Cafe Helios, an early and relatively long-lived presence in the Glenwood South entertainment district, has closed.
The cafe’s windows are papered over, and a sign on its door says Helios had “served our last latte.” The shop shut its doors for the last time Friday evening.
Gray Medlin, the owner of the cafe and its renovated building, decided he was tired of the headaches of small business.
“I had some ideas for more things to do (with my life), in the future. And I said, ‘Eh, I just really don’t want to. I don’t want to. I’m not willing to,’ ” said Medlin, 61.
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“I decided that right here at the end of the year would be the time to do it, without a lot of hoopla or big announcements. Just cut it off.”
Employees weren’t given notice, but they will be paid at least two to three weeks’ severance, calculated from their base wages without tips. Medlin says he will refund the outstanding value of any Helios gift cards.
Cafe Helios opened 12 years ago, early in the transformation of the south end of Glenwood Avenue into a hot spot for restaurants and nightclubs.
“It’s been a mainstay in Glenwood South,” said Matthew Bettinger, manager of the neighboring C. Grace cocktail bar. “Somewhere like Helios is absolutely vital.”
Bettinger said the cafe balanced out the nightlife by doing business during the day. “I think a spot like Helios gets people in the habit of frequenting the street during the day,” he said.
The coffee shop and restaurant had showed few if any signs of the impending change. In fact, the business planned to be open for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, according to a Dec. 27 post on its Facebook page.
Medlin bought and renovated the 3,000-square-foot building in 2000. The building dates to 1960 and once was home to the N.C. Association of Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Control, according to county property records.
The cafe opened in 2002, featuring a design by Raleigh’s Clearscapes architecture firm. In 2009, the website Goodnight Raleigh wrote a history of the building and described the aluminum and decorative lighting that brought a sleek look to the cafe’s utilitarian terrazzo floors and exposed ductwork.
Part of the district’s renaissance
At the time Helios opened, a handful of bar and restaurant owners on Glenwood South were beginning to build a new nightlife scene, replacing an earlier generation of businesses and houses along the street. Glenwood South’s modern age began in 1996, when creditors forced Pine State Creamery from its huge, yellow-brick headquarters, which was redeveloped into restaurants, offices and apartments.
Since then, new restaurants, dance clubs and apartment high-rises have filled out the strip. Today, the chain Carolina Ale House is squeezing a $7.5 million, 37,000-square-foot restaurant a block north of Helios.
“I really feel that there’s a lot more competition down there – regardless if the restaurants fail or succeed,” said Jason Tran, chef and general manager for The Rockford, which stands across from Helios and dates to 1994.
The letter posted at the door of Helios said that the business “could continue into the future” but won’t.
“I know some people are disappointed about this,” said Medlin, a father of three who lives near Five Points. “I know it was popular, and I’m sorry I can’t help that – but it was my choice, my responsibility.”
Customers seeking refunds on gift cards should send the card, along with their name and a return address, to 413 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, NC 27608.
What could come next? Medlin plans to hold onto the building as an investment. He rents the second floor for offices, but he’s not ready to say what will become of the Helios space.
“I don’t even want to rent it right now. I don’t know if I ever want to rent it,” he said. “The next step is the next step.”
As the son of a Raleigh business owner – Medlin-Davis Cleaners was one of the first businesses to join Cameron Village in the 1940s – and a landowner himself, he says he plans to stay involved in Glenwood South.
It probably won’t be long before developers and business owners are eying the little building with the modern glass front.
“I’d like to see another local opportunity to get in there,” Tran said. “Maybe a little bit more retail, instead of restaurants. Bottle shops and bars, we have enough of them.”