Friday, December 20, 2013

North Person business district gains steam by focusing on its neighbors

This story first appeared in Indy Week.

Once home to desolate storefronts and a handful of struggling shops, the area that bridges the established Oakwood and Mordecai neighborhoods near downtown Raleigh transitioned during 2013 into the thriving business destination many always believed it would become.

It even attained its own destination name: North Person.

Several new businesses have opened in the low-key district in recent months, including a new Niall Hanley pub—The Station Bar, located in a former gas station on Person Street—in November. This week, assuming all permits are finalized, the long-awaited second location of Wine Authorities will open around the corner in the Person Street Plaza on East Franklin Street.

At least three additional openings are anticipated for early 2014, including the previously announced Person Street Neighborhood Bar at the plaza. John Holmes of Hobby Properties, which manages the plaza, confirms that a new restaurant will be announced in coming days.

The third new venture will be a "speakeasy cantina" set to debut in March on Person Street next to PieBird, which has enjoyed steady growth since it opened in 2011. The long-vacant location served as a pop-up ice cream shop for a few months during the summer.

"We had been looking at spaces in the neighborhood for a long time and we jumped when we learned this was available," says Lily Ballance, who will operate the as-yet-unnamed bar with her husband, David Ballance. The Ballances signed the lease three weeks ago.

The couple was formerly involved with Calavera Empanadas and Tequila on South Blount Street near City Market. Since the new site is not large enough for a kitchen, Ballance plans to collaborate with PieBird owner Sheila Duncan to provide empanadas and other nibbles.

"I grew up in Mexico City and want to try to re-create the feel of the great neighborhood bars there," says Ballance, who currently works at Five Star, an Asian restaurant in the warehouse district. North Person "is so cozy and great. The people are so friendly and supportive. There's a buzz starting and we really feel like it's the place to be."

A decade ago, before he settled on Durham for the first Wine Authorities store, Craig Heffley considered launching his business in the North Person area.

"I have a friend who lives in Oakwood, and I always through it would be a great place for a wine store," Heffley says. A year ago, when he was scouting locations for a second store, he drove by Person Street Plaza and saw a sign seeking tenants. "I stopped the car and called right away," he says. "We're thrilled that the emphasis is on small, independent operations that serve the community."

Niall Hanley agrees. "Our goal is to cater to the neighbors," says Hanley, who created a large patio at The Station with freestanding outdoor fireplaces to offer the neighborhood a communal living room. His chef, Scott Jankovictz, worked at the now-closed Market Restaurant. "I think you will see a scene being developed here that will be strongly controlled by the neighborhood, which is fine with us. That's what builds longevity."

At least one North Person start-up already has gained national attention. Slingshot Coffee, which sells hand-bottled, cold-brewed iced-coffee beverages, has gone from off-hours production in the former Market Restaurant location on Blount Street (now home to the very popular Stanbury restaurant) to its own space within Oak City Cycling on East Franklin. Its products have been singled out for praise by Southern Living and Imbibe magazines and included in upscale holiday gift guides promoted by Real Simple, Gear Patrol, Time Out New York and Provisions, the online retailer affiliated with Food52, a respected cooking resource.

After working around the clock for months, owner Jenny Bonchak finally gave notice at her day job last week.

"I'm still the only employee, although I do have some help with local deliveries and in-store tastings," says Bonchak. "I will be going full-time in January and I couldn't be more excited to take this next step."

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