For all its success as a dining and nightspot destination, a significant number of locals still refuse to frequent the bars and restaurants at Fourth Street Live!, dismissing the 13-year-old entertainment district as a place for out-of-towners.
Cordish, the Baltimore company that owns and manages the complex, has adopted a purposeful strategy to change all that and bring locals to its 11 restaurants and seven bars. Part of that strategy has been to recruit local owners and operators, including its big win with the recent announcement that Chef Edward Lee will open Whiskey Dry in the spring.
About a year ago, Cordish hired Ed Hartless as its top local executive, who says he spent much of his first year getting to know Lee and helping convince him to open in the complex.
“I think the second week I was here I met Ed Lee. We started talking about the possibility of him bringing a restaurant to Fourth Street Live! and our direction, which was to try to get somebody local,” Hartless said in a recent EatDrinkTalk podcast interview. “His personality was fantastic and we became friends. It took us a while to find something that would work. We’re glad that at the end of it we came to an agreement.”
Hartless, whose 25-year restaurant career includes opening 22 restaurants in the San Diego airport, acknowledges he’s seen and heard talk about some locals’ aversion to the complex.
“In my short time here, I think a lot of people have that stigma because of the Convention Center,” he said. “There are a lot of out-of-town tourists. A lot of time tourists do want something that’s recognizable and that’s where the chain restaurants do fit.
“We’re also seeing people’s habits changing a little bit in that people who go to cities they’re not accustomed to they do like to search out and find something with local flair. That’s why, with bringing Junior Bridgeman in with Birracibo, and now with Edward Lee, we’re going down that path of bringing in more of the local flair. I think there needs to be a good balance.”
With more than a year left in which the Convention Center will be closed for construction, and with the 2018 opening of the Omni Hotel and other downtown developments, Hartless said he’s discussed with current tenants the importance of appealing to locals, and he’s spearheading an effort to bring more local festivals and events to Fourth Street.
“We definitely are going after locals,” he said. “As downtown starts redeveloping, we’ve got Whiskey Row getting ready, the Omni, NuLu is growing, I can see there could be a resurgence of locals coming back downtown because there’s so much more to offer. In conversations with all of our tenants, we are becoming more strategic when it comes to how we market, going a little more grass roots.”
Hartless believes the business climate for local operators to come downtown is changing, and he’s intent on finding ones that fit in. Certainly there have been plenty of restaurants that have opened and closed there in the past.
“We’re looking. We’re a little bit more choosy,” he said. “We really look for great operators now. You really have to have great operators to keep a restaurant sustainable. And we will leave a space vacant until we find somebody who has a proven track record, like Edward Lee, like Guy Fieri, like Junior Bridgeman, those are the last three we’ve put in.”
To overcome the anticipated decline in convention business, tenants at Fourth Street are turning their focus to locals. Hartless pointed to the upcoming Pints for Parkinson’s charity event as an example. Last year, it was hosted by Gordon Biersch Brewery. This April 19, the event will take over the entire complex, with Gordon Biersch continuing to play host.
On April 1, the complex is partnering with the Louisville Urban League to host a Hospitality Industry Job Fair, with a goal of attracting up to 400 job seekers to fill hospitality openings in downtown restaurants and hotels.
“It’s a way to bring notice that there are jobs to be had in Louisville and we’re opening the doors to let them come in,” said Hartless. “It’s not an online application – it’s going to be face-to-face, I can hire you right now.”