by Ann Brooke Raynal
illustrations by Laura Frankstone
Admit it. We’ve all done it. Driven to Krispy Kreme Doughnuts on the corner of Peace and Person streets in our pajamas to pick up a dozen hot, glazed doughnuts. But these days, if you round the corner onto Person, you might want some street clothes first. With an influx of new businesses, lots of pedestrian traffic, and plans in the works to make the area even more foot friendly, North Person Street is hopping. A recent article in USA Today named the area one of the nation’s coolest up-and-coming neighborhoods. It’s all happened in just a few years.
As late as the 1950s and 1960s, North Person Street was a little town unto itself, with gas stations, a bank, a grocery store, and a pharmacy (happily still there). A resident of Mordecai or Oakwood could get the stuff of life done on foot. But by the 1970s, Person Street had become merely a one-way conduit for commuters to exit the city for the suburbs as quickly as possible. Cars whizzed past vacant storefronts.
Over the last 10 years, however, as downtown Raleigh has been reborn, and people once again want to live, work, eat and play close to the city center, the Person Street corridor has also come back to life. Folks who live nearby can now eat, drink, and shop locally. A lot of the new businesses are just months old.
“It’s just amazing to be a part of the synergy that’s happening around Person,” says Mordecai resident Philip Bernard, who formed the Person Street Partnership, a group of business owners and civic leaders fostering the positive development of the area. As phase one of a three-phase facelift funded by bond referendum, Person Street will be re-striped to include bike lanes on either side, and restored to two-way traffic between Delway and Peace. “Two-way streets slow cars down and promote pedestrian and bike traffic,” Bernard says.
One of the most hotly anticipated new businesses to join the group is Standard Foods. When Umstead chef Scott Crawford announced plans to partner with John Holmes of Hobby Properties to open the restaurant/grocery store in Person Street Plaza, the neighborhood got more than a five-star stamp of approval; it caught the attention of food lovers all over the region. Crawford’s fine-dining expertise is expected to elevate the neighborhood grocery and restaurant he plans to open in the fall into something special.
But you’d be missing out on a lot if you waited for Crawford to open his doors before making a visit. Walter took a stroll through the neighborhood to meet the people and businesses making this the place to be.
Vine-to-table at Wine Authorities
“Ninety-five percent of the wine most people buy is actually produced by eight corporations,” says Craig Heffley, owner of Wine Authorities. Heffley’s mission is to bypass the corporate stranglehold over wine distribution by working only with independent, family-owned wineries. Wine Authorities carries “only” 500 different wines, carefully chosen by Heffley himself. “I’d rather not have to make any compromises on quality. And I wanted to be able to tell the story behind the wines we carry.”
Heffley opened his second Wine Authorities shop at 211 E. Franklin St. (right off Person) last December. His first store opened in Durham in 2009. Heffley chose Raleigh instead of Chapel Hill for his second shop “because there was greater need. Not that we need more wine stores…Just that the farm-to-table movement is making its way from west to east across the Triangle.” He’d had had his eye on the Person Street corridor for some time. “This is a neighborhood with great possibilities. I saw the sign a year and a half ago and called immediately.” Heffley learned a valuable lesson from opening the Durham store, which helped him in choosing the right location: “I had no idea how excited people were to be able to walk!”
Large painted murals provide colorful illustrations of the countries and continents from which Heffley’s wine originates. Heffley has spent years developing relationships with wine makers all over the world. Detailed descriptions of wines and pictures of growers line the shelves. During a recent wine tasting (free on Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m.) Heffley used a laser pointer to highlight the Alsace region of France. He delivered a brief history lesson of the area, a description of the climate and soil, and a taste of five different wines (in this case, Rieslings) at various price points, all delicious.
Heffley knows that many people buy wine in the grocery store because they feel intimidated. Everything at Wine Authorities is designed to remove the intimidation factor, from the homey sitting area to lighthearted tasting parties, to a website on which customers can log in to look up past purchases. The store is equipped with an “Enomatic,” a wine-dispensing machine from which customers can choose a one-ounce taste or a half or full glass sample. The machine makes an entertaining adventure of choosing wines. And a selection of locally made cheeses, crackers and cured meats makes impromptu parties possible.
Wine Authorities carries nothing that costs more than $50, and most wines are priced at less than $15. To help customers (and to combat the “cheap wine” stigma) Heffley has labeled wines as “daily” (less than $12), “weekly” ($12-$19.99), and “monthly” ($20-$49.99). “People don’t have to feel bad for wanting a less expensive bottle for Tuesday night. My job is to provide them with the best taste for the money,” he says.
The Yellow Dog Bread Company: Living the Dream
Tanya and Matt Andrews, owners of the Yellow Dog Bread Company, live in North Raleigh. But sometimes the young couple drives around Mordecai, looking at houses and day-dreaming about moving closer to their business and their friends. One day they picked up a house flyer with a glowing description of amenities. “Walking distance to Yellow Dog” was on the list. “We knew we had made it,” says Tanya Andrews.
The path to owning their own business was not smooth, but the couple never wavered. They apprenticed themselves to another baking couple for three years and learned the business inside and out. When funding for their dream proved scarce, they returned to their day jobs, renting out their Raleigh house and living in Matt’s grandmother’s old farmhouse to save money. But they never lost sight of the goal: to open a neighborhood bakery.
Yellow Dog opened Sept. 9 and quickly achieved a neighborhood following. “We want to feed people delicious food,” Tanya Andrews says. “We want to be part of this community.” Business is brisk in the morning as locals walk or ride in for a coffee and pastry or croissants. In the afternoon, people pick up loaves for dinner. “One family sends their kids over on bikes to pick up dinner bread. I live for moments like these: being able to watch kids grow up. Becoming a part of people’s lives,” says Tanya. “And getting to love on them,” she adds. “We wake up every day and realize that we are living our dream.”
She says her neighboring businesses have been just as welcoming. “The boys at the bike shop and the folks at Person Street Bar have just been such gracious and generous neighbors.” And Yellow Dog is generous in turn. Leftovers from the day’s baking are donated to Urban Ministries, Love Wins and other hunger-relief agencies.
So what about that little house in Mordecai? “I guess we’ve got to make a little more dough!” Tanya laughs.
The Dish on Pie Bird
When Sheilagh Duncan saw the “for rent” sign on the building she’d had her eye on, she camped out at the realty company. “I couldn’t get an answer about the price, but I brought my checkbook, and I wasn’t leaving.” Now Duncan’s white sedan is parked out front. The personalized license plate advertises her restaurant: “Pie Bird.”
Duncan, who had been making pies for friends and neighbors, opened Pie Bird in 2010 to rave reviews and full tables. But it wasn’t clear that the rest of Person Street would follow suit. The street was empty of pedestrians, and several other buildings sat vacant nearby. “The day I opened, the take-out place (Rosie’s Plate) closed,” Duncan says. “I held my breath and waited. When we first opened, people would come for dinner, but they weren’t walking around. Now I see people walking up and down Person. It’s a destination. It’s a party!”
A self-described “urbanite,” Duncan is proud of Pie Bird’s role in the revitalization of Person Street. Others are quick to give her credit. “She was definitely an urban pioneer,” says Philip Bernard. “She was the first with a vision of what this area could be,” echoes Rodney Marsh. In addition to neighborhood regulars, supper clubs and book clubs, Pie Bird serves an over-40 twirling team called the “Awesomettes” once a month.
Those awesome twirlers and others love Pie Bird’s variety of seasonal sweet and savory pies. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday, and Sunday brunch. This past winter’s polar vortex was no match for the cozy conversation pit and fireplace in the back. “It’s comfort food,” Duncan says. Popular pies include that old Southern staple, the tomato pie, and on the sweet side, the honey and sea salt pie claims a devoted following. Duncan’s fruit pies are a consistent favorite as well. Duncan heads out to the farmers market almost daily. “I’ve touched all the apples that go into my pies. I see people enjoying my food. Nothing makes me happier.”
Making music at Marsh Woodwinds
Rodney Marsh had to be cajoled into an interview. He’d rather spend his time listening to one of the hundreds of vinyl records lining the wall of his eclectic shop while he coaxes broken instruments back to life. Marsh Woodwinds sells new instruments, repairs old ones, provides teaching space for woodwind lessons, and performance space for local bands.
“We moved here when the place was fairly derelict. There was nothing on the other side of Franklin Street. It was just vacant.” Marsh says not even the building he rents had been renovated when he moved from Hillsborough Street in 2006. “The roof has caved in and the air conditioner goes off and on again.” Though Marsh is pleased with the progress of the Person Street corridor, he worries about some of the older shops getting priced out of the area.
His specialty business is largely immune to the comings and goings of urban hipsters. “This will be my last shop,” he says dramatically, sweeping an arm to indicate the 7,200 square feet chock full of instruments, posters, records, and knick-knacks. “When this is over, I’m out!” he declares. A flicker of a smile from one of his staff is the only hint that Marsh is more bark than bite.
A tour of the building reveals the performance area upstairs. “Acoustically, a really decent space,” says Marsh. He describes having local bands play and sometimes even record live music. Marsh provides the drinks and snacks himself, “not really coming out even.” But it’s clear that he loves it. And that he’s staying put.
Feeling like Family at The Pharmacy
After her morning delivery, Ruby Bullock sticks around Person Street Pharmacy to play “Uno” with the usual crowd at a sunny table near the entrance. Bullock is 99 years old and has been selling homemade cakes to the pharmacy for more than 20 years. She’s just a couple of years younger than the establishment itself. Founded in 1910 at 702 N. Person St. (outside the city limits at that time), the pharmacy moved around the block a couple of times before returning to its original location.
Mike James bought the pharmacy in 1976 and is proud to run Raleigh’s only pharmacy with a full-service soda fountain. Oilcloth café tables and a 10-cent popcorn machine that dates back to 1945 give the business a homey ’50s vibe. The soda fountain attracts regulars, from Hugh Morson High School alumni who gather once a month, to grandparents and grandchildren with a Monday Milkshake habit. “It’s like Mayberry,” says customer Charles Baker. “Everyone is so polite!” Pam Wheeler, who has worked behind the counter for 27 years, concurs: “I know everybody here. And we’re all like family. I hope that never changes.”
Mike James doesn’t see any need to change business practices. This spring Person Street Pharmacy was named “Retailer of the Year” by the N.C. Retail Merchants Association. “People still like service and personal attention. We pride ourselves on going ‘beyond the call of duty,’ ” he says.
James is thrilled by the revitalization of Person Street and tickled when new customers “discover” the business that’s been here all along. “I’ve seen three and four generations of customers come through these doors. They keep coming back because they have a relationship with us. They know we are going to take care of them.” Some things have changed, though. “I’m on the Internet!” Ruby Bullock notes proudly.
Staying Power: Custom Engraving and Trophy
Janet Thorp knows everybody on Person Street. She gives Ruby Bullock a ride to Person Street Pharmacy every morning and greets longtime friends before heading over to the business her 86-year-old father, Bernie Allman, opened here 35 years ago.
Back then, engraving machines were operated by hand, and Thorp remembers bumping the machine against her pregnant belly. In the early 1980s, Thorp walked past homeless people and abandoned buildings on her way to open up shop in the mornings. “It was a no man’s land,” she says.
Thorp’s children have grown up; computers have reduced the need for manual labor; and Person Street has changed dramatically, but the shop still produces plaques, trophies, and awards. “This business is something that people will always want. People need to be recognized for their achievements, for doing great work. It’s a timeless business. Or should be.”
Bernie Allman’s first shop was located in Five Points, but when rents went up sharply, he vowed to move his business and to own his next building. He bought the building next door as well, and a new business is going in soon. Brown paper covers the windows, revealing nothing. And Thorp won’t say what that new business will be – a tequila bar, if rumors can be trusted – only this: “It’s going to be great!”
The Station: All Aboard
“The Station opened up and…BOOM!,” says Philip Bernard, who heads over on Monday nights for five-buck burgers. The pub opened in fall 2013 and continues to draw huge crowds. “It’s a mob scene,” says Rodney Marsh. And it’s not just neighborhood folks lining the sidewalks. The Station seems to be drawing from all over Raleigh. “It’s definitely a different crowd than just Oakwood and Mordecai,” says architect Matt Griffith.
Owner Niall Hanley knows something about the restaurant business. The entrepreneur also owns several other successful Raleigh restaurants including Solas, Dos Taquitos Xoco, and the Hibernian. The Station’s name is a nod to the gas station that used to occupy the space, and the architectural features are deliberately oversized and muscular. The pub specializes in locally grown American food and craft beers. The beer menu, which features a large selection of local brews, changes monthly according to demand. Fire pits on the large patio makes the Station cozy three seasons a year, and roughly half the space is outdoors. “If there’s one thing Raleighites love to do, it’s eat outdoors!” says Griffith, who has hopped across the street several times for lunch.