by Scott Huler
photographs by Jimmy Williams
Greg Hatem believes in ghosts.
He doesn’t mean “Honey! Did you just feel that?” ghosts – though as it turns out he believes in those, too, having seen one in the old Carolina Trust building where he and his family now live. (His wife, Samantha, has also seen it, and so did two construction workers during its renovation; they all described a glowing white presence).
But that kind of ghost is beside the point. The kind of ghosts that drive 51-year-old Hatem – whose hyphen-intensive job description includes developer, restaurateur, and godfather of Raleigh’s downtown renaissance – are the living spirits of those who have come before.
His forebears who emigrated from Lebanon and sacrificed for a better life; the people who built and used and reused the downtown Raleigh buildings he has spent a career renovating; the pedestrians and residents and shopkeepers who constitute the great downtown of Raleigh’s past. Those spirits exist for Hatem in far more than metaphor.
Consider, for example, his grandmother (in Lebanese, his “Sitti”), for whom Hatem’s expansive downtown Lebanese restaurant is named. Photographs of her and other family members line the restaurant’s white north wall in black wooden frames. Hatem believes that the restaurant’s kibbeh, a kind of Lebanese steak tartare, is so close to that made by his Sitti that it has helped cement the restaurant’s central place in North Carolina’s surprisingly strong Lebanese community, and in Raleigh’s burgeoning downtown renaissance.
More important, he believes Sitti herself, though long dead, helped guide the restaurant’s fortunes in its earliest days. The story he tells illuminates every element of Hatem’s Raleigh history – and the philosophy that guides Empire Properties, the company that beginning in 1995 began renovating downtown Raleigh buildings and filling them not just with tenants but with stores and, above all, restaurants.
“We learned early on: We could put all the people you want in upstairs offices, but until you create an opportunity for them to be part of the greater community, you won’t be successful.” For Hatem, success isn’t the simple renovation of a building. It’s the revitalization of a community.
“So that’s why we went into the restaurant business. Food is what ties it all together,” he says. “It’s what brings the building back to life.” He grins at his own full-size, American-plan body. “I’m 300 pounds!” he laughs. “Of course I understand food.” Hatem is tall, and if that’s his real weight, he carries it well.
He explains all of this between pleasant interruptions as he’s constantly greeted by friends and patrons as he sits at one of the bar tables in Sitti. The restaurant occupies the ground floor of an 1870s building that was once the Heilig-Levine furniture store, and before that served as a hotel, a grocery, and a general store. The tin ceilings and hardwood floors could decorate almost any of the dozens of historic downtown Raleigh buildings Empire has renovated, but the Sitti space is defined by a long communal table down the restaurant’s center.
A communal table – that’s a clue to Hatem’s mentality right there. His restaurant is not just about food: it’s about eating together, like a community; like a family. “So much of who I am is because we sat down to dinner every night. That’s where you interacted.”
It’s just the first mention of a topic Hatem never lets go. In a long interview, every time Hatem faces a question about buildings and development, he gives an answer about community.
“Greg is a community builder,” says Dan Becker, longtime executive director of the Raleigh Historic District Commission and currently planning manager for the Long-Range Planning Division for the city of Raleigh. Community builder in more ways than one: Empire is now downtown’s fourth-largest employer, Hatem says.
About a community
Empire Properties got in on the very ground floor of downtown’s redevelopment in 1995, when Hatem, his brother, and a friend bought an old warehouse and turned it into the Jillian’s Billiard Club on South West Street. They created a profitable property, but more importantly, they lit a spark that helped Raleigh’s long-dormant Warehouse District stir to life.
From the beginning, Hatem says he was looking for more than profits from Empire, which now owns and has renovated 42-odd buildings (even Hatem doesn’t claim to know the exact number). He was looking to revitalize Raleigh. “When we started doing this work, it wasn’t about a building,” he says. “It was about a community.” The people in the restaurants, the tenants of the buildings. The ghost in the room.
Which brings us back to his grandmother. When Sitti (the restaurant) was preparing to open in 2008, Hatem wrestled with the chef about heavy-handed spicing, which is not right for the traditional Lebanese food Hatem envisioned. “It’s just a bunch of fresh ingredients,” he says of kibbeh, made mostly of raw lamb, onion, and bulghur wheat. “It’s seasoned more with ingredients than with spices.” The chef wasn’t getting it. “It wasn’t what we wanted to bring to Raleigh,” Hatem says. “It wasn’t like Sitti’s food.” The restaurant was scheduled to open in mere weeks.
So Hatem fired the chef. “I’d rather never open the restaurant than open it the wrong way.”
He called his partner, Sam Saleh of the Saleh family who owns Neomonde, Raleigh’s landmark Lebanese bakery and cafe. “I said, ‘Sam, I just fired the chef.’ He said, ‘OK.’ ”
Ghostly influences being what they were, another chef the pair coveted had reached out to Saleh only the day before. Hatem asked this man one question: “I said, ‘How do you make kibbeh?’” The chef launched into the topic. By the time the conversation ended, Hatem said, “ ‘You’re hired.’ I didn’t even taste his food. I knew from that conversation that he would cook it like she did.”
He offers an open smile. “My Sitti had been gone for 10 years – but there was no way she was going to let us open that restaurant until we had the right guy.”
Whether through Sitti’s help or not, her namesake has received glowing reviews since its opening. So have most of the other restaurants – The Pit, The Raleigh Times, The Morning Times, the Duck and Dumpling – opened by Empire. The Pit, in particular, has a renown beyond Raleigh: Katie Couric tweeted July 18 from RDU her regret that she “couldn’t make it to @thepitbbq while in Raleigh”; and when former Talking Heads front man David Byrne was in town in 2008, he asked directions to The Raleigh Times.
While Hatem understandably points out the centrality of food to his work, it is his portfolio of renovated buildings that has gathered most of the attention. Empire has won seven Sir Walter Raleigh Awards for Community Appearance from the city of Raleigh, the L. Vincent Lowe Jr. Business Award from the Historic Preservation Foundation of North Carolina, four Anthemion Awards from Capital Area Preservation, and awards and attention too voluminous to list from everyone from the Design Guild of the NCSU College of Design to the New York Times.
Hatem has got more than accolades from the press. News & Observer reporter Samantha Thompson Smith, who had spoken to him many times as a source, profiled him as a Tar Heel of the Week in 2004. “He had a quirkiness to him and a passion that was real,” she says in the dining room of the condo in the renovated downtown building she now shares with the guy who charmed her by wearing flip-flops and shorts around the office. “He wasn’t like some of the slick [developers] I had met. He really wanted to see the community succeed, not just Greg Hatem.”
It has become a mutual effort. Their 2008 wedding took place in a downtown church Hatem renovated and moved to a new location, and today the couple has two children who draw chalk pictures on the condo’s deck overlooking the roofs of Fayetteville and Salisbury streets.
Samantha Hatem says Greg’s focus on community and giving back comes from the combination of his Lebanese family and his small-town North Carolina upbringing in Roanoke Rapids. “Growing up in a small community, you can’t be out for number one – you have to do everything you can for the community,” she says. She discovered early in their courtship that there was no difference between professional and personal Greg. “We’d go out and he’d see 10 people he’d know, and I’d have to sit there,” she says. “I learned early on to bring a book with me.”
And to get out of her comfort zone. She points to details of their unique renovated condo, which has gated antique stairways and a door with a pebbled glass window that still says “H.A. Underwood Co., Architects & Engineers,” and a little hand pointing one door down to the entrance.
When you get historic preservation tax incentives, you have to leave a lot of stuff alone. She loves it and has learned to trust his foresight. “I don’t see like he does,” she says.
When Hatem first walked her through the Carolina Trust building she now calls home, the mothballed offices and neglected rooms elicited pained smiles. “It was horrible. And now it became this place that is our beautiful home.”
In at the deep end
Samantha Hatem points to the death of Greg’s father when Greg was a senior at N.C. State University as the central shaping event of his life.
Putting aside his plans to pursue a career as a photographer, Greg returned to Roanoke Rapids and spent a decade helping his family, running his father’s retail clothing business, and keeping things together. “That could have been ‘Woe is me,’ ” Samantha Hatem says. “Instead, he took all that business experience and said, ‘How do I take these wonderful skills I have of being able to look at something and see something beautiful and use it in business?’”
The road from Roanoke Rapids to Raleigh took a turn through China, where Hatem’s uncle was a physician working for Chairman Mao Zedong to institute health reforms that Hatem says probably saved millions of lives. “Greg was able to say, ‘Wow, one person can make a difference in this world,’” Samantha Hatem says. “With that whole family, it’s not just about number one, it’s about giving back and giving to others.” The Chinese experience led back to Raleigh.
“Quite honestly, I felt there was more opportunity in Raleigh than there was in China,” Hatem says, citing China’s pollution and language and cultural barriers.
After working at the North Carolina Department of Commerce to encourage international trade, he stuck his toe in the renovation water with the Jillian’s project, and then a couple more. “I realized I would have more impact working with renovation.” He left Commerce in 2000. “That’s when it stopped being the hobby and started being the mission.”
Hatem believes Raleigh’s slowness to embrace historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and downtown redevelopment until that point was a blessing in disguise: “I don’t know that we could ever have done this any place else. So many buildings – because nobody wanted them. I’m not going to tell you I had this grand vision. I just had glimpses. I was too stupid to know better. I grew up in a small town. All you had was the downtown.”
Dan Becker of city’s Long-Range Planning Division says Hatem’s efforts came at the right time.
“I think a lot of citizens worked a lot of years to set the table for someone like Greg to come along,” he says. But where other developers “put very little skin in [their] projects,” Hatem went all-in, and with a vision to boot. “That is mission-driven – recognizing how much people emotionally love and relate to these existing buildings. It’s not the ‘easy’ button, but there’s a certain person who just connects with that real place.”
Andrew Stewart works most closely with Hatem in his office. With a background in city planning, he can speak the language of the people who work in city back offices, but mission is something he and Hatem discuss a lot. “Many of our conversations won’t be about the specific task at hand. It will be about why we are doing the specific task at hand.
As an example he cites the retail space on East Hargett Street now occupied by the Cimos art and gift shop. “We had that space empty for five years because we were looking for the right tenant to go in there.” Bail bondsman? Offices? Sorry. “From the outside it’s easy to say … are they asking too much? Why can’t they lease that space? From the inside, we’re picky. After Stitch, the purse shop, was in place, and the restaurants, we set out to have a retail presence in there. Five years later it was one of the options that came available.”
Revitalization the goal
Hatem points out that in the early 1900s, with a population of less than 20,000, Raleigh supported a thriving downtown with department stores, restaurants, and living spaces. Sure, there wasn’t any competition from suburbs or malls then, but with twenty-plus times the population today, he’s sure downtown will thrive again. Hatem believes these old buildings speak to people, and he sees his job as helping that communication. He’s trying to get to a kind of human reality downtown, and he never stops seeking it. As Becker says, “It’s good for the city, it’s good for Greg, and good for all the people who live here. That’s the trifecta.”
Hatem makes the same point: “If it doesn’t have truth or authenticity,” he says of any project he undertakes, “it won’t work. You can’t trick people. We try to do our buildings and start our businesses in the buildings to last long after we’re gone.” He tries to take the long view, just like the family members who sacrificed for him long before he was born.
“And they’re still here,” he says, looking around – around Sitti and around the city, seeing the ghosts of his grandmother, of the Raleighites of long ago. “If you think they’re not, you’re kidding yourself.”
Well, maybe not still here. Maybe here again. And nobody knows better than the man behind the renovation – the revitalization – of much of downtown Raleigh: when a building comes back to life, a community comes back to life. It’s like making magic, like planting a tree.
It’s like seeing a ghost.