The next key ingredient in the redevelopment of the former Eagle & Phenix textile mill will soon find its way to the dinner table with the debut of an upscale restaurant by local chef Jamie Keating.
The 72-seat eatery will be called “E.P.i.c.” and positioned on the bottom floor of the five-story structure that has been rehabbed into condominiums overlooking the Chattahoochee River. It will employ 25 people.
“We’re taking 15 years of everything I’ve ever wanted to do in a restaurant and trying to put it all into one, so obviously the name had to be well thought out,” said Keating, a dual resident of Columbus and LaGrange, Ga., who opened a catering business in Rivermill Event Centre just north of downtown in 2006.
While the “E” does place an emphasis on epicurian — meaning the enjoyment of great food — Keating said the acronym actually stands for “Eagle & Phenix innovative cuisine”. His wife, Melissa, came up with the name.
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“Epic is something that is grand, is large, it tells a story, similar to a movie or a novel,” said the chef, who expects to have the restaurant open by next April.
“It will be a total dining experience that will have a lot of neat bells and whistles throughout,” he said. “The food itself is going to be the focal point. But the ambience of the restaurant, or the hidden subliminal stories of art and decor, are the little things that I will put in throughout the whole restaurant.”
Columbus-based W.C. Bradley Co. is transforming the mid-1800s-era mill on Front Avenue into a mixed-use complex that centers around condominiums and apartments.
The $50 million project was launched in 2004, with 88 condos being retrofitted into one of the massive mill’s structures. Fourteen apartments also have been put in the complex, with 44 more apartments now in the construction phase in the second of three large structures.
Once those all are filled, there will be nearly 300 people living at Eagle & Phenix, with another 100 or so at 11th Street Lofts a block away, said Mat Swift, president of W.C. Bradley’s real estate division. That nucleus of residents makes now the right time to open the first restaurant or retail business in the old mill, he said.
“You’ve got to always start first with the rooftops, the residents,” Swift said. “So, we had to start with the condominiums and apartments to build some density down there. That’s why we haven’t had in the past a whole lot of interest in either retail or restaurants.”
Those restaurateurs and food chains that were interested — such as pizzerias — would bring too much traffic and noise to the 16-acre property that at its core is a residential facility, he said.
“We think Jamie’s the best start because it will be a very small, very upscale type of restaurant that is not offensive from a standpoint of noise or traffic for our residents,” Swift said. “But at the same type it’s a huge amenity to both our residents and the other people who are living in the downtown area. So we think it’s a real good fit.”
Keating, 40, who has been cooking since he was 13, said he will continue to operate Rivermill, a $3 million-a-year business that experienced a 25 percent increase in sales over the past year. The event center also features a popular cafe that also serves to draw potential customers to the catering operation, he said.
His “E.P.i.c.” venture, however, will be much more high end. There will be homemade pastas, seafood and quality steaks, although the chef said he is not pigeonholing himself into serving one specific type of cuisine.
“Here we want people to know that they have a wide variety of choice,” Keating said. “Seasonality is very important to us. There will be some farm to table. We will cater to things like gluten-free diets ... Some (recipes) will come out of my repertoire that we’ve done over the years, whether we did it privately in your home for a dinner of six or we did it for a party of 500.”
The 3,800-square-foot restaurant will only serve dinner, Keating said, and will also feature a chef’s table in the kitchen that will give a group of six an inside look at meal preparation while they dine. There also will be in-room dining available to Eagle & Phenix residents, he said.
Incentives to draw Keating to the complex include a $750,000 to $1 million retrofit of the restaurant area for both “E.P.i.c.” and a possible second phase that could include an eatery that would serve both lunch and dinner, Swift said. The chef will also receive free rent for a few months.
“It’s very important to us that he succeed; we have no doubt that he will succeed,” Swift said. “But everybody knows that when you start up a restaurant in the first year or so it’s a tough business until you can build up your clientele and you build up a brand with people routinely coming back.”
The main goal, Swift said, is for Keating to bring more momentum to a downtown that is now beginning to become more active with new restaurants and retail stores. He said those businesses should generate even more visitation to an area already anchored by venues such as the Springer Opera House, the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts and Columbus State University’s Department of Theater.
“It’s history. It’s a river. It’s being able to come downtown and walk to your restaurant and then walk to the Springer or walk to the RiverCenter or walk to productions by CSU,” Swift said. “It’s that whole live, work, play and dine atmosphere.”
The clincher, he said, will be the whitewater rafting and kayaking attraction that is now being developed on the Chattahoochee River along the banks of downtown, with completion expected in late 2012. A recent visit by city and community leaders to Charlotte, N.C., which has its own urban manmade whitewater attraction, opened people’s eyes, he said.
The Charlotte whitewater course attracted about 700,000 visitors in its first year, said Swift, who believes Columbus’ natural version is better and should draw even more people from far and wide.
“Two or three years ago we couldn’t even begin to talk to (businesses) about coming down here,” he said. “‘We’ll come down after we know something happens,’ they would say.
“Now I think what we’re seeing is more and more people are wanting to go on and look at coming to downtown because they’re trying to anticipate opportunities and what’s going to happen two or three years from now.”
The potential for such burgeoning growth was the biggest carrot that led Keating to make his first leap into full-fledged restaurant ownership.
“I think the location, the future of folks coming towards the river, we truly believe that this is the right step to take,” the chef said. “And we’re prepared for it.”