Durham's DIY district turns another corner

vbridges@newsobserver.comSeptember 28, 2013 

— It’s a Wednesday night, and the do-it-yourself district is humming with activity.

People are packed into and eating dinner at Geer Street Garden, and a few are surfing the Internet and drinking coffee under strung lights at Cocoa Cinnamon across the street. People are clanking weights and training behind the glass front at CrossFit Durham, winding down at Fullsteam Brewery and Motorco Music Hall, and grooving at an Insanity “Body-Rock” workout session at The Bar.

Just a few years ago, this area at West Geer Street and Rigsbee Avenue was dark, quiet and categorized as sketchy – at best.

All that changed three years ago after Fullsteam started brewing and serving beer in a former 7UP plant, and the next month Motorco, a music hall, opened in a transformed Lincoln dealership.

A steady parade of food trucks followed, beckoning people to come earlier, stay longer and stop by for a “Bloody Brunch” on Sunday hosted by Motorco and Korean barbecue food truck KoKyu, which essentially set up shop in front of the music hall selling sliders, tacos and tater tots fried in duck fat. Other businesses, such as Geer Street Garden, Cocoa Cinnamon, Surf Club and The Bar followed, along with community events such as Marry Durham and Durham’s homegrown Mardi Gras.

“It’s been over night,” said Jonathan Mattingly, 44, a Duke University mathematician, standing in line at KoKyu, which was parked in front of Motorco on Wednesday night. “Over and over again.”

The area has been dubbed the “do-it-yourself” district by the scrappy business owners who built their visions from nothing amid a struggling economy. Now, the area is turning yet another corner.

Motorco is adding a kitchen and a partnership with chef Chris Holloway. Fullsteam is expanding its production area within its existing space to keep up with beer orders for about 200 restaurants, bars and stores in the Carolinas and Washington.

And Raleigh serial entrepreneur Greg Hatem is shining up the corner space across from Motorco and next to Fullsteam to open a Durham version of his Raleigh cloth-napkin barbecue restaurant The Pit. The venture includes a catering space, dining room and bar, as well as a roof-top patio with a view of downtown Durham. It is expected to open next month.

“We are going whole hog here,” said Hatem, who also owns The Raleigh Times, The Morning Times, Sitti and Gravy in Raleigh.

The seeds of success

The groundwork for the area’s success was laid by Durham planners when they included the Rigsbee Avenue block in their Design District in summer 2010, just before Fullsteam and Motorco opened. The new rules, which encourage intense development and pedestrians, did away with old parking requirements and other rules, making it possible for entrepreneurs to open modern businesses in old buildings.

“I think the fact that we do allow for such diversity of uses next to each other has created a synergy,” said Steve Medlin, Durham’s city-county planning director.

The area has also been buoyed by current trends, said Ted Zoller, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and director for the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

People, craving a genuine product, are turning to homegrown businesses and moving toward destinations that provide a sense of belonging to a community and the opportunity to be part of the scene, he said.

Those two trends are amplified by social media, Zoller said, which pushes fads to play out faster and genuine enterprises to rise faster.

“The challenge for the businesses there is they have to keep on pleasing,” Zoller said. “They are going to have to continue to innovate, continue to build new experiences.”

New and unique ventures will help the businesses continue to pull market share from other areas down to Rigsbee and Geer, he said, but entrepreneurs also need to work together on marketing and addressing core challenges.

Growing pains

As Motorco, Fullsteam and the food trucks have benefited from a mutual success, there have also been signs of friction among the ventures as the businesses seek to expand and pull in more customers from across the Triangle, but struggle with limited parking.

Motorco initially shared its 90-space lot with Fullsteam, said Jeremy Roth, who owns Motorco along with partners Josh Wittman and Mike and Candy Webster. Motorco blocked off its parking lot and started charging $3 for parking in the lot after it started to fill up with people coming to the area early, Roth said, leaving his customers scrambling for a spot before a late evening show. Motorco and Fullsteam refund the parking fee with the first purchase.

After the change, Motorco initially received what Roth called “hateful” emails from Fullsteam fans, but he said the outcry has settled.

Hatem plans to provide parking a block away from The Pit on Rigsbee Avenue on a lot across from Liberty Warehouse.

Meanwhile, Motorco’s kitchen expansion marks the end of its reliance on KoKyu, which has been a mainstay parked in front of Motorco since spring 2011.

KoKyu owner David “Flip” Filippini said Motorco’s owners told him he can no longer park the food truck in front of the music hall once they open the kitchen. Sunday will mark the truck’s last day there.

Roth said they have always planned to add a kitchen, as it will bring in needed revenue for the music hall that leases the large space. Both parties said they discussed opening a restaurant together, but a deal was never reached.

Enter Holloway, a former executive chef at A Southern Season, owner-operator of Pitchfork Provisions, a 24-hour restaurant on Duke University’s West Campus, and co-owner of Brookland Eats, a new casual dining space in Roxboro.

Holloway will set the vision for and manage Motorco’s kitchen, but he is still working on the menu, he said.

“We are doing the logistics as we go,” said Holloway, a Durham native who spent nearly a decade touring the country in the early 1990s as a bassist and vocalist in rock bands Queen Sarah Saturday and Collapsis.

Attracting a critical mass

Meanwhile, Filippini is launching a monthlong fundraising campaign Tuesday on Kickstarter to raise capital to open his own restaurant at a yet-to-be determined location in 2014. Filippini has also rolled out his second truck, KoKyu Ondo, which is testing menu items that offer a twist on the first truck’s staples.

While Roth said food trucks can’t park on the property regularly after Motorco’s kitchen opens, it’s not all bad news for the trucks. There’s still plenty of space for them to park on Rigsbee in front of The Bar and Surf Club.

And Hatem, who owns the building occupied by Fullsteam, said he doesn’t object to the trucks parking in front of the brewery.

“We are going to encourage the food trucks to be there,” he said. “We think they are a big part of the food chain.”

Hatem said people used to ask him whether he saw restaurants popping up near his Raleigh ventures as competition. He doesn’t.

The goal, he said, is to attract a critical mass.

“They just know they are coming to downtown, and we want to make sure they have plenty of offerings,” he said. “It’s more of an experience.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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