Celebrities

How 5Church came to host Lebron James & Co. at All-Star Weekend’s most-buzzworthy bash

Word spread quickly that Lebron James had arrived on Saturday night, and that Kendall Jenner and her boyfriend Ben Simmons were there, and that maybe — just maybe — Beyoncé would show up later on.

So a crowd developed on the sidewalk along Fifth Street, with gawkers gravitating up from the area near Spectrum Center three blocks away to try to catch a glimpse of the King or of Kendall.

Blurry photos of the sides or the backs of the celebs’ bodies and heads, taken through the windows, started popping up on Instagram, proof that those posting were breathing (almost) the same air as a global superstar. A local TV crew rolled in and started broadcasting from the street, with the reporter breathlessly declaring that rapper 2 Chainz had walked in 30 seconds before they’d gone live.

It was official: swanky uptown restaurant 5Church Charlotte had done it again.

In the past six and a half years, the center of the city of Charlotte has twice been briefly transformed into a celebrity mecca. The first was the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The second, of course, is the 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend, which wraps Sunday night.

During both events, if you dumped a big bucket of confetti out of a window overlooking Trade and Tryon, there was a reasonably good chance some of it would end up stuck in a famous person’s hair.

And during both events, 5Church somehow managed to register more deeply and more loudly on the pop-cultural buzz-o-meter than virtually all of its competition, with owners Patrick Whalen, Alejandro Torio and Jamie Lynch luring famous folks through its doors with as much ease as Steph Curry making jump shots.

But how?

‘A slow-moving avalanche’

When it was announced that Charlotte would host the DNC, Whalen, Torio and their original partner Mills Howell were all working at the since-closed but then-red-hot Butter nightclub at the NC Music Factory on the edge of uptown.

5Church was only a glint in their eyes at the time, but once they made the decision to open their own place — on a rather cursed corner at Church and Fifth streets, where several places had failed (it was previously Molly MacPherson’s) — they immediately started thinking about how to take advantage of the DNC crowd.

“Everyone in Charlotte that I would talk to was just like, ‘Oh my God, this is gonna happen and we’re all gonna get rich.’ Like money was just gonna fall from the sky in giant bags and land in our backyard,” recalls Whalen.

And while others just sat back and fantasized about the windfall to come, he says, “we really pounded the pavement. We worked hard and we worked customers and potential clients and did dinners and hosted people coming in from out of town,” with an eye toward booking high-end private events for the DNC.

5Church opened in May of 2012, just four months ahead of the DNC. But before the paint had even dried on the ceiling — which was covered, by local artist Jon Norris, with all 40,000-plus words from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” — there were already events on the calendar for DNC week.

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The ceiling at 5Church. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

That was skill, though. This was luck: Just a couple of weeks after the first dish came off the line, pop-rock singer Gavin DeGraw wandered into the joint while he was in town to do a show, and plopped down in a seat at the bar.

“Then it just was kind of like a slow-moving avalanche after that,” Whalen says. Celebrities — Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Bobcats, other visiting musicians or actors in town shooting movies — “kept coming. And then it peaked with the DNC obviously — which was just, like, out of control.”

A laundry list of notables popped into 5Church while the Democrats were in town, either on their own or during private events.

Then-U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California. Paul Mitchell founder John Paul DeJoria. Then-PBS talk show host Charlie Rose. Rose stopped by for lunch, in fact, at the same time that Creative Coalition delegation members Patricia Arquette, Rose Byrne, Tim Daly, Wayne Knight and Tony Shalhoub were meeting there.

5Church also hosted one of the most star-studded (and exclusive) parties of the week, a fundraiser for a major super-PAC with a guest list that included actresses Elizabeth Banks, Alexis Bledel, Alfre Woodard and Jessica Alba. News outlets from the Hollywood Reporter to MSN were mentioning the name 5Church as a celebrity hotspot that week.

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Alexis Bledel, left, and Jessica Alba head into 5Church in this 2012 file photo. Laura Mueller

Naturally, that level of star power dissipated once the DNC left, but it was hardly unusual for someone to crow on social media about a celebrity sighting at the restaurant.

Even three full years later, in 2015, Charlotte Magazine named 5Church the top “Place to Spot a Celebrity.”

So when the NBA finally decided to bring its All-Star Game to town, the guys at 5Church were ready.

‘That party was pretty sick’

“I mean, any good business model for a restaurant — or anything in the hospitality business — understands the value of celebrity and being high-profile,” Whalen says.

“And so I’m not sure (that at the beginning) we said, ‘OK, we’re gonna just gonna get celebrities to come here.’ I think it was more us thinking if we built something really, really cool and really fun, with terrific food and good service, that all comers would find their way to us. And that included, you know, people that were famous.”

That’s why they pounded the pavement so hard during the DNC — and because it worked, they did the same once All-Star Weekend came into the picture.

Whalen says 5Church sales coordinator and event planner Alexa Anderson basically didn’t put the phone down for months; she reached out to everyone and anyone they could think of with a connection to the NBA — Gatorade, Reebok, Nike, Under Armour, and on and on — leaving no stone unturned in their effort to book out 5Church and their neighboring lounge, Sophia’s, for the weekend.

It worked. 5Church was essentially closed all weekend for private events. Whalen talked openly about two.

One was a Sunday-morning event, booked by former NBA star Baron Davis’ company, that was designed to help retired professional athletes and welcomed guests such as NBA commissioner Adam Silver, recording artist Akon, and retired NBA player Kenyon Martin, among others.

The other was the Lebron James event that caused people to briefly lose their minds.

Whalen confirms that James’ promotional company — which also had been rumored to have bought out The Ivey’s Hotel next door for the entire weekend — held a private dinner at 5Church on Saturday night.

In addition to Kendall Jenner, Ben Simmons and 2 Chainz, those in attendance Saturday night included rappers Meek Mill, J. Cole and Quavo; Carolina Panthers star Luke Kuechly; Charlotte Hornets rookie Miles Bridges; New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis; and former NBA baller Elton Brand. (Unfortunately, Queen Bey never showed.)

That sealed it.

Fans had been flooding social media with celebrity sightings all weekend, and a couple miles away, Michael Jordan was hosting a super-hot fete for his 56th birthday. But over the course of 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend, no party caused more of a stir than this particular one at 5Church. (With perhaps the exception of the after-party held at Sophia’s Lounge, where James took a turn guest-DJ-ing.)

“That party was pretty sick,” Whalen says. “I mean, I’ve been in this business a long time — I don’t really get starstruck much. But I was sitting there, and I’m like, ‘Man, Lebron James is in my bar.’”

It’s good to be King.

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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