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The highly anticipated development redrafts the mixed-use blueprint by putting food & bev first.
At first, M Sushi owner Michael Lee turned down an invitation to expand to the Fenton mega-development in east Cary. In fact, Lee and his wife declined several overtures.
But Scott Crawford—whose Crawford Brothers Steakhouse was among the first restaurants announced for the 92-acre site—helped convince him.
“When Scott Crawford gave us more details about all the restaurants [planned for Fenton], he basically told us he approved it, and I thought there must be a good reason why,” says Lee.
That buy-in from local chefs like Lee—formerly chef-owner of Sono Sushi in Raleigh and now the owner of Durham’s highly acclaimed M Restaurants—and hometown favorite Crawford is the cornerstone of Fenton’s development plan.
“If someone was developing a retail project 20 or 30 years ago, you would’ve led with department stores,” explains Paul Zarian, managing director at global real estate firm Hines, codeveloper of the massive development. “Food definitely serves as an anchor tenant with Fenton. They were some of the first leases that we signed. They establish what the brand is for the project.”
Food excites people most, says Zarian, and it also creates demand for Fenton’s other uses—retail, office space, residential units and hotels. Less than half of the site alongside I-40 and WakeMed Soccer Park is currently under construction, with more phases planned over the next decade, but food and beverage tenants are heavily concentrated on the front end on purpose, says Zarian.
Most similar projects don’t revolve around food, at least not historically. After all, we’re not meeting up at the food court over Panda Express and Sbarro anymore. That’s part of the reason Lee didn’t see the benefits until visiting a similar Hines project in Alpharetta, which is essentially the Cary of the Atlanta metro.
“There was not much we could think of for why we shouldn’t other than that it was a mall-style development, but taking the trip changed our minds drastically,” says Lee.
The closest local comparison is arguably North Hills, where establishments like Rosewater Kitchen & Bar and Level7 Rooftop Bar make Midtown much more than a classic mall or even your average mixed-use project. Hines’ decision to focus on food first at Fenton—driven by the company’s success with similar investments elsewhere—suggests what could be the establishment of a new norm.
When Fenton opens in April, Lee’s M Sushi—recently named one of OpenTable’s 100 Best Restaurants in the nation—will be among its primary attractions. Lee will also run a small M Test Kitchen there, a space for staff to experiment where they’re “not confined by any type of specific concepts or cuisines,” says Lee (though it will also operate as a full-service restaurant and bar). That could easily make it a destination, even for his Durham faithful.
The two businesses will be in good company. Dram & Draught, a Raleigh Mag Best Overall Bar winner for four years running, will open its fifth location in the development (with a sweet seven total slated to be open across NC by 2022’s end, including one in Wilmington). Co-owner Kevin Barrett says Dram & Draught Fenton will include a covered rooftop bar and a lunch-focused full food menu. It’s only a short drive from Dram’s original Downtown Raleigh digs, but “Cary is a different market than Raleigh,” says Barrett—and they’ll be in good company.
“When we heard our friends Scott Crawford and Mike Lee were planning to go there, we were sold,” he says. “We couldn’t pass up an opportunity to be neighbors with two world-class operators like them.”
Plus, Dram co-owner Drew Schenck lives in Cary, and Fenton is actually “a bit of a ‘coming home’ for me,” he says. He owned and opened Remington Grill in Cary in 1993, and opened RallyPoint Sport Grill in 2009 (both are still open under new ownership), so Dram & Draught Fenton will be his third Cary establishment.
“Cary has grown and continues to grow in positive and exciting ways,” adds Barrett. “And Fenton is a location that is capable of changing consumer habits and patterns.”
Indigo Road Hospitality Group—the folks behind Raleigh’s Oak Steakhouse and O-Ku Sushi—will be in the mix too, as the company expands its Italian restaurant Colletta to Fenton. And, of course, prolific Raleigh restaurateur Crawford will be representing the home team as well. These big draws will be buttressed by a range of regional offerings, including a Crú Food & Wine Bar, Honeysuckle Gelato, sports bar and social club Sports & Social, and celebrity chef Ford Fry’s acclaimed Tex-Mex restaurant Superica.
For Houston-raised and Atlanta-based chef and cookbook author Fry, bringing his Tex-Mex restaurant Superica to Fenton is a chance to plant a flag in the Triangle. He fell for the area while visiting for tennis tournaments with his son and hopes success at Fenton will snowball into more locations in Raleigh and Durham. So far, the available restaurant spaces he’s seen here were too small for Superica, which, of his dozen restaurant concepts, is one of only two to expand to additional locations (the other being famed The Optimist).
“The goal altogether was: Let’s do Superica throughout the Southeast,” says Fry. “I just felt that Tex-Mex was really lacking in the Southeast. And the Triangle is just cool.” He adds: “Or maybe it’s a square, with Cary.”
Working with the people behind Fenton on their Alpharetta development gave Fry a level of trust in the project, but it’s more about being surrounded by the right restaurant tenants, he says.
“The No. 1 piece is that it’s sort of all local operators and not many chains,” he says. “Scott [Crawford] excites me the most in all of this. It’s more about a general dining district that’s curated and that I can trust.”
Lee uses the word “curated” too. “Definitely the biggest seller for us was the fact that they came to us and said the plan was to do all local chefs and restaurateurs,” he says. Lee also likes how centrally located Fenton is in the Triangle, but proximity to Fry, Crawford and Charleston-based Indigo Road founder Steve Palmer is the real draw. It’s also the big names in hospitality who will pull customers in.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without Scott [Crawford],” says Zarian. “The same goes for all four of those chefs—Scott, Steve Palmer, Ford Fry, Mike Lee. But Scott was the local ambassador.”
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