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Uptown businesses staff up and innovate to cash in on Charlotte Knights foot traffic

By Caroline McMillan Portillo
cmcmillan@charlotteobserver.com
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/10/20/32/yESfb.Em.138.jpeg|316
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com
    Melissa Gibson, right, a waitress at the French Quarter Restaurant, keeps a close eye on her outside tables on Brevard Court on Thursday. Charlotte-area restaurants and bars are gearing up for the foot traffic expected with Charlotte Knights’ opening night on Friday.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/10/20/32/UdNeb.Em.138.jpeg|206
    John D. Simmons - jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

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As the Charlotte Knights and their growing fan base gear up for the first pitch in their $54 million skyline-view stadium, nearby businesses have their own reasons to cheer: Ten thousand fans in uptown Charlotte Friday evening makes for good business.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time, for something this big … to open the floodgates to this part of town,” said George Photopoulus, managing partner of the French Quarter Restaurant at the corner of Brevard Court and Church Street.

That’s why Photopoulus is staffing up. For the first time, he’s opening the restaurant on Saturdays. And he’s expecting his patio tables – overlooking the new Romare Bearden Park and beyond it to BB&T Ballpark – will be prime real estate come Friday afternoon.

He and other nearby business owners say the Knights’ move from Fort Mill, S.C., to South Mint Street is bringing new life to a stretch of uptown that had stayed more low-key while bars and restaurants along South Tryon and College streets drew larger crowds.

Even quick-serve spots such as like Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches along West Third Street, are anticipating a boost. Delivery driver Chris Sirico said the staff is already making deliveries to the Knights team store and ticket center, and they’re preparing for more walk-in customers around game times.

Mark Krehbiel, owner of Courtyard Hooligans, a European-style sports pub along Brevard Court, sees the Knights’ arrival as a chance to get creative.

That’s why he will double the pub’s footprint by opening an all-American second-floor space on Friday. It’s called the “Upper Deck at Courtyard Hooligans” – and the name itself is a nod to baseball, giving the space “a cheap seats kind of feel,” Krehbiel said. In keeping with the theme, the Upper Deck will offer American brews such as Pabst Blue Ribbon tall-boys, in addition to the craft beers and imports that are usually on tap.

“Minor league baseball and small business go hand in hand,” said Krehbiel, who bought season tickets so he can offer giveaways for each home game.

Krehbiel said he’s excited to have more than 70 home games but also realizes that – unlike with the NFL – the frequency of games might cause many people to adopt what he calls an “Oh, I can catch tomorrow’s game” attitude.

“We won’t see an opening-day binge like this again,” he said, but even if the stadium hovers at half-capacity, “that’s 4,500 people within a quarter of a mile from my front door.”

Doubling staff, extending hours

Another boon to the uptown restaurants and bars: The Knights games’ 7 p.m. start times.

“We don’t see them coming out to the suburbs, getting changed, and coming back for the game,” said Jeff Kahlmorgan, general manager of American Roadside Burgers on South Church Street.

That’s why he’s experimenting with new hours – later on weekdays and opening on Sundays for the first time – to attract the pregame crowd.

As for opening weekend: Kahlmorgan doubled the restaurant’s inventory of food, beer and wine and doubled the staff, from 15 to 30 employees.

“Customers keep telling our cashiers we’re a cool place to eat before the game,” he said, pointing to the stack of Charlotte Knights’ schedules sitting by the register. “We’ve got the burgers, hotdogs and … we’re a cheaper alternative to the more expensive stadium food.”

Amir Evaji, manager of Metropolitan Cafe & Catering, and its late-night alternative Istanbul Hookah Lounge, said he’s not expecting a drastic boost in traffic to the Turkish cuisine spot. During Panthers’ games this season, they’d get the occasional tailgater looking for food, but, most of the time, they were serving regular customers.

“But I’m sure as more people are walking around … you never know,” Evaji said.

The new BB&T Ballpark is also a selling point for uptown living, said David Ravin, president of Northwood Ravin, which owns The Vue, the 51-story luxury apartment complex at Fifth and Pine streets, overlooking the stadium.

“It used to be ‘Hey, don’t you want to be close to work?’ ” Ravin recalled. “Then it was slowly, ‘Oh look, you can be close to these restaurants, and you don’t have to drive.’

“Then, really within the last five years, it’s been more of a ‘look at all of this: the sporting venues, the cultural (spots) … the parks, the grocery store.’ You’re really able to play up why you’d want to live in this city.”

‘Excited like a little kid’

John Burgin, manager of Park Signs – a design and graphics company on Mint Street across from the ballpark – doesn’t have tickets to Friday night’s game, but says he’s got the next best thing: a spot on his building’s rooftop, with a perfect view of the pitcher’s mound.

“I’m excited like a little kid,” said Burgin, a Charlotte native who said he’s been rooting for the city’s team since it was the Charlotte Orioles, popularly known as the “Os.”

And in the last two years, since Park Signs opened, he’s seen the surrounding area go from “no-man’s land” to bustling. And the added foot traffic gives the company more exposure.

In the window of Park Signs is a decal that Burgin drew himself: a green dragon and a knight clad in armor. Above the dragon’s head are two words:

“Play Ball!”

McMillan Portillo: 704-358-6045 Twitter: @cbmcmillan
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