(This is part 2 of a series of posts about Coquette, the new brasserie opening in Raleigh this fall.)
Stacey and Kevin Jennings saw an opportunity when the old Restaurant Savannah in Raleigh’s North Hills had gone under. With three successful restaurants in the area, the Jennings’ Urban Food Group decided to add one more, this being a Southern-accented restaurant — so Southern that they named it “South.” The Jennings sunk over a quarter million dollars into South, hoping they could succeed where the owners of Savannah could not. Despite their best efforts, however, South never took off. It made money, but it became apparent that it would never be sufficiently profitable to keep it going.
“We learned that for the most part, Southern restaurants are most successful in tourist towns,” Kevin Jennings told me the other day. He agreed with me that they work in university towns, too. Raleigh, not known as a major tourist destination, didn’t embrace the concept.
The Jennings didn’t want to close South, as their $250,000 investment would be lost, but they realized they had to make a change. “We always wanted to do a French brasserie, and this presented a good opportunity.” But there were some problems. Urban Food Group had assumed the Savannah lease, and the Jennings had to work with Kane Realty, the owner and developer of North Hills, before they could even think of closing South. “Mr. Kane really worked with us. He supported us and wanted us to maintain a presence in North HIlls.” Kane Realty provided Urban Food Group with a $100,000 upfitting allowance, but that was nowhere near enough to do what the Jennings wanted. They wanted the place to have the full brasserie feel, with tinned ceilings, bistro mirrors, and black and white-tiled floors. They thought it would take $600,000 to get the space just the way they wanted. It now looks like it will be a lot closer to a million dollars, and they aren’t even making changes to the kitchen.
Armed with a Small Business Administration-backed loan from BB&T, the support of Kane Realty, and additional assistance from family members, Kevin and Stacey Jennings closed South on June 7 and started gutting it a couple days later. And I mean a complete gutting.
Nothing from South/Savannah has remained except for the kitchen. The new restaurant will feature a huge bar near the entrance, where you can get a beer, a glass of wine or a plate of oysters. The dining room will be much more open. The traffic will flow much more efficiently. “Savannah’s was laid out horribly,” Kevin Jennings said. “Groups using the private dining room had to weave their way back through the main dining room. Waitstaff and guests using the bathrooms all shared the same narrow corridor. We needed to open it up and make it more efficient.”
The interior of the restaurant is still in its early stages of construction. HVAC ducts are in place, as is the wiring. The lay-out of the bar is readily apparent. You can see the beginnings of a restaurant, but you really have to use your imagination. As is the case with most construction, the space won’t really come together until the last couple of weeks. With a targeted opening of late October to early November, that’s not far away. And as the construction workers continue to pound and cut and build, the Urban Food Group works in the background, focusing on operational issues.