By David Royer
It’s February, when the LampLighter brings readers its annual Cooper-Young business guide, and despite a chilly national economy, things seem to be warming up around here. If a word could sum up the state of business in Cooper-Young lately, it might be: delicious.
Thirteen new businesses opened their doors in CY in 2011 and another three opened or are ready to open in the first two months of 2012.
Local businesses Charm Boutique, Shoenista and the Polish Bottle filled a need for fashionistas in the neighborhood, and hipster magnet Urban Outfitters anchored a revitalized retail spot at Cooper and Central last February. With more than 140 locations in the country, Urban Outfitters, a trendy clothing and dorm room décor outlet, is one of the few national retailers to establish a presence in the district’s mostly home-grown business community.
But mainly, growth in 2011 and early 2012 centered around CY’s thriving culinary scene.
“In 2011, we were excited to see Cooper-Young established as the restaurant district of Memphis, with 18 restaurants,” said Tamara Cook, director of the Cooper Young Business Association. “We have such a strong group of talented chefs.”
Sweetgrass opened a more casual side of its low-country-themed restaurant next door, at the appropriately titled Next Door. Stone Soup Cafe & Market is serving up breakfast and brunch across the street from First Congregational Church and Skunx Chef’s Pub took over the old Lou’s Pizza Pie spot on Young late last year, serving gourmet pizzas and more. And there aren’t many places in Memphis that serve real vegan fare, but Imagine Vegan Cafe began doing just that on Young.
The neighborhood’s newest restaurant, Mulan Bistro, is updating the former Bluefish space on the southeast corner of Cooper and Young and expects to open its doors in early February.
Mulan, a Chinese restaurant and sushi bar, opened in Collierville eight years ago, but managing partner Matt Kan said customers for years had requested a location in Midtown. Kan said Mulan will offer fresh, authentic Szechuan-style entrees along with sushi. But don’t look for an American-style buffet. Mulan’s head chef has 30 years of experience in the kitchen and previously worked in a five-star hotel in China, he said.
Kan said he’s a big fan of Cooper-Young, which reminds him of his hometown in China.
“I always come here to eat in the Cooper-Young area,” Kan said. “The Midtown area is really unique.”
Another unique-in-Memphis hotspot opened in November. When Alchemy brought its small-plate dishes and cocktail concoctions to the neighborhood, it also brought a sexy, cosmopolitan vibe and major crowds of up to 600 people on some busy weekend nights, general manager Ben McLean said.
The restaurant soon began offering valet parking to ease congestion and entice diners from outside the area.
“We like Cooper-Young because it’s kind of a destination now for restaurants,” McLean said. “We plan on being in Cooper-Young for a very long time.”
Though the neighborhood has seen some turnover among businesses in the past few years ― Alchemy took over the space vacated by Grace and Au Fond and another taco shop lasted just a month ― some restaurateurs said the competition is healthy.
“What’s happened in Cooper-Young is a rebirth, and it’s fantastic,” said Jacob Leonard, bar manager at Cortona. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Cortona, a contemporary Italian restaurant, began packing diners in at the former Dish location early in 2011 and will mark its first anniversary this month. Managers say they like being at the center of the city’s restaurant scene.
Both Cook and McLean noted a need for more retail and art in the district in 2012. But CY’s new reputation among diners could provide a foundation that would support a wider range of businesses this year, Cook said.
“We hope the stability and diversity of these restaurants will help bring in more retail and art venues,” she said.