The Merchant | Photography: RDP3 Photography

Raleigh Speakeasy The Merchant Opening Despite Challenges

In Eat, March 2021 by Raleigh Magazine1 Comment

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After a fire and a pandemic, Local Icon Hospitality is pushing forward—revamping Virgil’s and opening new speakeasy The Merchant.

Rachel Simon

Serial entrepreneur and Local Icon Hospitality owner Jon Seelbinder will be the first to tell you that mid-March is not his favorite time of year. Nearly four years ago, on March 16, 2017, a fire at an apartment building near one of the entrepreneur’s bars—Glenwood South’s Little City Brewing—shut down the streets, bringing business to a grinding halt.

Seelbinder and his Local Icon team spent countless months working to rebuild the neighborhood and start fresh, only to see the pandemic temporarily shutter Little City and all of Local Icon’s other businesses—nearly three years to the day after the fire.

Some unfortunately necessary layoffs, a building eviction and a handful of unexpectedly pricey equipment repairs later, and no one would blame Seelbinder for throwing his hands in the air and calling it a day. But while the last few years have certainly presented their fair share of challenges, the restaurateur is taking it all in stride. In fact, he’s hardly even fazed.

“I look at people and I’m like, ‘I don’t mean to seem so calm about this…’ but all I can really do is laugh at it and figure out how we’re going to fix it,” says Seelbinder with a chuckle. “I was just kind of seasoned before this.”

When the pandemic forced hundreds of small businesses throughout Raleigh to shut down, including those owned by Local Icon—Little City, Virgil’s Taqueria, The Architect, The Green Light and Linus & Pepper’s—Seelbinder says that he and his colleagues didn’t miss a beat when it came to figuring out their next moves. “I met with every one of my managers at the time individually and said: ‘We’re going to do the best we can here. We’re going to keep grinding,’” he recalls. “I said: ‘If anybody’s got some experience and muscles for this, we do. And we’re going to get through this.’”

One of those survival plans included turning Virgil’s—formerly a taqueria that was closed for seven months—into a cocktails and cocina joint offering food truck tacos and to-go drinks. Another change was moving forward with the long-awaited opening of The Merchant, a speakeasy situated above Virgil’s (on Salisbury Street) that’ll offer both interactive cocktails and a French- and Belgian-inspired food menu. While the exact launch date is still up in the air—a planned New Year’s debut fizzled due to a lack of customers, so the team is cautiously waiting for the right time to try again—the Local Icon team remains hopeful about the bar’s long-term potential.

“It’s going to be a nice, relaxed environment—just a place where you can enjoy and have a great time,” promises Tyler Cromer, a restaurant consultant from Philadelphia who was recently hired as The Merchant’s general manager. Alongside Chicago-bred chef Adrian Black (formerly of The Umstead Hotel), Cromer is committed to making the speakeasy a space for “true entertainment,” he says—a full “experience” with lively bartenders, an eclectic menu and cocktails “into the wee hours of the morning. … There’s really nothing like that in Raleigh.”

Opening any new business, let alone a bar, with ongoing restrictions is certainly a risky move, and the team isn’t naive about the obstacles ahead. But they’re confident that when The Merchant is finally up and running, it’ll offer a much-needed reprieve for Raleigh residents. “It’s about creating a space where someone can forget about all the troubles outside,” says Cromer. “Kind of an escape.” (Cheers to that!)

To whet your appetite while we anticipate its opening, The Merchant’s menu will feature such dishes as a take on carbonnade flamande, a Belgian beef stew that Black is supplementing with gnocchi and a braised short rib sauce. And you can wash it down with an orange Negroni that’s lit aflame tableside.

Meanwhile, at the revamped Virgil’s, a DJ spins beats while you nosh on tried-and-true dishes like shrimp tacos, pork carnitas and a marinated ribeye—perhaps alfresco on the new patio space.

And over at Little City, there’s a new brewer on board, so beer fans can expect plenty of inspired choices from the award-winning suds spot.
Still, with all the growth, there’s no denying that the lineup is far from the Local Icon of just one year ago. At press time, The Green Light, The Architect, and Linus & Peppers remained closed for COVID restrictions, and social distancing measures mean that it’s unlikely the group’s other businesses will be filled with patrons anytime soon.

Seelbinder, however, knows there’s no point focusing on the past. “Bar experiences have changed,” he says matter-of-factly. “We’ll have to adapt to the situation.” But, as he’s said, if there’s anyone who can handle what’s to come, it’s the group behind Local Icon. “Everything that I could imagine happening happened,” Seelbinder says of the past few years. These days, he adds, “it’s a story of perseverance.” And, clearly, they persisted.

Virgil’s Cocktails & Cocina

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