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May 8, 2023

Searching for love and Soul

Soul Gastrolounge owner reflects on the closure of the iconic Plaza Midwood spot and what’s next

by Lesa Kastanas

Soul Gastrolounge on its final night on Central Avenue, Aug. 14, 2022. Ryan Allen / UP

From the front door of my little boutique on Central Avenue I look west toward the towers of Uptown. I don’t rest my gaze on the corner of Pecan and Central where our family business, Soul Gastrolounge, bustled for close to 15 years. The view is still painful after we lost our lease quite unexpectedly in July of last year.

The awnings have been stripped away and the sun is blinding. Naked and weirdly exposed, the patio was one of the only things we added to the building that we reluctantly left behind. A structural addition that couldn’t be packed up like the peacock, the Duy Huynh paintings, the iconic DJ booth, the familiar bar and the private booths that were built to hold six but often boisterously held eight or more.

At night this corner that used to pulse with life is eerily dark, dead – and well, Soul-less. Fifteen hundred Central is waiting on another life — and we’re waiting too.

While we wait, Charlotte vibrates with the kind of growth that makes finding a safe spot to land a business feel a lot like swiping right on Tinder. It’s terrifying, incredibly risky and we’ll need more than a little luck. A wrong turn now could affect how or even if we retire. When we fell in love with Soul, we refused to see the obvious warts and scars, the challenges, the endless compromises of being in a relationship with a historic second floor building in a tight urban landscape.

We only knew it felt exactly right and that we’d make it work. That youthful optimism is hard to claw back after the pandemic that devastated our industry and the break up with our landlord that left us stunned, angry and more than a little cynical. Can we find that feeling again?

It took exactly four months after our closing for the attraction to our first possibility to fizzle. It began with mutual admiration and excitement and ended with the landlord’s cold feet over the logistics of upfitting a space for food and beverage use amidst soaring construction costs. The brief hookup cost us precious time plus $10,000 in lawyer fees and delivered big rebound energy. Our hearts were still fragile.

Daunted but not devastated, the next swipe right felt a little less starry eyed, more polished and mature. We kept our emotions in check. But in the end, the limitations — historic designation constraints, proximity to residential housing and an existing and expensive upfit that favored office space over food and beverage — forced us to accept that we weren’t a practical match no matter the physical attraction. So we kept swiping.

While we’re searching and swiping, other businesses are doing the same. A few are homegrown and local, many more are regional and national. We’re all competing for the right fit in the right space in the right neighborhood. And that competition isn’t about feelings, it’s about big numbers, and those numbers aren’t just rent. Tenant improvement allowances, common area maintenance fees and property taxes have to be negotiated.

Did you know that it’s now common practice for landlords to ask for a percentage of a restaurant’s sales over a specified amount? Maybe this development is unsurprising for chain stores or even local restaurant groups with powerful financial backing, but for a mom-and-pop store like ours, this reality was a shock. These big numbers can mean the difference between thriving in a place we love and just settling for the one we can afford.

What becomes of a city with an ever widening circle of spaces in popular neighborhoods that small local business owners can’t hope to access? We lose these quirky and unique spots with community roots. We lose the very things we hold up as uniquely Charlotte.

Eight months have passed since we ended that 15-year relationship, and we’re about to swipe right for the fifth and final time. Mostly because we’re out of time and money, but also because we have real hope in this last match. Maybe because the big numbers weren’t as important to this landlord as the feelings he got when he visited while we were open. It was, he confided, the place he wanted to bring everyone visiting Charlotte for the first time. Of course other possible partners knew our business and were pleased at the prospect of Soul, but this one also offered the support and benefits that translate to success. That feels like a match.

And so the long wait is almost over and we’ll build it. All. Again. It won’t be the same Soul; how can it be? That first love flourished in a magical bubble of time and space that can never be exactly recreated and honestly, none of us are the same. But when our new doors finally swing open and we see those familiar faces elbow to elbow at the bar, blow a kiss to the DJ in the booth, hug a few necks and slide into a too full banquette, we’ll know we’re home.

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