Out of Nashville's downtown, family-owned restaurants try to find their niche

Posted at 5:44 PM, Feb 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-14 11:29:44-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Downtown Nashville’s restaurant scene is booming. It’s also very competitive.

The eateries that survived COVID-19 are back open and trying to get back on track. All while new restaurants plan to launch in 2023 downtown — an estimated 30 according to the Nashville Convention and Visitors Corp. That’s prompting many to wonder whether downtown’s restaurant market getting too saturated.

So some locally-owned spots are taking a different approach to survival: relocation.

That includes Keith Zust — co-owner of Sea Salt. The French-inspired seafood restaurant opened along busy 3rd Avenue in 2017 and business was great.

"Yeah, we were having our best year ever," Zust says.

But that was before COVID-19. In early 2020, downtown Nashville shut down. Sea Salt's doors were closed for a full year.

"For small guys like us? It's a lot to handle," Zust says.

But even before the pandemic, Zust and co-owner Mike Haggerty struggled with other issues, issues that many downtown businesses face.

Zust outlined a number of challenges.

"Think security, think taking out your trash, right? That went up. Rent went up. Parking, right?"

Parking was perhaps the biggest trouble spot.

"That first year and a half, people came into our restaurant angry. Because they had to park across the street and it was $31 for two hours or whatever. That price kept going up, too,” Zust says.

So the owners had to figure out first: how to survive the pandemic. Second: how to overcome all the other downtown issues.

"How do we make the best decision for the business, pivot as quickly as possible, regroup, and then let's figure it out," Zust says.

The answer? Hendersonville. Zust lives in the growing community north of Nashville, so the relocation made sense.

"It was ok we try to go out to eat here all the time, here's what we would want. How do we shift even our concept a little bit to fit more into the suburban family."

And the new Sea Salt was born, nestled in a retail strip along Indian Lake Boulevard. It didn't take long for locals to pack the place.

"It's really exciting for us because not only are we moving the landscape of culinary with some of our fellow small restaurants up here and expanding horizons of what can be culinary up here in the northern suburbs, but we're also learning from the customer," Zust says.

Not far away, Jon and Lindsay Yeager just opened "Edit" in the Streets of Indian Lake retail center.

"Our kinda sticker tagline is a French Polynesian-inspired cafe and cocktail bar," Jon Yeager said.

The Yeagers have also been in the restaurant business for years — consulting, writing, and -- even appearing on national television.

If they look familiar, that's because they've been frequent guests on The Kelly Clarkson Show.

"Edit" is their first venture into an actual brick-and-mortar business. They, too, could have chosen downtown Nashville.

"Y'know downtown, all the clutter, you got 40 great restaurants right next to each other, so you really gotta like go to town on your specials and stuff. Up here, I mean there is just nothing anywhere close to this concept. So word gets out 'Oh great cocktails? Cool, we'll be there,” Jon says.

They, too, live in Hendersonville.

"So we've lived in Hendersonville for five years, and just in those five years, recognizing the immense need that this community has, and the sentiment is 100% the same," Jon says.

What is that need?

Jon’s answer: "For things that are local, boutique, artisan, something non-chain."

So far, they say the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Hendersonville was so supportive, they were really ready for a concept like this," Lindsay Yeager said.

It's a concept that is welcome news for those who live in communities outside of downtown Nashville. From Franklin to Murfreesboro, Mt Juliet to Bellevue. More choices from locally-owned eateries, not just chain restaurants.

And in Hendersonville — Sea Salt, Edit, Rosie Food and Wine and others — realize it's more of a community, instead of a competition.

"All ships rise with the tide, y'know? It's like again, we live here, and the sentiment, unanimously is just Hendersonville could be cooler," Yeager said.

Down the street, Keith Zust agrees.

"Now we're a hip place that you want to come to? It's pretty cool, pretty cool to be a part of," Zust said.

It’s a trend that’s likely to continue, as downtown’s restaurant scene keeps booming. The Nashville Downtown Partnership said 279 restaurants opened downtown from 2015 to 2022.

That’s good news for food lovers who live outside downtown — as more new eateries change their “geographic” menu – and open their doors somewhere in the suburbs.

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