Erin Wade, the owner of the successful Old Town area eatery Vinaigrette, has teamed with local real estate developer Jay Rembe to deliver a major shot of adrenaline to Albuquerque's restaurant trade in the up-and-coming strip along Central Ave. between Old Town and Downtown. Vinaigrette, Wade's farm-to-table salad restaurant, started in Santa Fe in 2008, expanding to Albuquerque in 2012. In the years since, she broke ground on Modern General Feed and Seed (one in Santa Fe and one in Albuquerque), as well as opening the popular comfort food restaurant The Feel Good. Now, with the proposed addition of three new restaurant concepts (plus a commissary kitchen, a food stand and a private club), she and Rembe are planning on a six-restaurant empire in the area known as West Downtown.
For over a decade, Wade has been "watching how consumer habits, traffic and demographics have changed—some due to long term trends, some the unanticipated consequences of ART, and some from the pandemic, which collapsed what would have been years of slow change into overnight cataclysm." Wade admits that the city's "business base" has collapsed noticeably over the last few years, as evidenced by the numerous "For Lease" signs littering Downtown. But, says Wade, "Almost all of those closures were caused by the pandemic, and from ART—two things that restaurant owners had no control over. Central Avenue restaurants had already experienced dampened demand because of prolonged construction and then drastic traffic changes on Central, and so it went into an unprecedented crisis in a weakened state." There's no doubt Albuquerque's business landscape has changed dramatically in a short period of time. Wade, herself, was forced to close the doors on both Modern General and The Feel Good over the last couple of years—but she still believes she "can respond creatively and address this new landscape of dining." Of the new restaurant plans, she says, confidently, "I don’t see this as an expansion of the business base so much as a resurrection—and an important step in coming back from COVID."
"I believe if you have really good concepts and operators that are unique, you have the ability to create a point of difference," adds Rembe, who is co-president of West Downtown Business District, a founding board member of the Urban Land Institute New Mexico and an Albuquerque Railyard Advisory Board member. He knows that Wade has been a fixture in the West Downtown neighborhood for years now. "She's seen what works and what doesn't. Combine that knowledge with her talents and abilities, and West Downtown will inevitably become a focus for the hospitality scene."
Back in 2011, when Wade was searching out an Albuquerque location to expand Vinaigrette, the West Downtown area was considered "risky"—especially when compared to the trendy EDo neighborhood east of Downtown. The risk paid off, however. Vinaigrette has become a destination restaurant and Wade's most popular location, serving upwards of 500 customers a day.
"I’ve always thought the neighborhood is great—it’s historic Route 66, between Old Town and Downtown. The Central corridor is incredibly important to Albuquerque and has always been 'Restaurant Row,' a key 'there there' in ABQ," says Wade. "At this point, I care about the neighborhood, I care about the trees we’ve planted, the buildings we have remodeled, the relationships we have with our customers and community. I have a stake in the neighborhood and I want to see it thrive."
"There's already a revitalization focus happening within Downtown thanks not only to projects and people like Arrive Hotel, Jim Long and Chad Rennaker, but also the Integrated Development Ordinance that more people are utilizing to build density growth," explains Rembe. His Rembe Urban Design + Development has been responsible for a number of recent projects in the area, including the Country Club Plaza where Vinaigrette, Modern General and The Feel Good were housed. "West Down's growth has always been part of my vision for the future of ABQ. Country Club Plaza started with five buildings and renovations to a few of those, and then we added three others." The "last phase" of Rembe's Country Club Plaza will take place across the street from the current location, and will boast 36 units of "urban apartments" and retail space "to really try and activate Central Ave and bring in the needed population density. And while the neighborhood really struggled after the completion of the ART project, I think long term we're going to see more of the sophistication of cities with public transportation, and eventually we'll see more benefits of ART."
Among the retail for that new space will be Wade's new restaurants. In "the first quarter of 2023," Vinagrette will move to the space formerly occupied by Modern General. "Before the pandemic we had three. Two we have just recently closed in order to pivot towards post-pandemic norms with this project," says Wade. Shortly after that, Wade expects to open "a private club called the Pickle Baller and a private bar inside in the adjoining/attached space." Shortly after that, a German brewhaus called Schweinhund will take over Vinaigrette's old space at 1828 Central Ave. SW. Then, a communal "commissary kitchen" will be constructed. "Finally, we will roll out the 'microncepts'—a Polish deli and a pizza place in early 2024." According to Wade, "These six concepts are meant to work together, in a very granular way, as a team, rather than competing with one another. Also, they will be phased in opening, since we are a small company." Wade believes the interconnected eateries will be "resilient and flexible in terms of overhead, and their menus can be efficiently produced with the help of a commissary kitchen." The shared kitchen idea is another "COVID era" innovation, which was born of the "ghost kitchen" movement, allowing several restaurants with multiple cuisines to operate out of a single location.
So keep your eyes glued to West Downtown starting in early 2023 and see how things are coming along. Sooner or later, thanks to an innovative restaurateur and an enthusiastic developer, Albuquerque's going to have a lot of new restaurants to choose from.
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