Doug Llewellyn remembers when people began to walk dogs again in downtown Raleigh.
For a decade, he and his wife, Rebecca, had owned and operated The Square Rabbit, a tiny bakery and sandwich shop on the ground floor of a century-old building at the intersection of Martin and Wilmington streets. Since opening in 1991, they'd cultivated a robust catering business and a loyal lunch following. They'd seen nearby tenants open and close. They'd seen the road in front of their window go from a one-way strip to two-way traffic. But from their corner spot, they had seen surprisingly few dogs pass by on leashes until sometime after 2001.
"When we started here, there wouldn't be people walking around. And then, on the weekends, I'd start seeing people walk their dogs and think, 'Why would you come downtown to walk your dog?'" Doug recalls. "And then I realized that apartments were going up, and people were living here. What do you do with your dog? You walk it around your neighborhood. This was their neighborhood now."
For the last quarter-century, downtown Raleigh has served as The Square Rabbit's neighborhood, too—long before the rise of the PNC Plaza, in whose shadow it sits, or the reopening of Fayetteville Street, less than a block away. Rebecca remembers that, in early years, they'd unload vans upon returning from catering jobs and have the run of the city. Long before talk of DrunkTown, their corner, she says, could feel more like a ghost town.
But in two years, The Square Rabbit will vacate its first and only home. They will leave the space so that the building can be renovated to accommodate an upscale bakery owned by LM Restaurants Inc., a Raleigh company that manages 21 restaurants in two states, including the popular chain Carolina Ale House. In late September, LM Restaurants told the Llewellyns that this lease would be their last, less than 24 hours before the group announced its plans to overhaul the building.
This familiar scenario poses complex questions in the blooming, booming cores of Triangle downtowns, where new capital and high-rises threaten the existence of the old businesses upon which the recent renaissances have been built. How do we protect and value structures and establishments, for instance, that were foundational for new growth? Outside of existing property laws, should we at all?
"Being a Raleigh-based company, downtown Raleigh has always been somewhere we've always wanted to be. But we're very patient, so we wait for the right spaces," says Mindy Stroupe, a corporate manager for LM Restaurants. "Lou Moshakos has probably been looking downtown since the first Carolina Ale House opened in 1999."
Lou Moshakos, the group's patriarch, says he's willing to help find a new space for The Square Rabbit in downtown Raleigh. LM now sports a 50-year lease on the property and the neighboring storefront, which will likely house another restaurant. But the Llewellyns aren't sure how easy that will be, given Raleigh's rapidly rising real-estate costs. Their rent alone has increased 250 percent, to more than $4,000 per month, since they first found their space.
"I have no reason to not believe they will help. I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt," says Doug. "But I don't know how much that will entail them doing. I don't expect them to drive us around in a car, showing us spaces."
The Llewellyns, at least, say they're grateful to be able to finish their lease, and that their new landlords have proven hospitable so far. But come August 2017, they're just not sure where they'll go. They have no plans to close, but they have no place to move, either.
"Our lives have been on this corner the last 24 years, so it's going to take some thinking," Rebecca said the day after the press release went out. "I had always imagined this is what I would do until retirement age. I'm not quite there yet."
The Square Rabbit sits at a pivotal Raleigh spot, a real-time nexus of the old and the new. The bakery shares its corner with Mecca, a diner that celebrated its 85th year of business in May. Across Wilmington Street, Ashley Christensen's dining triptych of Beasley's, Chuck's and Fox Liquor Bar represents the successful salvage of a former grocery store that had lain fallow for at least a decade. Across Martin Street, though, the PNC Plaza stretches to 33 floors, while the new SkyHouse stops at a mere 23. The Square Rabbit's corner offers a 360-degree view of Raleigh's past, present and possibilities. Its loss will mark a small, essential change in that balance.
Or, as Rebecca puts it a few weeks later, while sighing and then laughing over a late-afternoon latte a few doors down from The Square Rabbit, "We've always assumed our space was always for sale. ... The people with more money always win."
Doug and Rebecca Llewellyn met in the late '80s just before they worked together at Simple Pleasures, another Raleigh café that has since closed. She had opted out of law school, and he was running sound at The Brewery, the Hillsborough Street institution bulldozed in 2011 to make way for a monolith of student apartments. When the pair opened The Square Rabbit in 1991, the shop occupied just 600 square feet and had only one other employee; over time, the space nearly doubled in size and now has more than a dozen full-time employees.
During the last two decades, the Llewellyns considered expanding into the space next door, even going so far as to have an architect design plans and obtain a green light for a loan. But the economic downturn in 2008 forced them to reconsider. Likewise, they've pondered buying their building during their tenure there, but the moments when the money was available and the building was for sale never coincided.
Rebecca is quick to say that, for this reason, The Square Rabbit's loss is no one's fault but their own; they never bought the property, and the owner (who could not be reached for comment) had the right to restructure the lease. And Doug is quick to dismiss notions of nostalgia for aging structures or businesses, explaining that he appreciates the cycle of old haunts giving way to new ones.
"That's progress," he says. "Someone is sad to see something go, but it's happened for centuries. It will keep happening. It's just never happened to me before."
Still, LM's move feels opportunistic, like a flashy arrival with loaded pockets showing up late to someone else's party. The group has run restaurants in Raleigh since 1999. Only recently, though, has it made the transition toward downtown, first opening a Carolina Ale House on Glenwood Avenue early this year and, in June, relocating the Greek restaurant Taverna Agora from beyond the beltline to a prime spot on Hillsborough Street. Those spots will now enjoy the labors of early investors.
Rebecca chuckles at Stroupe's suggestion that Moshakos has been looking for property in downtown Raleigh since 1992. Back then, when it was a ghost town, it was hard not to find empty storefronts. Even Moshakos corrected that idea in a prepared statement.
"Three years ago, I asked a broker to find a space for me in downtown Raleigh that I could consider for a few concepts I had in mind. The Martin Street property is ultimately what was presented to me," he offered. "It was perfect."
With tears hanging at the edge of her eyes, Llewellyn talks about the way the sunlight enters The Square Rabbit's wide windows and how customers and employees have, in many senses, become her family.
She agrees: Yes, it was perfect.
Correction: LM Restaurants, Inc. has run restaurants in Raleigh since 1992, not 1999, the year the first Carolina Ale House opened.