Tupelo Honey Cafe kitchen workers practice their craft on Thursday, four days before the store's scheduled opening. (Photos by Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
The much anticipated Tupelo Honey Cafe will officially open in downtown Johnson City Monday, bringing more activity to the century-old CC&O railroad depot than the once-dusty freight bay has seen in decades.
What some may see as an investment opportunity, others say is another sign that the city’s core is poised at a tipping point, ready to spring to life once again.
“For the last 70 years or so, people have been developing cities around the car, but the downtown areas were always more about moving pedestrians around, and it’s hard to shake that mentality,” developer Greg Cox, owner of the bustling depot, said Friday. “Our generation, the younger generation, really loves that community feel that downtowns had, and we’re trying to bring that back. We just want to get the cars out of it.”
In the past few years, Cox said the evidence of those changing viewpoints is starting to show all over downtown Johnson City, from the dozens of new multi-unit residential buildings moving into the old, brick buildings to the businesses moving into storefronts along Main and Market streets.
The older buildings have more character than cookie-cutter strip malls, he said, giving each business and living space its own sense of identity.
“There is absolutely no question about it, this is our most unique restaurant to-date,” Elizabeth Sims, Tupelo Honey’s director of marketing, said in the busy week leading up to the Johnson City opening. “It really is a superstar.”
In planning out the restaurant’s décor, Sims said she considered the city’s rich railroading history.
The art and memorabilia on the walls reflect that, as does the massive working model of the rail lines that once steamed past the spot where diners will now be served Tupelo’s gourmet Southern cuisine.
“It’s unbelievably beautiful,” Sims said. “It’s such a great structure and really, a signature for Johnson City.”
Not all of Tupelo Honey’s restaurants are in rehabilitated structures, but the company does appreciate the historical value of aging buildings, when possible, she said.
The original restaurant in Asheville’s downtown is in what was once a bowling alley, and the recently opened Chattanooga location is on Warehouse Row, a set of buildings built in the 1900s on the site of an old Civil War fort.
“We really try to incorporate ourselves fully into the communities,” Sims said. “Part of that is knowing about and getting close to their history.”
Although the investment structure is different and the returns may take longer to materialize, Cox said downtown rehabilitation projects can be more lucrative than retail shopping centers.
“I think downtown, the money, it’s not the same as doing a suburban box development,” he said. “Downtown, you get the property cheap, you do the project smartly, then it takes a while to get the demand. It’s still a good investment, but rents have to be a little lower until most of the spaces downtown are full, then you can raise them. You’ve got to be able to wait for the return.”
Cox, who said he’s focused quite a bit of energy on readying the depot for Tupelo Honey’s opening, said construction crews will now turn to the other side of the building, including a ground floor retail opportunity and seven offices upstairs.
Cox said he already has some prospects for the offices, which will rent for $500 to $700, and he’s going to begin marketing the retail space to businesses that will complement — but not compete with — the next-door restaurant soon.