On a random Thursday night, my husband and I decided to try a new spot that a family member recommended. In the neighborhood called Cleveland Park on the east side of Nashville, the restaurant called The Pharmacy, has been serving up great hamburgers for the past several years.  As we walked through the door past a waiting crowd, my husband commented that in the late nineties we wouldn’t be just casually walking around in this part of East Nashville. Since that time however, this corner of Cleveland Street and McFerrin Avenue and the neighborhoods around it have undergone significant change. I have to believe that the two restaurants, The Pharmacy and its sister restaurant The Holland House, had a little bit to do with that. Image

In neighborhoods across the country, small coffee houses and local restaurants boasting ‘local food’, are creating momentum in up-and-coming neighborhoods. As I’m writing this article I sit in Portland Brew in East Nashville, the cornerstone of a growing neighborhood center that includes a local Mexican restaurant, a vegetarian spot called the Wild Cow, and growing residential development; and it’s not just an urban thing – its also happening in suburbia.

In the community of Antioch, a suburb 15 minutes southeast of downtown Nashville, sits a local restaurant called 360 Burger. Opened during a time when the regional mall and other big box retailers were going out of business, the restaurant was a sign of hope for a community hard hit by the recession. Across the way in the defunct regional mall, new mall owners began advertising new food court selections from local international food vendors before new retailers, hoping that food would be the natural attractor for new customers.

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So the question is, in revitalization strategies should local food be the common thread?

I think so.

Even in the worst parts of a city where disinvestment is wide spread, it’s often the local restaurants that stick around. They stay in business by serving the people that had to remain, and the people who travel back to a dissolving area for some ‘food nostalgia’ – especially if the food is exceptionally good.  So how do we include food in the revitalization strategy – here’s what I think:

Urban planners and city officials should work with local restaurateurs to identify areas where potential restaurants could open and target those areas for revitalization strategies answering questions like - Where is there potential for foot traffic? Can vacant retail spaces be outfitted for new restaurant space? Once those areas are identified, traditional housing strategies (infill and affordable housing) should be focused in those areas.  Urban planners and city officials should work with food entrepreneurs to develop appropriate incentives and fast track approval processes that would assist restaurateurs with a speedy opening.

Similar to the food truck movement, where food entrepreneurs can test new and fun concepts without the risk of a brick and mortar location, a “mobile test kitchen” program should be created to test food concepts in different neighborhoods. This way, restaurateurs can test the market before making large financial risks. Similar to this idea, local chefs are testing out concepts at local farmers' markets and through local non-profits. One such program and test kitchen is operating at Casa Azafran, a community center for Nashville’s growing international community. Similar programs but with business planning and loan assistance may be beneficial in helping a business owner go from testing phase to reality a lot quicker.

Food Truck

Finally revitalizing communities should market existing restaurants online and through social media in order to attract others. If business owners see that there is support of the existing food scene in an area, the perceived risks of opening may be eliminated.

Food always brings people together and I firmly believe that food can also bring communities together.  I encourage urban planners, city officials, and community organizers to really tap the food entrepreneurs in your community to see how we can harness the energy of the local food movement and neighborhood revitalization to effect real change. Food, unlike retail which can and has moved to an online marketplace, will always require a physical location that people can travel to, to see, smell, and consume their food. And its not always about eating, it’s about social interaction, and a sense of community. We would be foolish not to understand the power of this and pay more attention to food’s role in our communities.

Don’t believe me? Well, just chew on that the next time you follow a food review to a 5 star restaurant in a derelict part of town, and wonder ‘why’d they locate here?”. They saw potential and well, the neighborhood will benefit in the long run.

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Local restaurants have been a part of the revitalization scene in Nashville for years. These restaurants opened in neighborhoods at a time when the market was lukewarm because they saw potential. Here’s a few to name:

Germanton Café – Germantown

Marche Artisan Foods – East Nashville

Mafioso’s – 12th Avenue South

Taco Mamacita – Edgehill Village

Watermark and Rusans – The Gulch

The Garden Brunch Café – Jefferson Street

360 Burger – Antioch

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Food for thought: What’s the food scene like in your city?