VOL. 127 | NO. 45 | Tuesday, March 6, 2012
By Sarah Baker
When Bert Smythe decided to launch new restaurant concept Alchemy last summer in the Cooper-Young district, the 5,200-square-foot space formerly occupied by Grace and Au Fond Farmtable seemed about 25 percent larger than was needed.
A Friday night crowd checks out one of the newest restaurants in Cooper-Young, Mulan Bistro. It’s the latest of several new additions to the neighborhood.
(Photo: Lance Murphey)
But the operating partner liked the idea of a “hip hideaway” at 940 S. Cooper St.
“Plain and simple, I was wrong,” Smythe said. “We kind of felt like that with some of our early projections and our thought process, ‘Are we really going to be able to fill up this much room?’ Obviously, we had to. We spread the restaurant out to make it look good. It has turned out that we used every available seat in the place, particularly Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.”
And he’s not the only restaurateur who has found success in the close-knit, diverse, historic Midtown neighborhood. More than a dozen eateries call Cooper-Young home.
“I see people come in here, then they walk across the street and go to Sweet Grass or to Tsunami or to the Beauty Shop,” Smythe said. “Or they go to one of those places first, and then come here. It’s become such a destination. It’s that old adage of you’ve got one shoe store, that’s all you have. You have two stores, you have competition. You have three, it becomes a destination. It’s been like that throughout the years, but now I don’t think there’s any other place in Memphis that has such a concentration of restaurants.”
Besides Alchemy, new additions to the area in the past few months include Mulan Bistro, Skunx Chef’s Pub and Stone Soup Café.
There’s retail too, as evidenced by the recent openings of Shoenista’s and The Polish Bottle. And before Urban Outfitters launched at the intersection of Cooper and Central Avenue last spring, it was all local tenants.
“These are committed Memphians – all homegrown,” said James Rasberry of Rasberry Commercial Real Estate. “They aren’t national tenants that have come down here and said, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s look at the traffic counts,’ or, ‘Let’s look at the one-, three-, five-mile demographics; it’s a great place for a new hamburger place’ or whatever. It’s not. Their customer base is committed and has been.”
From a tenant’s perspective, Cooper-Young is still “reasonably priced,” Rasberry said, who is housed and sells space in the area.
“Rents are very stable because there’s limited product available in the Cooper-Young area,” Rasberry said. “I think that that’s part of the sustainability is that they’re in modest rents that they can live with.”
Palmer Brothers Inc., a 100-year-old firm focusing on retail real estate, has been located at 841 S. Cooper since the late 1960s.
“We were at that time in management of moderate-income residential housing, and we were looking for an easterly location,” said CEO Marvin Palmer. “It doesn’t sound like it, but at that time, Cooper was (easterly) in a way. Cooper was a major North-South street, as well as Highland, and we looked at both of those locations to buy spots and chose Cooper.”
Right now, Cooper-Young’s rents are in the tenant’s favor. While what happens with the Overton Square revitalization remains to be seen, that activity could spur increases further south, Palmer said.
“The rents are building up to the point where they are maybe not quite as Overton Square, but they are getting close,” Palmer said. “That’ll be interesting to see whether we can maintain the momentum at the higher rent level, but it appears that the demand is strong enough. Of course, the closer you get to Southern (Avenue), the more influence you get from that area.”
To Charlie Ryan of Ryan Properties and vice president of the Cooper-Young Business Association, the success of Cooper-Young is a “long, epic” story, starting with the $500,000 grant awarded to the area from the Housing and Urban Development in 1991.
“We built all the sidewalks and we planted all of the ginkgo trees, we replaced all of the street lights with antique heads,” Ryan said. “We just did a lot with the grant and then sort of started our stint from there. It’s been a long story; it’s something that took 23 years. We’re generating 50,000 people a week in tourists and patrons and $2 million a year in sales tax – I mean, the economic impact of our area is huge.”
Ryan placed Urban Outfitters at 2151 Central Ave. and also has a tenant under contract to fill the adjacent 2,500-square-foot bay to the east. He also in the midst of planning a “good solution” to the parking concerns of Cooper-Young, among other deals that he hopes will enhance the area.
“There’s some good news coming up in Cooper-Young’s corner,” Ryan said. “There are a couple of tenants that are kind of exciting.”