Four years ago, when realtor Drew Parker, sports marketing executive Rion Smith, and contractor Ray Foral first took a good look at the 1940s-era brick warehouses that stood neglected on Welborn Street in West Greenville, it must have required near superhuman vision to see the crumbling structures as a vibrant community gathering spot. Snakes and other critters populated the long-abandoned row of buildings, but that didn’t stop the three friends from dreaming that these warehouses could be someplace special.
They loved the location—the future setting of Unity Park—along the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail, where they run together on a regular basis. “The original concept was a community hub where we could house our businesses [The Parker Group, Outdoor Sports Marketing, and Ridgeline Construction Group] with other like-minded businesses and have a great place to gather, work, and play,” Parker explains. “But we had no crystalized plan of what that would look like.”
The renovation has unfolded in phases. Completed in 2017, Phase 1 welcomed six local businesses, while Phase 2 includes a new office section plus a soon-to-open food market with five diverse purveyors. And there are plans for a third phase, which would revitalize the remaining structures on the property. Careful to keep the good bones of the vintage warehouses, the partners preserved the wood ceilings and joists, and the brick walls—albeit with jagged cracks coursing down them like bolts of lightning. “We want to breathe life into [these old buildings], but we don’t want to change things so much that you don’t recognize them,” insists Parker. “[The Commons] is rough around the edges, but it’s perfect to us.”
GROWN IN GREENVILLE //
From the beginning, Parker and his partners knew they wanted to fill The Commons with established Greenville brands. “For the food purveyors, we wanted folks who were committed to community, committed to fresh food, and to a great customer experience.” While tenants have come and gone over the past four years, the final group that the trio has assembled are what Parker considers “five of the best food-and-beverage-related brands homegrown in Greenville.” They are arranged around the periphery of the market space, with common seating in the middle.
The first to sign up four and a half years ago were Ed Buffington and Mike Okupinski from The Community Tap, who are friends with Drew, Ray, and Rion. “I was out running with my dog one day, and Rion literally blocked the street with his car as he was driving along and saw me,” Ed recalls. “He asked me, ‘Remember how you said you’d never do another project unless you could have some ownership in it? Well, I have this thing I want to talk to you about.’”
An avid cyclist, Buffington had noticed the warehouses in question while biking on the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail. “I’d [ride past] this string of rundown warehouses and I remember thinking, ‘That could be something really cool.’” At the time, however, it didn’t occur to him that he and Mike could be the ones to make that happen. So when Rion approached them, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. “This was a chance to expand and build equity in something, versus just paying someone else’s lease,” says Buffington of their arrangement to be minority share owners in the 20,000 square feet dedicated to food and beverage.
Like their original store, established nine years ago in Stone’s Point, The Community Tap’s new location will incorporate bar seating as well as a retail component. The space will have a similar feel to their flagship, but with a more polished design that includes additional counter seating. “Not only are we replicating our product mix,” Buffington adds, “but we’re also replicating our welcoming culture.”
Another tenant who has hung in from the project’s early days is Wade Taylor, owner of Bake Room. Taylor, who moved to Greenville four years ago from Jackson, Wyoming, set up his baking facility in the Village of West Greenville. Without a retail storefront, he has largely relied on selling his wildly popular bread and laminated pastries at the TD Saturday Market.
It has always been his plan to open a retail shop, so when he learned that The Commons was looking for a baker, he quickly signed on. “The Commons is a good next step,” Taylor believes. “To have anchor tenants around me who have all established great businesses will help me bring in new customers.”
Although moving his bread-baking operations to The Commons presents a challenge—his German deck oven and Swedish rack oven have to be taken apart and reassembled behind a glass wall in the back of his space—the new digs will give the baker a chance to diversify his repertoire. He plans to add bread on a rotational basis and do more whole-grain loaves, as well as expand the pastry menu to include hand pies, cookies, scones, and seasonal baked goods. “There’s also a possibility of having a grab-and-go sandwich, and on weekends, we’d like to add a Roman-style square pizza,” Taylor shares. “I’m looking forward to having a space that gives us the ability to do things at our own whim.”
Bake Room’s placement next to Methodical Coffee is nothing if not strategic. After all, what goes better with croissants than coffee? Although Methodical had just opened their satellite a few doors down from The Community Tap in Stone’s Point when owners David Baker, Will Shurtz, and Marco Suarez heard about The Commons, the idea didn’t perk for long. “The Commons met our need for a commercial kitchen and a public-facing roasting facility in one place,” explains Suarez, who handles Methodical’s marketing. “It just checked all the boxes.”
Taking its inspiration from Italy, the design of the new café embraces old-world-style tile and light fixtures, with big eye-catching arches carved into the wall behind the bar. Customers will be able to view the roasting operations through a glass wall. Offerings besides coffee—ice cream, bottled drinks, and iced beverages—will cater to clientele coming off the trail. “We see our locations as siblings,” Suarez explains. “There are things that are identical to all of them, but each has its own identity.”
The biggest difference will manifest itself in the menu of locally sourced, made-to-order food items that Chef Sydney Taylor is developing for breakfast and lunch. On the breakfast menu, a sausage and veggie bowl, croque madame, and a soft scrambled egg with smoked salmon on rye will provide neighbors with hot, healthy, morning meal options. “We talk a lot about how we can serve this community” Marco adds. “We don’t want to be an island.”
CURATED RESTURANT CONCEPTS //
Tacos are bread and butter for Atlanta native Nick Thomas, who moved to Greenville with his wife, Chrissy, six years ago. After working in the now-shuttered American Grocery for a year, Nick and Chrissy launched their food truck, Automatic Taco in 2015. They had considered several opportunities to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in downtown Greenville before The Commons’ founders approached them. “It was the people behind this project that set it apart,” maintains Thomas. “I’m a big believer that good people make a good project.”
Recognizing the potential of the “really cool space on the trail,” Nick and Chrissy have decked out their sleek spot with contemporary light fixtures, shiplap and white subway tile, counter service and its own seating. “The Commons provides us with a unique opportunity to serve our customer base in an atmosphere that is completely one of a kind,” Thomas says. “There is no other destination in Greenville that can boast five Greenville-originated businesses under one roof. And all the tenants here are joined in the same obsessive ambition of quality.”
Thomas lets his passion for Latin and Mexican cuisines and local ingredients guide him to find inspiration for tacos in everything from a Thai cookbook to a dish of Kung Pao chicken with chile de arbol and peanuts—a combination he turned into a tasty salsa cacahuate. At The Commons, he’ll offer taco truck crowd favorites—Nashville hot chicken, Korean pork belly, and the veggie taco—while new items, including a chile relleno taco and Thai green curry shrimp, will keep evolving. “I’m always trying to push the limits and surprise people,” the chef proclaims. And to wash it down, a small cocktail menu highlights fresh-squeezed juices, along with house-made sangria, and an eclectic selection of Mexican beer.
Last—but far from least—to join the pack, was Alex George, chef and owner of Golden Brown & Delicious. George had no intention of moving his restaurant from the Village of West Greenville when he caught wind of the project a year ago from his friend Bill Mitchell of Billiam Jeans, who is also relocating to The Commons.
“The tenants that Rion, Ray, and Drew have gathered over there are, in my opinion, the best at what they do,” crows George, whose concept has grown beyond the sandwich spot he opened in the Village three years ago. “The kind of food I want to make has evolved, and I want to do something more interesting.” That means fine dining, though he dislikes that term for the exclusivity it suggests. He wants to experiment with flavor combinations, to do approachable but elevated cuisine that’s “careful and curated.”
Openness and community are the characteristics George has designed into his new space, from the exhibition kitchen—three times the size of his present one—to the communal tables. A window will cater to the common space with fast-casual fare, while inside will hold a 70-seat full-service restaurant. A portion of the 20 seats at the chef’s counter will be dedicated to a multicourse tasting menu. “I want to involve our customers and get them engaged in the experience,” he says. “When you’re watching people cook your food, it helps you connect with them on a deeper level.”
A CULTURE OF COLLABORATION //
Ask any of these five tenants what the appeal of The Commons is, and the responses ring with mutual admiration. “Community is in our DNA,” contends Okupinski. “The businesses at The Commons are businesses we know and enjoy going to, and we’re just over the moon to be under the same roof with these folks.”
Alex George, one of the few native Greenvillians in the group, agrees. “We all do really good stuff apart from each other, but I’m very excited about the kind of synergy and camaraderie that we can build around each other. One of the things I really want to promote is the idea that we can work together to promote the culture of eating and community and care.”
Though not all the tenants in The Commons grew up in Greenville, all have small businesses rooted in the community and call Greenville home. “I think that’s one of the things that makes us feel so good about the project is everyone’s invested in the community,” Buffington shares. “We want to make Greenville a better place to be, and The Commons is just an extension of that.”
The venue will create a place for all to gather: runners and cyclists on the Prisma Health Swamp Rabbit Trail, families enjoying a day in Unity Park, friends meeting up for a beer or a cup of coffee, couples lingering over dinner. According to Parker, “We came up with the name The Commons because it signifies a property or area that belongs to everyone, which is exactly how we want this to be used.”
In reviving this once-forsaken and dilapidated warehouse row, Parker, Smith, and Foral have created a launching ground for activity, and perhaps even the source of a first job for young people from the neighborhood. That kind of investment, both financial and emotional, in Greenville lies at the heart of The Commons. “It took bringing in a great group of people who have shaped the way this project has gone over the last four years,” Parker declares. “We can’t claim to be the only visionaries—it’s been a group effort.” A true common cause.
For more information, visit commonsgvl.com