The Little City’s Restaurant Revolution

September 14, 2017 12:05 PM0 comments

NORTHSIDE SOCIAL, coming to the City of Falls Church at the corner of Park Ave. and N. Maple Ave., is just one of the several marquee food and drink businesses opening soon in The Little City. (Photo: Jody Fellows)

Falls Church residents and visitors alike are in the midst of a golden age of wining and dining, with new food and drink concepts flocking to the small, 2.2-square-mile Little City to join a rock-solid lineup of already-established eateries around town. The explosion of the City’s restaurant scene in recent years is unlike any other in the region, beating out all of its larger Northern Virginia neighbors.

And it isn’t even close.

Since 2010, the City of Falls Church has seen a 46 percent increase in the number of ABC-licensed restaurants inside City limits, easily topping second place City of Fairfax’s 28-percent rise. The counties of Arlington and Fairfax lag behind, up 11 and 7 percent, respectively, and Alexandria City has seen just 6 percent growth during that same time period, according to data from the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Even booming Loudoun County, with a 39-percent bump, can’t match Falls Church’s spike.

The increase in restaurants is not only paying dividends when it comes to quality of life and conveniences for Little City residents, but the current culinary surge is also contributing to the bottom line as well. In the last six years, Falls Church meal tax revenues have gone up nearly 30 percent.

For most of the 2000s, however, this wasn’t the case with the City’s restaurant scene at a veritable standstill. Institutions like Anthony’s (opened in 1972), Haandi (1996), Ireland’s Four Provinces (1997) and Eden Center’s 40+ eateries were well-established and newly-opened Argia’s (1999) and Maneki Neko (2002) were attracting new diners, but it wasn’t until years later that Falls Church began to become a dining destination.

The City’s restaurant rise can be attributed to several factors like changing demographics, including a 14 percent population increase since 2010 and an improved economy after the Great Recession that led to the influx of mixed-use projects plus renovations of existing buildings.

Joe Wetzel, senior vice president of Falls Church real estate developer The Young Group, says he’s seen a change in the kind of business potential tenants have brought to his company. “There’s more polish to the type of clients [we get now],” he tells the News-Press.

Wetzel estimates that in the early 2000s, about 90 percent of the people who came looking for space had an undeveloped concept. Now, he says, a majority have more mature concepts and business plans. He says Elevation Burger, which opened its first-ever location in a Young Group-owned building back in 2005, was one of the first to break the undeveloped mold. Today, the popular burger chain born of Falls Church has more than 50 locations worldwide.

But the City’s continued food-and-dining climb can’t be explained away as merely developing an underdeveloped city; Falls Church is already one of the most restaurant-dense jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, with an estimated 184 residents for each establishment in the City.

However, the recent decision by two new businesses to choose Falls Church over Fairfax might hold the answer as to why the City is better at recruiting restaurants than its much larger and better-resourced neighbors.

One of Falls Church’s biggest coups — the opening of its first-ever distillery two months ago — might never have happened if it weren’t for Michael Paluzzi’s experience working with City staff to get his new business up and running.

“Falls Church was willing to sit down with me, discuss my business plan, understand the critical aspects of it and work with me on zoning concerns,” the Falls Church Distillers CEO tells the News-Press.

And as for the County, “Fairfax was inflexible,” he says.

Wetzel agrees, “There’s a presumed willingness to make things work in Falls Church but not at all in some of our surrounding jurisdictions.”

Paluzzi opened his distillery on S. Washington St. just two months ago and it’s off to a hot start. The new venture, which is not only a distillery but also a bar, tasting room and restaurant, has already sold 400 bottles of the Little City’s own bourbon, gin and vodka in its first six weeks of operation, twice what Paluzzi expected he’d sell.

MICHAEL PALUZZI AND HIS STILL might not be churning out bourbon, vodka and gin in the Little City if it weren’t for people like Falls Church business development manager Becky Witsman and others at City Hall. (Photo: Jody Fellows)

From the beginning of the process, all the way to the opening, Paluzzi said the City did everything it could to make it happen. The accommodating staff at City Hall contrasted with limitations Fairfax would have imposed — like needing the distillery in a warehouse and only allowing prepackaged food to be served — made the decision easy. While Paluzzi says everyone at City Hall – engineers, the commissions, fire chief, plumbers and electricians — deserve kudos, he had high praise for one particular member of Falls Church’s Economic Development Office.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Becky Witsman. She’s an incredible champion for businesses coming into this town,” Paluzzi said of the City’s business development manager. “When you have an advocate of that talent and demeanor…that’s an incredible draw in and of itself.”

Witsman, who has worked in the development office since 2005, says one of the reasons Falls Church has been so successful is because the City prioritizes businesses like restaurants and breweries whereas other jurisdictions put the focus on other priorities.

“Fairfax County doesn’t do restaurants or retail in their Economic Development Office,” Witsman tells the News-Press. “They only do industrial and office. They tend to let [the restaurant] sector go off on its own.”

By contrast, Witsman says, if Falls Church gets a prospect like a restaurant or a brewery, they let them know upfront the City will do everything possible to expedite and get their doors open.

That “if it happens, it happens” attitude exuded by Fairfax compared to the City’s “let’s get it done” motto when it comes to the industry is the reason why Falls Church has the area’s first new distillery in almost 10 years and businesses like the upcoming microbrewery, Audacious Aleworks, will soon be operating in the Little City rather than the County.

Northern Virginia residents Brian Reinoehl and Mike Frizzell say their forthcoming concept is going to be similar to a number of other small breweries in the area. “We want to be like Forge [in Lorton] or Little Bad Wolf in Manassas,” Reinoehl tells the News-Press. “We’re not reinventing the wheel.”

But when the business partners met with Fairfax County’s zoning staff and laid out their plans, they got their first hint it wasn’t going to be the smoothest of roads.

“They looked at us like we were Budweiser,” he says. “[They said] ‘So, you’re going to have trucks and trailers and giant vats.’”

Despite the less than promising first impression, Reinoehl and Frizell found a prime spot in the bustling Mosaic District in Merrifield and signed a lease. “It’s a fabulous location,” Reinoehl says.

But then, after seven months of back-and-forth with the County’s zoning department — and three months after signing their lease at Mosaic — Fairfax held up their plans because of a parking space issue.

“What do we need to do to open? We’d like to open a brewery in your county,” Reinoehl says he told Fairfax officials. “But they just wouldn’t work with us.”

After zoning officials failed to get them a promised response to an issue on a Monday, the duo behind Audacious Aleworks had enough. “That Monday was four months ago and we have not heard from them since.”

When their broker found available space in Falls Church’s newly-renovated Southgate Village Shops on E. Fairfax St., Reinoehl called up the City’s planning and zoning and was welcomed with open arms.

“They said it was a fabulous idea,” he says. “Right from the get go, my first conversation with everyone from Falls Church was positive.”

Reinoehl was practically incredulous. “I was thinking, what’s their angle here?”

The cooperation between Falls Church and its soon-to-be second brewery closely mirrors that of the City’s first beer maker. When Mad Fox Brewing Company decided to come into town back in 2009, the brewery’s CEO and head brewer Bill Madden told the News-Press the City was very welcoming.

“They worked hard to work with us,” Madden says. “I’ve built breweries for other companies in other jurisdictions and this has been by far the easiest.”

The future location of Audacious Aleworks, a new microbrewery from Northern Virginia residents Brian Reinoehl and Mike Frizzell, set to come to Falls Church this winter in the Southgate Village Shops center.

But not only has the City and its staff worked hard to attract new restaurants, they also are doing everything they can to help its existing establishments succeed.

Chris Lefbom, co-owner of three Arlington restaurants and Dogwood Tavern, a Falls Church institution since 2008, echoes the sentiments of the City’s newcomers.

“We were calling Falls Church ‘Mayberry,’ with how friendly and easy and willing to work with us they were,” Lefbom laughs. He lauded both his landlord’s and Falls Church Planning Director James Snyder’s help in opening the restaurant’s outdoor deck back in 2013, saying their efforts helped get the “skybar” finished much quicker than if they were outside the City.

“It’s night and day compared to working with Arlington,” Lefbom says.

The arrival of Dogwood Tavern along with Clare and Don’s Beach Shack — another popular Falls Church restaurant with Arlington roots that opened here in 2007 — marked a turning point for the Little City’s restaurant scene, reinforced by the debut of Mad Fox and Pizzeria Orso, sister operation of critically-acclaimed 2941 Restaurant, in 2010.

The following year, the Italian cafe Sfizi relocated to Falls Church from Fairfax and then grilled-cheese-and-microbrew mecca Spacebar debuted in 2012. A few years later, the City welcomed in a flood of talent in 2015 with sushi bar Takumi, the coffee shop-bar hybrid Cafe Kindred, Hot n Juicy Crawfish and established area favorites Plaka Grill (Vienna) and The Happy Tart (Del Ray) both expanding here.

Now boasting a restaurant scene worthy of the region’s attention, Falls Church is set to add Audacious Aleworks this winter, two new concepts from Arlington’s successful Liberty Tavern restaurant group later this year plus two yet-to-be-named eateries coming soon to the “Tulip Building” on S. Washington St.

Grab your napkins, Falls Church. The Little City’s restaurant revolution shows no signs of slowing down.

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