Near the corner of Jefferson Street and Fourth Avenue North, amid Nashville’s booming Germantown and just a block from First Tennessee Park, sit two soon-to-open restaurants whose journey underscores the occasionally herculean effort required to bring restaurants from concept to reality in Music City’s white-hot food scene.
They are Lulu and Geist, the latest restaurants from Miranda Whitcomb Pontes, a restaurateur who made her name founding Frothy Monkey and Burger Up, among other Nashville hotspots. With Lulu set to open this month and Geist “probably three months out,” Pontes is emerging from the lengthy permitting process, construction delays and other bumps in the road that restaurateurs throughout Nashville encounter amid the city’s boom.
It’s just “the nature of Nashville,” right now, Pontes said. In addition to the standard challenges (like the time it takes to schedule inspections), the historic building housing Geist brought with it additional requirements of preservation, she said, which helps explain the multi-year lag between the lease getting signed and its eventual opening.
As for Lulu, on top of the traditional delays, Pontes has made several changes to the concept since she confirmed plans for the spot in September 2015. Initially envisioned as a full-service restaurant, Lulu will instead embrace a fast-casual model. Pontes just recently decided to change things up in yet another way, moving food preparation from the back of the house to the area behind the bar, in full view of patrons.
“I was uncomfortable for a while because I get really emotionally attached to the concept … which is a terrible thing to be in business,” Pontes said of the decision to rearrange things. “Now I see, even though [the layout change] probably put us more weeks behind and more over budget, it’s really healthy for the long-term, for success.”
Both the rejiggered restaurant design — something the restaurateur hopes will embody “the energy” she wants the fresh-focused eatery to have — and the shift from full-service to fast-casual came at the advice of peers and mentors whose opinion she trusts, Pontes said.
Dropping the full-service model was a hard choice, she said, because she wanted to ensure the restaurant offered a spirit of hospitality that doesn’t end once the customer swipes a credit card. At the same time, she knows people want to have the speed and convenience that format can provide. Her goal? Be sure to marry the two.
“I’m willing to entertain the fast casual, if you can guarantee that we’re going to have enhanced hospitality until they walk out the door,” Pontes said. “It’s going to feel like a full-service restaurant after you swipe your card, or I’m not interested.”
Eleanor Kennedy covers Music City’s tourism, hospitality and music business industries.