Exurbs, Not Exile

In December 2021/January 2022, Eat by Eric Ginsburg1 Comment

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There’s a reason your next favorite bar or restaurant might be in Clayton. 

Just a few years ago, Max Trujillo mocked the idea of opening a cocktail bar in Cary. He wasn’t alone—when SideBar opened there in 2018, Bond Brothers Beer Company had already planted a flag in the affluent suburb, but plenty of people scoffed at the idea. The last three years changed everything. … “Now we use Cary as the example for what could happen in other towns,” says Trujillo. 

That’s why Trujillo—a service-industry pro and Raleigh resident who co-hosts the NC Food & Beverage Podcast—is opening food halls in Oak City exurbs like Knightdale and Clayton. He and partner Kip Downer plan to open the first Craften* concept in Knightdale just before the end of the year. 

“When I tell people that we’re doing it, nobody really bats an eye the way I think people would’ve two or three years ago,” says Trujillo. “People now think it makes sense; people want to keep it local, keep it small. I think you’re going to see more of that.”

It’s true; other Raleigh restaurateurs are looking beyond city limits for their next bars and restaurants. So many are reaching into Cary that it’s almost not worth mentioning—but we will—from Ashley Christensen’s new BB’s Crispy Chicken* to Katsuji Tanabe’s Mexico City-style restaurant A’Verde*. There’s also Boxyard RTP in Research Triangle Park. 

But the outward growth goes deeper into the exurbs, especially Clayton. Besides Craften, restaurateur Scott Crawford is opening Crawford Cookshop* imminently there. Jason Howard just expanded The Cardinal*—one of his several Raleigh bars—to Clayton, and he’s introducing a new smoked meats and tequila-drenched business called Lil Hombre too. Like Trujillo, Howard is looking to neighboring towns, with construction on The Cardinal location in Wilson already underway. He’s also about to ink a deal in Wake Forest.

“Raleigh’s really saturated,” says Howard. “You kind of have to be willing to go into a strip mall or something more cookie-cutter. I think this COVID thing really opened up my mind to going outside of Downtown Raleigh.” 

Crawford agreed. “I’ve had my challenges with the city of Raleigh, but we were able to work through those, and I’m not opposed to doing more things in the city,” he says. “It’s a little bit more difficult to find a building or space that speaks to me. I have other ideas—and a space kind of has to excite me.”

The pandemic also influenced Crawford’s perspective. The more casual approach of the Cookshop emerged when Jolie and Crawford and Son were forced to switch to a takeout model. Their traditional menu didn’t translate, forcing Crawford to switch gears. A strong reception prompted him to consider it for a standalone business. 

Trujillo mentioned COVID as well, pointing out that more people are working from home or looking for options closer to where they live. “In today’s market you don’t want to pay 30 bucks for an Uber to get out there and 30 bucks to get back home,” he says. “I think everyone realizes that the greater Raleigh area is far bigger than it once was.”

Crawford admits he hadn’t really considered the exurbs initially, saying he didn’t know much about Clayton other than its cocktail bar Revival 1869. But when a friend suggested that he might like some of the older buildings in the fast-growing community, Crawford was intrigued.

“I didn’t want to go out of Raleigh into the strip- mall burbs or something that lacked character,” he says. “The selling point for me [in Clayton] was the building and the charm of Main Street.”

And while there isn’t necessarily a huge restaurant and bar exodus from Raleigh on the horizon, the more people move to outlying communities, the more likely it is that food and drink will follow. 

“I’m seeing a pattern,” says Crawford. “I’m doing a steakhouse in Cary. Cary’s grown a lot. People never really used to go out to eat much in Cary when I first moved here, and now they have a lot more options. Apex, Clayton—they’re all growing communities, and growth
creates opportunity.”

Howard, Crawford and Trujillo all say the small-town feel is part of what drew them in. It’s cheaper, they admit, but that’s not the only driving factor. They want something that feels distinct, full of character, and where the neighborhood and community really embrace them. “It’s not like Clayton is inexpensive right now,” says Trujillo. “There are tertiary markets that are cheaper.”

It’s all about where they’ll bring something distinct to the table. Trujillo and his partner turned down some surrounding towns that already have a tight food culture or similar food hall—they want to be unique and get in on the ground floor.

Howard and Crawford also brought up challenging permitting and approval processes in Raleigh. “With every step of the process, it can go smoothly or not, depending on the individual,” says Crawford. “It would be nice if we felt like in more cities and more communities, the people in charge wanted to help us. It doesn’t feel that way often.”

Crawford says he still has more concepts in mind that Raleigh would embrace, but for now he doesn’t have anything planned beyond Crawford Brothers’ Steakhouse in Cary and Crawford Cookshop in Clayton. Howard, meanwhile, is busy building a small exurb empire for The Cardinal, with Lil Hombre potentially following suit.

“Things are getting really hard to do in Raleigh,” says Howard. “[Clayton] is more conducive to small business. You’re really appreciated in these small towns. It’s just amazing to me.”

Not that Howard won’t open more businesses in the capital—he just launched the Rainbow Luncheonette* and Pink Boot* on North West Street. But being a bigger fish in a smaller pond can have its benefits.

“People appreciate the concept more when there’s not 35 other similar choices,” he says. “There’s more attention on you. You make a lot more people happy, and that’s really what we’re here to do—while keeping our integrity.” @craftenfood; @crawfordcookshop; @thecardinalbar.

*Editor’s Note: Visit raleighmag.com for exclusive full coverage on each of these concepts.

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