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VOL. 35 | NO. 38 | Friday, September 23, 2011

The Wild Wild East

East Nashville businesses live and die by word-of-mouth, which east of the Cumberland means listservs and Facebook

By Colleen Creamer

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Since the beginning of its resurgence some 20 years ago, East Nashville has continued to boom with artisanal restaurants, cafes, consignment shops and a clamored-for, all-night diner.

On listservs, by word-of-mouth and via Facebook, locals call out for goods and services. They also call out those same businesses when those goods and services don’t meet expectations.

It can be a win/win for owners who understand the demographic and the amount of accountability involved in placing goods or services there. If done right, business owners in East Nashville have at their disposal a willingly captive audience.

“Many business owners are residents of our area, and those who are not are aware of our commitment and know we are supportive,” says longtime East Nashville pioneer and champion, Carol Williams, president of Friends of Shelby Park and Bottoms and a member of Edgefield Neighborhood Association.

One of those out-of-town owners is Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream, a luxurious ice cream shop that opened in June at 1892 Eastland Avenue. Nashville is the first out-of-state venture for her company, which has nine shops in Ohio.

Bauer has long been aware of East Nashville and understands residents there will pay for quality. The company takes great care finding original complementary flavors and ingredients, the kind of detail East Nashvillians like. Business, says Britton Bauer, is crisp.

“We always had the intention of one day opening in East Nashville,” Britton Bauer says. “We are familiar with neighborhoods like this because we have them in Columbus, very organic, community-built neighborhoods with great businesses that are walkable and the same really connected and really creative locals.”

Word spreads fast when a new business decides to open in East Nashville. The area has the most active listservs in the city and, by some accounts, the fieriest.

Many community listservs do not allow unsolicited recommendations or politics that can be the spark of flame wars. As well, nearly every East Nashville neighborhood has an involved neighborhood association. Listservs, word of mouth, and knowing one’s neighbor can have a significant impact on a business there: free advertising—good or bad.

Though there are listservs for various neighborhoods, the East Nashville listserv encompasses all issues germane to East Nashville, and moderator Laura Creekmore gives posters a fairly wide berth on those issues.

“On the East Nashville listserv, we have one really big rule, and that is just be nice to others, but how far can you go in terms of that is pretty far out there solely because I think shutting down conversation is not helpful to anybody,” Creekmore says.

John and Melanie Cochran operate The Wild Cow, a vegetarian restaurant on Eastland Street. “There’s a ton of foot traffic here,” John explains. “It’s nice seeing the same people week after week.”

“If you are a business owner, it’s helpful to know if people have a problem with your business, and often they will tell you personally. Is there sometimes a crowd mentality that operates a little differently than if people were in your restaurant and satisfied or dissatisfied? Yes. That can work for the positive and the negative.”

Matt Charette, who owns Beyond the Edge sports bar, Batter’d & Fried, Watanabe: Sushi & Asian Cuisine and, most recently, a barbecue restaurant, Drifters, says such a responsive community can be a challenge and a teaching moment for area businesses.

“With any business, you never know what’s going to happen,” Charette explains. “There’s a tremendous sense of community over here, and that is what was so appealing. I don’t know if I chose East Nashville or if East Nashville chose me.

“It’s not like you can show up and open a business in East Nashville, and all of a sudden you are successful. You have to work for it. You have got to be good. You have to give them what they want. I feel like if you can make it in East Nashville, you can make it anywhere, because there is that support.”

Depending on the business, Charette says, the intense accountability can be difficult because the community is vigilant and protective of its reputation and the kind of growth it wants.

“If you are embraced by the neighborhood, you are going to do well, but the neighborhood is going to be a very tough critic,” Charette adds. “They want you to do well, and they are going to tell you how they think you will do well. It’s not always easy to take that feedback or that criticism, but they are not doing it to hurt you. They are doing it because they want you to be successful.”

One of the factors that helped East Nashville’s steady, upward trajectory over the last few decades is an active, outspoken community that aims at coordination and communication. That, Edgefield Neighborhood Association president Russell Dimmitt says, is key to ability to lure for businesses and residents.

“Everybody kind of watches out for one another, and we all know our neighbors,” Dimmitt says. “One of the big things that East Nashville has that other parts of the city doesn’t seem to have is really active neighborhood associations. I think with East Nashville’s history, it’s really made it cohesive.”

Williams says getting East Nashville grounded during its early phoenix years had mostly to do with the neighborhood associations.

“We had to stabilize residentially first before any new business could survive,” Williams says.

The community, the one refurbishing bungalows and patronizing cafes, is, broadly speaking, a young and savvy demographic connecting on varying platforms.

East Nashville residents interested in joining neighborhood listservs can go to rediscovereast.org and select “Email Lists.”
Listservs found there serve:

  • East Nashville
  • East Nashville Crime List
  • East End
  • Eastwood Neighbors
  • Inglewood Neighborhood Association
  • Historic Edgefield
  • Lockeland Springs

“We use social media, Facebook and MySpace. We have all of that, and we all use all of it,” Dimmitt says. “So when someone is willing to take the chance to come to this side of the river and open a restaurant or a business, we can jump in there and support them.”

Or not.

One complaint is that it might be easier for residents to vent on the Internet than complain to a business owner or manager.

When Dimmitt and wife Rita moved to town after selling their farm in Goodlettsville, they did so for location. He says proximity makes East Nashville attractive to businesses because companies in communities with a lot of foot traffic seem to fare well with patrons already out and about.

“There is a convenience factor here,” Dimmitt explains. “We have sidewalks and bike lanes, and it’s very walkable. We can walk over to Five Points. We will walk over to Second Avenue for a concert down on the river or go to Robert’s Western World and take a cab back for four bucks.”

A new store expected to open in October is the Nashville Running Company at 1105 Woodland Street. Owner Lee Wilson says he has seen a dramatic increase of runners in East Nashville in the last three years and hopes that understanding his clientele will dovetail with the community’s support of its business brethren.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here, I think,” Wilson says. “The community is very loyal. I’ve been wanting to get into community involvement and, for me, this is obviously a good way to do that.”

Less than two years ago, John and Melanie Cochran opened The Wild Cow, a vegetarian eatery at 1896 Eastland Avenue. Cochran agrees with Dimmitt that the community is actively outside. Many building entrances open onto the public sidewalk, facilitating walking from business to business. A good example is the popular 5-Points shopping district at the junction of 11th Street, Woodland Street and Clearview Avenue.

“We had noticed that it’s pretty much a neighbor-based clientele here with repeat customers just walking in,” Cochran says. “There’s a ton of foot traffic here. It’s nice seeing the same people week after week. You get to know people by name and they know you. We have lived here a long time, so it’s our neighborhood, also.”

As a business owner, Cochran says, being involved in the community in other ways helps get the word out. East Nashville is, for example, a pet-friendly community that cares about the welfare of animals, stray or otherwise.

“We post on listserves whenever we’ve found a dog around the restaurant or near the house,” Cochran says. “It keeps the neighborhood in touch with each and with what’s going on.”

Recently, several vintage and consignment shops opened in the area along with a mixed use “strip mall” on Porter Road that includes the restaurant Cooper’s on Porter and specialty establishments Massage East, Almond Tree, Melted Memory and others. They are housed in a building that was previously a nursing home, with residential “rooms” converted to compact business space. Part of the building will still be used to house low-income and hearing-impaired residents.

On the horizon is a coffee house, Barista Parlor, which plans to open on Gallatin Pike near The Groove this winter, as will Porter Road Butcher. Riverside Village Pharmacy is scheduled to open in the fall.

While East Nashville is vibrant, contemporary, always changing and one of the coolest places to live in Music City, it also has its drawbacks. Crime is still a problem, for example.

But for smart, flexible investors, it can be rewarding and profitable.

“If you are willing to listen and willing to make the adjustments, then you will do fine,” Charette advises. “I am a better boss and a better business person, because there is that level of care. It’s almost like tough love. I love being in East Nashville because of those things.”

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