Inside the nearly finished Red Hot & Blue at Waverly Place, the restaurant’s operating partner Todd Chriscoe and a kitchen manager kicked around in the space stalled in its final approval process.
Outside, other store owners at the shopping center’s 26-acre campus were anticipating the opening of the barbecue eatery, which was originally planned for fall 2014, and visitors were lurking about around noon Thursday. “Do you know if they are open?” one hopeful passerby asked, staring at the empty place.
Delayed openings are typical for small businesses, especially for equipment-heavy restaurants that smoke their meats in-house.
However, when Red Hot & Blue does open — now estimated to be May 7 — it will mark a reunion of sorts for the restaurant that once flourished for about 18 years at Waverly Place before closing around 2007.
Red Hot & Blue originally opened in the shopping center as a stand alone space around 1990, and it closed just before the mall almost collapsed under the weight of an aggressive development plan that stalled in the Great Recession’s credit crunch.
At one point in 2009 and 2010, sewing specialty store Elegant Stitches, along with Rite Aid and anchor Whole Foods were the only businesses to occupy the 185,000 square feet of inline space at the open-air mall, which doesn’t include the surrounding stand alone locations on the campus.
For a while, it was so desolate that the co-owners of Elegant Stitches would ask for a security guard to escort women to their cars at night. They never had problems, but it was so empty.
“Ladies, you know, sometimes we feel unsafe,” said the store’s co-owner Shelley Holmes, 63, a longtime Cary resident who recently moved to Holly Springs.
But things clearly have changed, Holmes and others said about the mall that’s cycled through three owners in seven years. It’s undergone a $15 million renovation, and nearly 80 percent of its space has been leased, said Jenn Olevitch, director of leasing for the property she has worked on since 2010.
All the while, Waverly Place has been using events, such as Wine Down Wednesdays and a farmers market, to build a following, and it’s been adding businesses that contribute to the family-friendly, foodie and craft experience with a side of various services and women’s boutiques.
Adding small businesses
While Red Hot & Blue’s construction is complete, next door is preparing for CinéBistro, a concept expected to open in July that combines dinner and movies using the six-theater space that was shuttered around 2000 and then used by health clubs.
The 185,000 square feet of inline space includes a two-level inner area that surrounds a central promenade and playground. Whole Foods, Triangle Wine Co., a barber, spa, nail salon and others share one corner and parking area. CinéBistro, Red Hot & Blue, GreenPea Baby & Child, Esteem Me Montessori & Creative Play preschool and other child care programs share another corner.
The interior houses Elegant Stitches; specialty kitchen store Whisk, which also offers cooking classes; VOM FASS, an oil and vinegar outlet; breakfast, lunch and brunch spot Toast Cafe and ceramics studio Color Me Mine, along with boutiques, a gallery and a cupcake shop.
“We are like a diamond in the rough,” said Tammy Preston, 46, of Cary who opened Color me Mine in June 2014. In addition to events, businesses are working together to cross promote and support each other, she said.
The mall opened in 1988, lost its movie theater around 2000 and by 2007 was owned by a firm that included Durham developer Todd Zapolski. The firm was moving forward with a $180 million transformation that included adding 200 homes, a boutique hotel and significant layout changes.
Red Hot & Blue opened at Waverly Place around 1990 in the space now occupied by T.MAC restaurant, and its business started out and remained strong as other companies left among complaints about the shopping center’s visibility and accessibility.
“It was one of the most profitable Red Hot & Blues in the whole chain,” Chriscoe said.
At the time, Bill Holt, James Hill and Stephen Bell owned the place. Those partners also own the location at 6615 Falls of Neuse Road in Raleigh. Holt, Bell and Chriscoe are partners in the new Cary restaurant.
During the renovation, Waverly Place representatives indicated that Red Hot & Blue would have to move a couple times during the redevelopment. The restaurant owners objected and the shopping center bought out its lease, Chriscoe said.
Red Hot & Blue moved to Hillsborough Street, but closed around 2010 as the area underwent revitalization construction.
Renovating the center
After the Durham development firm was unable to secure financing for Waverly Place’s grand redevelopment, it was sold in 2008 to private equity firm RP Realty Partners of Beverly Hills, Calif.
In 2012, RP Realty completed a $15 million renovation that included updating the building’s facades and installing a central gathering promenade with waterfalls, fire pits and a playground.
The family-centric formula includes selecting unique businesses that can’t be found at every other mall and some businesses have been turned away.
“We are being very, very selective and that is why it has taken a bit longer,” to fill the building, Olevitch said.
Dan Saklad and his wife Diana looked at 31 locations around the Triangle until they decided on Waverly Place for Whisk, which opened in September 2013.
The Saklads, who live a couple of miles from the mall, always thought Waverly Place had some great attributes. It’s nestled among high-end neighborhoods, near the busy intersection of Tryon and Kildaire Farm roads and close to WakeMed, but the center itself didn’t have much life, he said.
“It was dead,” said Saklad, 48, of Cary.
They decided to go with Waverly Place with the understanding that they would initially have to fight to bring people to the business on their own.
“So we do our own work, and then eventually the center would fill up,” he said.
Hannah Ellis, 49 of Cary, opened Violets in May 2014. More people are coming to the center, but her shop, which is nestled between two empty stores on an upper deck, is struggling.
“I’m not going to say it’s not been a struggle,” Ellis said.
In September 2014, Dean and Beth Kessel opened their own location of the Charlotte-based regional company Toast Cafe. They chose Waverly Place, in part, Dean Kessel said, because Toast Cafe’s concepts works well when they are near a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s.
“Their customers are our customers,” Kessel, 50, of Cary, said. In addition, the surrounding area provides ample parking, business clients for the week and neighborhood clients for the weekend.
Kessel said he appreciates the mall’s efforts to bring in unique businesses.
“It also gives the center a personality that can identify itself as a specialty,” he said.
At the end of 2014, the mall was sold to Northwood Investors, a New York-based real estate firm with high-end shopping properties in south Charlotte and Kiawah Island, S.C. The company is discussing more renovations, Olevitch said.
When Red Hot & Blue restaurant opens it will be the third in state. Currently, there are about 20 locations in six states and Washington D.C., including one in Charlotte.
Chriscoe and his partners started discussing the option of owning a second location in Raleigh about two years ago and signed the lease at Waverly Place about a year ago.
“I have no doubt that it will do well,” said Chriscoe, 49, of Raleigh. “We just need to open.”