Here’s an easy way to tell how long someone has lived in Charlotte: Take them to 1315 East Blvd., at the corner of East Boulevard and Scott Avenue, and see how many past restaurants they can name.
When Latta Pavilion opened in 2003, Red Star Tavern had the prime spot that faced the corner. With more than 8,000 square feet, 400 seats, and a parking deck that was hard for customers to find, it lasted about 18 months. A French restaurant called Patou followed. It closed in 2007 after less than three years. Since then, it’s been 131 Main, The Rogue, The People’s Market, and Red@28th, among others.
Go a couple of blocks down the street to 1511 East Blvd.: Peking Palace, Sunset Bar & Grill, and Southern Comforts all occupied that space. Baxter’s Blue Marlin made it for eight years, from 1993 to 2001. Cantina 1511 was there for 10 years, taking the “1511” along to several new locations, including one in Park Road Shopping Center. Babalu followed in 2016 and closed two years later to move to Waverly. Today, the address is a Fifth Third Bank.
It’s a favorite table discussion for restaurant watchers: Why do some locations seem to turn over more often than a cold engine in January?
“Sometimes there’s just no rhyme or reason,” says Sherman Walters of National Restaurant Properties, which has offices in Charlotte and Greenville, South Carolina. “Traffic and visibility used to be important,” he adds, but with social media generating excitement, “I can show you a dozen restaurants that break every rule, and they’re still successful.”
These days, the rules for restaurants are a lot more complicated than the old real estate maxim, “location, location, location.”
Walters makes several calculations when he helps restaurant owners find spaces, and one is a location that matches the menu. Failed operators often didn’t understand market demands or the prices nearby residents would pay. One recent example: a franchise biscuit shop that closed after only two years. While the business cited COVID restrictions, it was also located in body-conscious South End, surrounded by yoga studios and fitness centers. A carb-heavy menu may have just been in the wrong place.
“That’s the mistake a lot of operators make,” Walters says. “It might tick all the boxes, but what fits the menu? What’s the community looking for?”
Sometimes size is to blame. When Patou moved from a successful 100-seat spot on Park Road to the 300-seat space at 1315 East Blvd., it lost the intimacy of the classic French bistro, and it had a hard time filling so many tables.
Too many seats can be as bad as not enough, Walters says. “You’d much rather have a 20-seat that gets six turns”—the number of times a table is filled in a night—“than a 60-seat that gets two turns.” If tables are filled only twice a night, the prices have to be higher to make a profit.
Here’s another example: Paul Verica, the two-time James Beard semifinalist and owner of now-closed The Stanley in Elizabeth, opened Orto, an Italian restaurant, in early 2021. He loved the location in Novel NoDa, a mixed-use development that put him just a few steps away from the LYNX Blue Line’s 36th Street Station. Even though it wasn’t directly on North Davidson Street, it got plenty of foot traffic.
But Verica dealt with eight months of construction delays, during which he still had to pay rent. Some of the nearby apartment projects weren’t complete by the time he opened, adding to noise pollution. And his ambitious Italian menu may have been the wrong fit for the area.
“That menu in The Stanley—it would have fit the neighborhood,” Verica says. “NoDa is a great neighborhood, but maybe (Orto) wasn’t the best fit. It could have been more casual.” Orto closed after less than a year.
In May, Verica announced the sale of The Stanley after four years in the 2,800-square-foot space at Seventh Street and Pecan Avenue. Unlike Orto, the decision to close The Stanley was Verica’s choice. In an open letter on social media, he pointed to the impact of the pandemic on the culinary industry but declined to say who purchased The Stanley or what they will do with the space.
“The smallest misstep in this business can be a very costly one,” Walters says. “That’s where a (real estate) broker and an operator need to put their heads together. You have to have a solid idea of what the menu looks like and what the price point is.”
Aaron Ligon has his own formula for location success: Accessibility, visibility, signage, and traffic. “Those will never change,” says Ligon, co-founder of Ascent Real Estate Partners, which works with a number of Charlotte restaurants. “If your space is inferior in one of those ways, you’re always going to be outgunned.” Ligon still puts a premium on visibility—customers have to see a restaurant if they’re going to remember to visit it regularly.
National brands tend to prioritize accessibility. For instance, Starbucks and Dunkin’ want to be on the right side of the street for morning commuters. No one wants to make two lefts in rush hour traffic to grab a breakfast sandwich or coffee. A restaurant on the wrong side of the street is a closed restaurant waiting to happen.
Even neighborhoods that seem to have it all can struggle, Ligon says. In South End, for instance, many restaurants are located in apartment buildings. On paper, that looks great. You have plenty of street traffic and customers who live within walking distance. It doesn’t always work out that way, though.
“If it’s not designed carefully, it’s trouble,” Ligon says. “If it’s difficult to take (supply) deliveries, take the trash out, clean the vent hoods—that’s expensive every single day. Being in a building of 300 residents can be more damaging than helpful. A novice will think that’s a bigger help than it is. People don’t eat in the same place every day unless it’s a coffee shop or something you’ll use every day.” Rain, cold, or heat can keep foot traffic off the sidewalks, and if there’s no parking, drivers will pass you by, too.
Even with ample parking, drivers will steer clear if it’s too hard to get into or out of the lot. Jon Dressler, owner of Rare Roots Hospitality, is one of Charlotte’s most successful restaurateurs, with two Dressler’s locations as well as The Porter’s House, Dogwood Southern Table & Bar, and Fin & Fino.
One of the first things Dressler looks for in a potential location is “ingress and egress,” or how you get in and out of the parking lot. If there are eight ways in and out, at least seven have to work for your customers. Dogwood, for example, is in Sharon Square near SouthPark Mall. It has four ways in and three ways out because you can’t make a left turn onto Sharon Road. With street parking and a parking garage to boot, it’s made it for eight years.
Dressler just announced a new concept, Chapter 6, expected to open in November at The Line in South End, a 16-story mixed-use development. Those are the kinds of sites he likes—shopping centers or mixed-use with a combination of residential and retail, or retail and offices. He doesn’t worry how many other restaurants are around. “I like to try to be not the only draw,” he says. “You may get excited by my neighbor, but after you eat there 13 or 14 times, you’ll say, ‘Let’s check that other place out tonight.’”
Accessible (and cheap) parking used to be a must-have in Charlotte, but Dressler thinks that’s changing. “Older people want to be able to park in front and walk in,” he says. But for restaurants that aim for a younger crowd, that’s not a priority, thanks to on-demand driving services like Uber.
At Fin & Fino, Dressler initially offered complementary valet service for customers who worried about scarce, expensive parking in uptown. But once he realized the service averaged two cars a night on weeknights and eight on weekends, he did away with it. Most people were using Uber or Lyft, or they lived or worked within walking distance.
Ligon thinks parking will matter as long as enough Charlotteans drive. “No matter what, ease of accessibility, ease of parking, is at the core of what makes for a reasonable dining experience,” he says. “There’s only so many times a customer is going to circle a lot.”
Dressler pays a lot of attention to urban growth. When he opened Fin & Fino in 2018 in the space that had been E2 Emeril’s Eatery, that end of South Tryon Street was a no-man’s-land of parking lots and construction. But soon, he was surrounded by office towers that included condos and retail. Now, as uptown offices reopen, Fin & Fino is open for lunch, too. “I always tell people, it’s not me being a visionary,” he says. “It’s understanding the makeup of the city.”
It’s anyone’s guess how the pandemic will change the realities of restaurant locations as people return to regular life. Fast parking for food delivery services will probably be the norm for a long time.
“From what we’ve seen, a couple of things have become more important,” Ligon says. “The takeout window, together with ease of access and takeout parking. Meal delivery systems, like Uber Eats, have to be efficient.”
A bad location doesn’t always keep a good restaurant down. Dressler points to Futo Buta, the popular ramen house in South End. It’s tucked behind a mixed-use complex, out of sight from South Boulevard. “The first two times I tried to go, I couldn’t find it,” he says. “But they’re always busy.” The ramens, steamed buns, and vegetarian small plates are affordable and filling, the decor feels smart and cool, and it sees plenty of foot traffic on the Rail Trail beside the Lynx light rail tracks.
Walters recalls something his mentor, National Restaurant Properties founder Bob Dowdy, said: “‘Sherman, you can’t hide good food. If the food is good, people will find you.’ And that rings as true today as it ever has.”
KATHLEEN PURVIS is a longtime Charlotte writer who covers Southern food and culture.