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Beloved Phat Burrito, which led South End rebirth, closes forever on Saturday

Customers flock to Phat Burrito after closing announcement

Phat Burrito, a restaurant that helped lead the rebirth of South End, is closing for good Saturday, the latest in a series of original businesses there to fall victim to growing redevelopment.
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Phat Burrito, a restaurant that helped lead the rebirth of South End, is closing for good Saturday, the latest in a series of original businesses there to fall victim to growing redevelopment.

When Phat Burrito opened on Camden Road almost two decades ago, South End was an expanse of vacant warehouses bisected by rusting trolley tracks, and the idea that the neighborhood would soon become one of the hottest real estate markets in the U.S. seemed far-fetched in the extreme.

Phat Burrito, a restaurant that helped lead the rebirth of South End, is closing for good Saturday, the latest in a series of original businesses there to fall victim to growing redevelopment.

Owner Stephen Justice, 53, said it’s not a matter of the site at 1537 Camden Road being sold by the owner or a bigger, fancier restaurant taking over.

“It’s parking,” he said Thursday. “Once development started going in across the street, all my parking was gone. I went from 300 (people) a day to 100. I park two blocks a way and walk here.”

That development has intensified in the past year, with a growing number of apartments and office buildings popping up along the Lynx Blue Line, which borders the back side of the restaurant.

The property market killed the goose that laid the golden egg, but still worships it.

David Walters.

Justice says the biggest challenge came when the 2.3 acre triangular lot across Camden Road from his restaurant, home to the Common Market, was sold to become the seven-story Dimensional Fund Advisors headquarters on the East Coast.

“Almost instantly, my parking was gone,” Justice said. A block away, Beacon Partners is planning a project called The RailYard, at Winona and Tryon streets, that will include two eight-story buildings with apartments, offices, shops and restaurants.

David Walters, an urban planner and professor emeritus at UNC Charlotte whose wife had an art studio across the street in the complex of buildings that eventually housed Common Market, said Phat Burrito was “a true pioneer.”

“There was nothing there,” said Walters. The area was populated by a car repair shop with dogs that never stopped barking, people drinking liquor from paper bags in front of the Phat Burrito building and homeless people sleeping under awnings.

“It’s so symbolic,” he said of Phat Burrito’s closing. Although many of the new projects will include shops and restaurants, the funky, artsy vibe that drew the first wave of people to revitalize South End is largely gone, Walters said – though the area still trades on that reputation.

“South End is a place where young people sleep and drink beer, and that’s about it,” said Walters. “The property market killed the goose that laid the golden egg, but still worships it.”

Phat Burrito is now down to a skeleton crew, with most of its staff of 20 let go, Justice said. Hours have also been trimmed back. The restaurant will be open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday of this week.

“At 3 p.m. Saturday, we close forever,” he said. There are no current plans to reopen the restaurant elsewhere.

Phat Burrito opened in 1998 at a time when South End was poised on the edge of a renaissance. At the time, Price’s Chicken Coop was the only restaurant of note in the area. Justice came to Charlotte from Sante Fe, bringing Southwestern and Mexican influences for this fast food, which was entirely new to Charlotte.

The property was originally home to a Greek restaurant called New Big Village Diner, run by an elderly couple and known for its Thursday lamb special. He said he has no idea what will become of the building or the lot. The owner, Heath Properties, couldn’t immediately be reached for more information.

When Phat Burrito came along, it was reportedly the only place in Charlotte people could buy California-style burritos. The restaurant also sold tacos, salads and quesadillas. “I had to educate people on the cuisine, including what a quesadilla is,” Justice recalled.

Phat Burrito’s ambiance fit well into the image South End was trying cultivate, hoping to appeal to younger people and newcomers who were open to more diverse and less formal lifestyles.

In addition to the Common Market’s closure, a number of other South End businesses have shuttered their doors in the last two years. Amos’ South End, a music venue near Phat Burrito, announced their impending closure last year, with the owner also citing parking difficulties. Several blocks away, The Tremont Music Hall closed, and is now being targeted for a new townhouse development (Unlike those businesses, Price’s, the ever-popular fried chicken joint, owns its own property).

The closures are part of the area’s ongoing shift from smaller, independent – some would say funkier – businesses, to larger and more intensive development, often backed by major out-of-town investors and funds.

Ironically, Justice said in a 1999 Observer interview that the biggest obstacle he and his wife Jennifer Justice faced at the time was the restaurant’s location.

“We opened on the bad side of the tracks in the South End, and for a while, were a little worried about our safety. Most of the buildings around us are vacant. But people are really trying to clean up this area, and a lot of people are coming here to eat. That’s made it safer,” he said at the time.

Justice said Thursday that he remains open to all possibilities for his next career move, and he welcomes the idea of old customers coming to say farewell.

“I’ve been doing this for 7,000 days and I’m ready to do something else,” Justice said, laughing. “I don’t mean to make light of it. I know people love the food, but like all people, I like the idea of starting a new chapter.

“I’m really humbled and I’m sincerely grateful to all the people in Charlotte how supported me.”

Word of the restaurant’s closing drew swift reaction on social media.

Some were upset at the development that is forcing the restaurant to close. One person on Twitter blamed developers “for stealing all that was good in that neighborhood!” while another man tweeted, “Charlotte really does drain the soul out of everything good.”

Another lamented, “More gentrification of business. We don’t value these Charlotte treasures and build to accommodate both old & new.”

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