his neighbors in a former bookbindery. “They are retail, too.”

Not far to the south is a Bounce U kids’ play area, which moved in a few years ago.

Nashville Pickers – which sought a larger, perhaps livelier, location after its lease ran out on the Harding Place end of Sidco – is in the process of moving into a vacant fur storage warehouse in this industrial strip of dreams.

In the case of the Pickers, it’s particularly appropriate. This company prides itself on finding old stuff and oddities customers can repurpose, so the concept of repurposing the old Nashville Fur Vault delights Steve Clark, who runs the place with his wife, Brenda.

“For one thing, it’s 4,000 square feet,” as opposed to the 2,500 square feet of the storefront the Pickers are leaving.

“It’s going to be the same deal, but we’ll have more room,” says Clark. In fact, Maple Shade Estate Sales – run by Gary and Linda Vaughn – will even occupy some of Clark’s space.

In Clark’s case it was happy accident that his Realtor told him about the old fur outfit. “We looked around when we knew our lease was about up,” he says. “We were thinking of building a place.

“The guy who is handling the fur warehouse (Ray Tarkington) came in one day, and it came up that the building was going to be available.”

To be so close to the location where he’s been building his reputation – and frequently swapping referrals with the iconic American Pickers down in the Marathon tourism and distillery district – is a great benefit. And then there’s the 1,800-square-foot fur vault itself, a great destination for primo pickings.

“I think people will come down there now, with the brewery and the restaurant there,” says Clark, hope flavoring his voice. “I feel pretty good about it. I think with everybody else coming in there, it will change it over.”

Simmons

Merridian manager Glenn Simmons, who for the last 14 years presided over the store’s former Berry Hill location, is even more exuberant when talking about the neighborhood’s almost-immediate future.

“We feel like it’s a diamond in the rough,” he says. “I think it’s inevitable: This place is going to explode in the next five years.

“By planting our flag over here, we hope people will take notice.”

Wholly Chow’s Hunter sees radical change on the skyline now dominated by one and two-story warehouses, manufacturing companies and home supply wholesalers and retailers, east of 100 Oaks and north of the Tennessee National Guard’s Houston Barracks

“I’ll be shocked if in 10 years there’s not at least a 30-story building or two sitting behind 100 Oaks that you’ll be able to see from I-65, somewhere between the Armory and here,” he says.

Such construction is more likely in a location like this as opposed to an established commercial location, because “what you’d be tearing down here is warehouse space, not office space.”

Hunter bought this building without a fully baked plan for its future.

“I first saw this building for sale, I guess it was back in 2006, when I was driving home. I used to use Sidco as a shortcut to my house in Oak Hill,” says Hunter, a longtime food industry-marketing consultant.

He and a partner bought the building as lease property – with a research firm for a tenant.

Hunter long had toyed with the idea of owning a restaurant. But it didn’t immediately strike him that this might offer the best solution.

After all, other than some development – park-at-the-door motels, a Waffle House and such – at the Harding Place end of Sidco and the occasional business office or publishing house, this was basically an “invisible” part of town, a shortcut from Thompson Lane to Harding Place, especially if traffic on Franklin Pike or I-65 is backed up.

Many nights, the only real sounds here are the crunches and clangs of grain hoppers or tankers connecting at Radnor Yard’s CSX Intermodal Terminals, where big rigs line up to tend their loads.

The railroad and truckers have been busy here a long time, but “the biggest thing to probably transform this area more than anything else was when the Armory (Drive) exit off Interstate 65 was put in,” Hunter says.

“What that did, when they put that exit in, is it made it real viable for traffic to get off the interstate at a location that’s almost dead-center located between downtown Nashville and Brentwood.

“Remember, before, you could see 100 Oaks from the Interstate, but it was hard to figure out how to get there?” he asks, rhetorically.

There has been plenty of previous development in the 100 Oaks area itself, with a Home Depot, Staples and a CarMax becoming major tenants, while Vanderbilt University Medical Center has resuscitated the comatose ghost town of a mall and turned it into a satellite location with docs, nurses and lab techs working on the upper floors and retail space below.

Even so, the nearby Sidco Drive warehouse district, prime for redevelopment and with easy access from I-65, Thompson Lane and Harding Place, didn’t begin transforming for a few years.

“Had the recession not occurred, you’d probably see at this point in time a high-rise and more in this area,” Hunter says.

With the recession loosening its chokehold on the fiscal throats of folks with hopes and dreams, Hunter – the Sidco Drive landlord – decided it was time to scout out a place for his restaurant dream.

“I’d been working on the concept for several years,” he says of Wholly Chow, with its focus on fresh vegetables and healthy cooking methods to offer up Southern cuisine.

“I didn’t really decide that I wanted to open the restaurant here in this location until June or July of last year. It just so happened that I started looking at various options. I looked at a couple of different pieces of real estate in Williamson County, way out by the 840 connector, and in the Charlotte Park area.”

But he kept looking at this property he already owned and “we decided it would be a great idea to put my concept on Sidco Drive, because we feel like this area is one of the last, great undeveloped areas in the Nashville Metropolitan area.”

Bolstering that decision was the fact a study showed that 30,000 cars travel Sidco daily and about 35,000 people work within a three-mile radius, he says.

“All the infrastructure was here,” he says. “With all the parking issues in downtown Nashville and even over in Melrose, you are looking for places to start businesses. The only thing that would be remotely close is the Fairgrounds, and it has access/egress issues.

“I saw this as just about the only place left where office space could be developed. And we’re going to need it if Nashville grows another million people in the next 10 years.

“We performed a little real estate analysis. So many work in the area in various sectors. There is a lot of money spent on eating out in this area, and it is an underserved market.”

Berry Hill’s existing choices are jammed daily and “the further east you go (toward Nolensville Road), there are options, but not where you could find a blend of professional and hourly people as well as housewives and soccer moms.”

And he noted that more and more, the old warehouses had been turned into contractors’ offices as well as “home resources” places, where people can shop for flooring, countertops and the like. “There are a lot of females in and out of this area shopping at those places in the daytime.”

Why not give these people a place to stop for breakfast, for lunch or to grab a takeout full Southern takeout meal?

Merridian’s Simmons enthusiastically embraces Wholly Chow as a huge ingredient in the stew of change coming to Sidco.

“Having a restaurant on this side of Thompson Lane will open the floodgates to someone putting in a coffee shop or other little shops.”

In fact, some of the space for redevelopment is inside the Merridian building. “We have 66,000 square feet of space. We’ve only taken 28,000 square feet. We are looking at the space in back that we are going to lease out.”

An architect is studying ways to turn some of that space in back into three 10,000-square-foot spaces, perhaps for that coffee shop, a little clothing shop or other business to help perk up the area.

And while many of the places in this neighborhood he calls “a design district” – for all of its builders and homeowners’ resources – are already open for the public, he sees some facelifts in the future.

“There’s a guy a couple of doors down that has kind of a warehouse space, and he is talking about redesigning a part of his building and maybe even putting in some shops in front. Everybody is going to be looking to capitalize on what’s happening,” Simmons says.

“I think you’ll see a retail conversion happening in the fronts of these warehouses, up and down this strip,” predicts Hunter.

“It’s transitioning from industrial to commercial-retail,” Hunter says. “It’s beginning.

“There will still be a few people in industrial and manufacturing, but I don’t think you’re going to see more of them moving in here.”

He says he regularly hears from business folks looking for available space in this next big boomtown. “People see this as a great opportunity that is going to grow into the future. We are literally out of space in Nashville. Look at Melrose. That is gone. It’s crazy what people are paying for real estate there.”

And he points to the lack of parking space available at developments closer to the city’s core. Not a problem in this area.

The restaurateur looks beyond commercial and retail development and predicts residential as well.

“It’s not going to shock me at all…. If you look at it, life’s not defined by picket fences and corner drug stores any more. The lines are blurred everywhere. People want convenience. At some point someone is going to build condos right smack in the middle here.”

As Nashville Pickers’ Clark says, when all the ingredients come together, this Sidco Drive neighborhood “will be a cool place to be.”

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