Union Station renovation

An area in Union Station adjacent to the waiting room designated for African-American customers during the segregation era is seen in 2019 after the building’s renovation. The area and the waiting room through the doors could become restaurant space in the restored station.

Three different proposed restaurants are competing to be the one chosen by Winston-Salem to occupy some prime space in the restored Union Station building near the campus of Winston-Salem State University.

Whichever is picked, diners will get to eat soul food or “southern comfort food,” according to the proposals that the city will be considering.

The Finance Committee of the Winston-Salem City Council took its first bite at the proposals on Monday, although there was no indication when the city might make a decision.

Two of the proposals come from local restaurants or operations with local restaurant connections. One, Simply Soul, now operates at 4339 S. Main St.

The other would be a new restaurant that would be called Eats Urban and would be a collaborative including Providence Culinary Training, which operates restaurants at the Double Tree by Hilton on University Parkway and at the BB&T Building, and Wharton Gladden & Co., an investment company that holds the master license for Zesto Burgers and Ice Cream at 2600 New Walkertown Road.

The third proposal is from Murrell’s Cafe, which operates in Atlanta, but whose owner, Michael Murrell, is a graduate of WSSU. Murrell has a location in Trenton in eastern North Carolina as well.

Robert Clark, who chairs the Finance Commitee, said Monday that it is important for the city to “get on the table all the information we need” before making a decision.

One thing the city will be looking for is a more detailed estimate of how much it would cost to fit up the Union Station space for whichever restaurant is picked.

As well, there are differences in how much space some of the operators want to occupy, and all three propose different rent amounts and lease terms.

Last May, the city was poised to consider a deal that would have put an Elizabeth’s Pizza business at Union Station, but the business backed out after Annette Scippio, the council member for East Ward, expressed opposition.

The city went back to the drawing board, and the three proposals that have emerged are the result. Assistant City Manager Damon Dequenne said all three approached the city during the time after the Elizabeth’s Pizza deal fell through.

People involved with two of the businesses spoke to the committee. Sonya Waddell of Simply Soul said she has been in business seven years and draws return customers.

“I bring in people from all different wards,” she said. “I want to keep the (current) location and grow into the new one.”

Waddell was the only one of the three to offer to bring kitchen equipment to the site, saying that as an established restaurant operator she has the ability to supply some of the items.

The Eats Urban proposal includes the involvement of the Winston-Salem Urban League, whose chief executive, James Perry, said his group’s idea would involve workforce training.

“We seek to create a restaurant that provides a fine dining experience in East Winston, while we will also provide culinary arts training.”

Simply Soul and Murrell’s Cafe say they’d offer soul food, while Eats Urban describes its proposed fare as “southern comfort food.”

Simply Soul is proposing a three-year lease with total payments of $90,000 to the city over that period. Simply Soul would get the first six months rent-free, then pay $3,000 per month. Over the three years, that would average to $30,000 per year.

Murrell is proposing a payment of $35,226 per year over 10 years, plus 8% of profits for catered events serving more than 50 people. Not counting the catering bonus, Murrell would pay the city $352,260 over 10 years.

The Eats Urban proposal calls for rent payments of $17,200 per year for the first five years, and $25,000 per year for years six through 10. That works out to $206,000 over 10 years.

Council Member Jeff MacIntosh was critical of the rent amounts, noting that all three proposals call for lower rents than the one proposed for Elizabeth’s Pizza, which would have paid a little more than $380,000 over 10 years.

“They all fall short of the deal we were critical about .... last time,” MacIntosh said. “I’m disappointed with the numbers. The city needs to act as a catalyst, but I am not comfortable with the level of subsidy we are asked to provide.”

When Scippio opposed the Elizabeth’s Pizza deal last year, she complained about the amount of rent being too low and said that the city shouldn’t be paying for furniture, dishes and cutlery for the restaurant. Scippio also didn’t like it that no breakfast would be offered.

Of the new proposals, Simply Soul and Murrell’s Cafe would offer breakfast, lunch and dinner, but Eats Urban would be lunch and dinner only. Simply Soul and Murrell’s Cafe want to rent the same 3,914 square feet that Elizabeth’s Pizza wanted, but Eats Urban wants to also rent an additional 804 square feet on the northeast side of the building.

Union Station, finished in 1926, was the city’s train station until passenger train service here stopped in 1970. The city acquired the building in 2012 and finished renovations in 2019. The lobby and other main-floor areas were restored to their ornate appearance, while other parts of the building were refitted for transportation offices and other purposes.

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