Tate Street Changes: From Desolation Row to Pizzaville
The Tate Street Business District is 528 feet long, stretching from Sushi Republic near Walker Avenue, to where FedEx Office and Manhattan Deli and Subs share a building one lot away from Spring Garden. It also encompasses two establishments just around the corner on Walker, China Wok and Pedro’s Tacos. Within its boundaries are currently 21 operating businesses, including 11 restaurants, two coffeehouses (one of which has a full kitchen and one of which sells sandwiches) a cookie shop and a smoothie shop, with two more restaurants coming soon. As of this writing, there are eight closed store fronts in the district:
The former Subway at 407 Tate, owned by Family Properties of North Carolina. Subway closed here in January after 25 years, a victim of Tate Street’s plethora of sandwich shops and multiple Subways within a mile of its location, including several at UNCG that take the student PLEX card, which this location never did. This space is currently for lease.
The former Addams Bookstore and Leasing Office at 326 and 328 Tate Street, now owned by UNCG. 326 Tate, the largest commercial property on the strip, was Addams University Bookstore from 1985 until 2015. 328 Tate was a pool hall and bar for even longer (and on one memorable if illicit occasion, reopened in the wee hours to accommodate the visiting Nobel laureate, Seamus Heaney, because an Irish poet needs his 3 a.m. whiskey) before briefly being several clubs and a realty office. Both of these properties were recently bought by UNCG for the College of Visual and Performing Arts to use for theatre crafts. The loss of Addams is the rare Tate Street closing in several decades that can’t be blamed on bad management, pressure from the landlord to vacate the space for a higher-paying tenant, inadequate parking, or the area’s changing demographics; put simply, it was killed by the Internet.
The long untenanted property at 331 Tate, owned (like the buildings on either side) by Kotis Properties. For decades this narrow two-story space has just been a peeling doorframe and an expanse of weathered paint squeezed between Sushi Republic and New York Pizza. Last fall, a rumpled banner proclaimed it the site of a forthcoming Organix Juice Bar, but there’s been little apparent renovation.
The former laundromat and tanning salon at 948 Walker Avenue, owned by Kotis Properties. This space beside China Wok still has a University Laundry sign, but it’s not been that since 2010, when it closed and briefly became Ah-Som-Rays, only to succumb to the lack of parking (and of local interest in suntans). There’s been little apparent activity inside, and a “For Lease” banner hangs above it.
The former Taste Yogurt Bar at 344 Tate, owned by Burgess Management Group. Taste Yogurt Bar had one of its two now-closed locations here from the Fall of 2012 until December of 2015, but the corner of Tate and Walker is best remembered by locals as the site of The Corner, a soda fountain and sundries shop that opened in 1951 but by the time it closed sixty years had lost its fountain and was mostly selling greeting cards, wrapping paper, balloons and flowers.
The former Indian restaurants at 413 Tate, owned by Chapman Street Partners LLC. For over twenty years this was an Indian restaurant under several names and proprietors. In 2015, it became Café Mirchi, specializing in Pakistani cuisine, but last fall that owner changed it to Munchiez Wingz and Grill, saying in an interview with YES! Weekly that he was switching to food that college kids were more comfortable with. This apparently didn’t work and he sold it. Now renovations are going on behind papered windows, (day and night, according to the neighbors) to convert it to a new location for Sam’s Grill, a chain that specializes in subs, pizza and wings, foods which Tate Street already has in copious supply.
The former Thai restaurant at 425 Tate Street, owned by Kotis Properties. From the mid-nineties until December of 2015, this was the site of Thai Garden. A year before it closed, its most recent owner told me that the Chipotle that replaced the old convenience store had “eaten up” all his parking, and that if the situation didn’t improve, he might have to seek a new location. That apparently happened, and now Kotis has divided it back into two properties, as it had been in the early 90s. The smaller portion has already opened as a branch of Insomnia Cookies, a burgeoning chain that offers fresh-baked cookies for sale and delivery until 3 a.m. (it was doing a brisk business when I walked by there in its first week, with a line of students out the door). The larger portion is supposed to be Cottage Inn Gourmet Pizza, which like all of Kotis’ Tate Street tenants in the last few years, is part of a national or regional chain. If Sam’s Oven and Grill opens before Cottage Inn does, the latter will be the fifth establishment (and third Kotis property) selling pizza in the same 500-foot strip of sidewalk.
Eight out of Tate Street’s 27 storefronts being empty means that almost a third of the district’s commercial space is currently dark. One longtime area musician made a Dylan reference recently when he called this area Desolation Row.
Things look a bit brighter when one considers that three of those empty properties are supposed to have new tenants this year, and that two others will be university buildings filled with faculty members and students (the latter prospect not entirely reassuring in light of the longstanding rumor that UNCG wants to take over the entire district, which has been the word on the street since I was a student here in the 80s). But none of those businesses will be locally owned, and they will continue the pizza-and-subs homogenization of the district’s foodscape. Issues of culinary diversity aside, can a single block really support 13 restaurants, with seven of them offering some combination of subs and pizza?
Things aren’t entirely bleak. Although New York Pizza has had its troubles of late and was up for sale two years ago, that deal never went through, and it still operates where it has since 1979. Tate Street Coffee, the establishment with probably the closet claim to the loyalty that Hong Kong House once inspired (its charming staff making up for the fact that its now rarely seen owner was not as beloved as Amelia Leung), continues to prosper, and remains a huge improvement on Friar’s Cellar, which occupied that spot when I was in school and which my friends nicknamed “the Pastry Museum.” Sushi Republic continues to be Tate Street’s great 21st Century success story, breaking the “curse” of its anchor location where many restaurants had closed due to bad luck, unrealistic expectations, and what Anthony Bourdain calls Cokehead Ownership Syndrome, not to mention the legendary Biker Invasion of 1979-80. Don Ishiyaki and Ramen has found its niche, and gives us something unthinkable a couple of decades ago, two restaurants serving good Japanese and Korean cuisine within four hundred feet of each other. Sisters and Leon’s remain beloved institutions, and when she’s behind the register, College Mart’s Shilpa Shah inspires loyalty through the force of her friendly personality.
Let’s hope that something soon opens in the Taste and Subway locations, and that neither establishment is a chain or a restaurant.