Tuesday, September 08, 2015

The True Bellwethers of Revitalization

At the conclusion of my last post, I promised to delve further into the DNA of my adopted home town Durham, NC’s emergence as a foodie powerhouse and the bellwether revitalization role of locally-owned chef driven restaurants.

It is a movement rooted here in the 1970s and 1980s, that along with a sense of place revolt, deserves primary credit for Durham’s resurgence, including downtown’s, and helping make it one of the most acclaimed communities anywhere.

But the fingerprints of this movement stretch back nearly 70 years or more.

First, as an aside, it is too bad that communities don’t follow the lead of tiny rural towns such as Ashton, Idaho (pop. 1,000) - the closest place to the ancestral ranch of my birth and early years.

There, the local chamber of commerce is different from others across the nation which have long since deserted sense of place or wisely surrendered it when destination marketing organizations are established for that purpose.

Small rural towns without the resources for specialization are often sources of best practice nuggets.

An example is that Ashton’s volunteer business organization makes an effort to include in the profiles of each member, where possible, the DNA of each location often going back to when the community was established.

One example from my youth traces the heritage of a row of 1920s log cabins as part of a motel that I fondly recall behind the grade school I attended.

I wish I had thought to build this capacity into the DMO inventories and databases for the three communities I represented over the years.

Durham is so extremely fortunate to have Open Durham, a local website created and populated by a friend and physician-turned-developer.

It drills down location by location into the heritage of Durham’s built environment including occupants.

It was interesting to note recently in a Durham News Service post that a local native-returned-home chef plans to open a diner in the storefronts below a mid-century motel under renovation in Downtown Durham.

It happens that when when I was being recruited to come here in the spring of 1989, I ate at another diner in that very location, kitty-corner from the newly opened hotel where I was put up, called the Plaza.

But Open Durham reminds us that it was also the 1910 location of the Plaza Café at the base of the Hackney Building that preceded the classic 1960s motel now under restoration.

I’ve written previously that today’s colony of Durham chef-owner-driven restaurants dates to at least the first half of the 1980’s well before I was I was recruited here to start up and lead the community's official destination marketing organization.

That’s when these locally owned restaurants also became a force for revitalization of districts such as Ninth Street and Downtown.

But their finger prints extend even further back.

Nearly a decade before he opened Café Parizade in the Ninth Street District and Taverna Nikos Downtown, in 1981 Georgios Bakatsias (Bok-i-shaw) who has now concepted and opened restaurants in many cities, opened his first restaurant in Durham.

He was 19 years old when his persistence persuaded a local banker to place trust in him.  One day Durham will recognize that no one has done more than the unpretentious Georgios over so many decades to inspire its culinary prowess.

The former Bakatsias Cuisine was where the restaurant Blue Olive thrives today but while it wasn’t the first of its caliber in Durham including Downtown or the Ninth Street districts, Bakatsias quickly drew attention to Durham’s culinary potential.

Nineteen eighty one (1981) is also the year that Mary Bacon opened the former and soon-to-be-acclaimed Anotherthyme in downtown just as two dilapidated tobacco warehouses nearby were adaptively renovated as Brightleaf Square.

Both were a nod to the awakening brought about by the mid-1970s sense of place revolt that first ignited Downtown Durham’s turnaround.

As I noted in my last essay, it is chef-driven and -owned restaurants that first inhabit areas where the bones of sense of place remain well after their decline, inspiring adaptive reuse developers behind them.

All of what I have outlined so far predated the opening of arguably Durham’s most nationally famous restaurant, the former Magnolia Grill in the Ninth Street District, which chefs Ben and Karen Barker opened in November 1986.

In the early 1980s, it was the Barkers who were one of the very earliest pioneers of what is now known as farm-to-table by sourcing ingredients from local farms.

But the contributions of locally-owned, chef-driven restaurants to Downtown Durham’s revitalization was also nearly a decade before Nana’s and Foster’s Market, both in the Rockwood District, would add to Durham’s acclaim in 1990, while reinvigorating that area.

This was also the year Durham native and Magnolia Grill-alumnus chef Walter Royal, along with partner Don Wexell, opened the former Delta cuisine-themed Crescent Café in the fall of 1990 deep into in the very heart of Downtown.

Royal wasn’t alone.  Chef Mark Day had left Fowler’s Gourmet in 1987 to open a highly acclaimed Bistro a few doors away called Mark’s at Five Points, next to the former Ghirardelli Ravioli Factory (wholesale/retail) which had opened two years earlier.

Both were located where Bull McCabe’s is today and where the former Joe & Jo’s and the indomitable but unpretentious JoAnne Worthington made such an impact on the continued resurgence of downtown between 2002 and 2006 by being, well, Durham.

The Crescent Café opened just as lofts were being created above it in historic buildings along Main Street and just over a year after DCVB had been founded, in part to capitalize on national acclaim such as the Crescent would bring to Durham and downtown by mid-1991.

This was years before Downtown Durham Inc. came to life as an advocate for that area of Durham, fostering economic development from the supply-side as a complement to DCVB’s demand-side approach community wide.

This was also decades before building owners and developers would come to understand how important having truly locally-owned chef-driven restaurants is to not only property values but authenticity and identity.

But the DNA of Durham’s emergence as a foodie town also stretches back long before 1973 when Mary had opened an earlier restaurant in the Ninth Street District called Somethyme.

In many ways, it traces back at least to 1949 which is the first year that Mayola’s Grill opened in what is now the Brightleaf District of Downtown Durham.

It was through the block from what would open as the former Ivy Room later known for “chicken in the rough,” similar to a favorite place on Spokane’s South Hill while I was in law school.

Beverly Osborne who devised “chicken in the rough” in the late 1930s is famous for stating that;

in business, the product is the vehicle that is used to implement a strategy for creating a good idea.”

No one grasps that genius more than locally-owned, chef-driven restaurants.

I miss Mary Bacon’s “AT chicken” at Anotherthyme and the stories she would regale me with about Mayola’s.  In part, it was the sparkle with which she articulated that heritage before her restaurant came about that helped make the DNA connection.

Mayola Nance’s restaurant morphed over the years from grill to grill and fountain to grill, fountain and pool parlor, to chili house, but Mayola’s was always a mainstay of Durham hospitality for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6 a.m. to midnight.

The clientele, too, was like Durham, a blend of blue collar factory workers and university students, researchers and professors as well as bankers and lawyers.

The fun thing about scouring old phone directories such as the one linked from 1949 is that you not only get a sense of businesses at the time such as Mayola’s but you can actually see noted next to various names in the listings exactly who worked there back then.

Playing under Mayola’s feet in the 1940s was a young boy better known today for his weightlifting prowess even at age 76, something he has studied and perfected over more than 60 years now into what is known as Maitland’s Method.

Maitland Nance and personal trainers groomed in his controlled-movement method use it to strengthen clients of all ages in his small boutique studio where we go in the Ninth Street District twice each week across from Duke East Campus.

But in his twenties, Maitland took was he had learned from his Mom growing up in Mayola’s and soon developed or acquired dozens of restaurants in Durham and beyond including some still famous with Duke alumni who often regale them on basketball listservs.

It is a tough business.  Thirty percent of all restaurants fail in their first year and another 30% fail within two years of opening.  The local chefs and restaurants I acknowledge in this post are not only pioneers in sense of place, they were courageous.

Maitland’s included perpetuating the former Turnage’s out on Morreene Road as well as the former A.B. Morris Café across from American Tobacco.  Renamed Nance’s, it was still there when I arrived, although the Lucky Strike factory had abandoned it two years before.

It was virtually all that remained of what has now been resurrected as the American Tobacco District.

It was located near where friends whose DNA traces back decades in Durham’s foodie heritage will open NanaSteak next year at a corner of the just-opened ALoft Durham Downtown hotel, one of four to recently open in downtown alone.

Restaurants lead the way to revitalization while hotels mostly follow it.

Locally-owned, chef-driven restaurants were among the first to grasp that economic development, in the words of Ed McMahon, is “about what you have, not what you don’t have.”

Maitland’s first restaurant was the former Top Hat Bar Grill in the Ninth Street District across from where the acclaimed Watts Grocery is today, near where the famous Green Room is, having been renamed to reflect its role in the movie Bull Durham.

Still in his twenties, that was eight years before Mary Bacon opened Somethyme there.

Sometime in the mid to late 1970s, Maitland opened Maitland’s, a fine dining restaurant in Downtown Durham in Mayola’s location.

It was just after a sense of place revolt had halted the wanton destruction of Urban Renewal eventually drawing the attention of adaptive reuse developers instead.

It is from trolling Maitland’s that Georgios found some of his kitchen staff for Bakatsias Cuisine, some of whom joined him a decade later at Parizade and Taverna Nikos in downtown.

Robert Adams, another Durham native and the longtime executive chef of Parizade, had joined Maitland out of chef school.

It is from kitchens such as Parizade, Anotherthyme, Magnolia Grill, Fosters and Nana’s that a host of new Durham restaurants found their beginnings, including many being spawned today.

In 1981, Maitland, who was more comfortable with basic southern food, sold the site of Maitland’s to Mary Bacon for Anotherthyme, the year Brightleaf Square opened in two wonderfully restored historic tobacco warehouses nearby forging the template other developers have followed for decades now.

Little did he know that a few years later, Magnolia Grill and the Barkers would take basic southern flavors and recipes to the height of acclaim in the food world.

Restaurants are the bellwethers for resurrecting downtowns and forging other even more organic districts in a community, such as Durham’s Ninth Street.

Chef-driven and owned restaurants are at the epicenter for bringing settings back to life while preserving sense of place.

This is not meant to take anything away from economic developers, such as I was, or development advocacy associations or financial backers, including governments granting incentives, or the development community.

But all of these and more are merely cogs when viewed strategically.

Today as noted in the SlideShare document linked to the image above, huge national developers, such as North American Properties, have identified locally-owned chef driven and owned restaurants as “the secret sauce,” to “establishing an identity.”

Nearly 40 years ago, Durham became a pioneer not only in North Carolina but nationwide in the realization that locally-owned chef-driven restaurants are one of the first and most important ingredients to revitalization. 

Any recognition of the revitalization we see here today is grossly remiss if that heritage is not prominently recognized.

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