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Business leaders networking at the Peach 20/20 Conference  

09 May 2024

Why Nashville’s so on song

By Peter Martin
Nashville may be Music City, but there’s much more to the town than live bands and Dolly Parton. It’s a thriving hub for innovative food and drink businesses, as the Atlantic Club tour discovered when it touched down in the Tennessee capital at the start of May.

Not that the music is incidental, it’s a crucial part of the city’s character, driving tourism and weekend visitors. But Nashville is also a bustling business centre, home to Bridgestone and an Amazon campus - with a Google campus on its way.

It may be modest in size by American city standards, with a population of 2.8 million in the greater metropolitan area - but it’s expanding at an estimated rate of 100 new residents every week. That makes it fertile ground for ambitious restaurant and bar operators.

As well has nurturing ambitious home-grown businesses like Peg Leg Porker, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, Pinewood Social, Red Pebbles and Biscuit Love, it’s attracting out-of-towners keen to grow, like Sixty Vines, Black Tap Craft Burgers & Beers, The Hampton Social, Velvet Taco and the Food Hall Co, whose Assembly Hall in the heart of downtown has just been voted the best food hall in the USA. We visited them all.

So what did we learn on our whirlwind three-day tour to take back to our own operations? Here are a short seven:

1. Scale 

It’s the size of so many of the locations that’s breathtaking. Assembly Hall stretches over 100,000 sq ft on two levels, and is home to 30 plus eateries and bars, three live performance stages and Skydeck, the largest rooftop entertainment venue in Nashville. The complex also houses Sixty Vines, FB Society’s wine-focused restaurant, which on the Saturday we left had 900 covers booked in. Similarly, neighbourhood breakfast concept Biscuit Love is only open from 7am to 3pm, but averages sales of around US$150,000 a week.

2. Robust systems & processes 

That’s how you handle scale while maintaining quality of food, drink and experience. Management at The Hampton Social all have headsets to allow instant communication across the four floors, while accessing the in-house tech from their phones, controlling everything from music to the TVs and AV.

3. Brand love 

It’s about creating fans not followers, witnessed by the long queues outside the likes of Biscuit Love every day. Great merchandise is a key component, both in-store and on-line - and just about everyone has it, from sweatshirts and hats, to mugs, to candles, to BBQ rubs. Perhaps the best brand extension in town is Peg Leg Porkers own Tennessee Bourbon, which has just won the best whiskey in the USA accolade. And then there’s ’The Gram’ (Instagram to me and you) - everything has to be Instagramable. With 50% or so of guests from out-of-town these all help spread the love, quite literally nationawide.

4. Experience is everything 

The ‘experiential’ is built in, from the almost mandatory live music stages and rooftop bars to pool parties and vintage bowling at Pinewood Social to bachelorette brunches with guitar shots and fireworks at The Hampton Social.

5. Blurring boundaries 

Nashville is full of category-defying formats - cocktail bars with amazing food to burger and chicken joints with craft beer. Most are operating on a 60/40 food and drink mix.

6. Draft wine goes global 

Beer and cocktails may be the biggest sellers in Nashville, but wine is having a make-over. Lists in more up-scale restaurants are increasingly skewed to European rather than Californian styles - not just Provence rose, but more obscure offerings from the likes of Slovenia, Moravia and Austria, and on-trend ‘skin-contact’ or ‘orange’ wines are gaining list space too. Those trends have encouraged Sixty Vines, the pioneer of quality, sustainable draft wine, to source more of its draft range from European producers alongside US suppliers.

7. Culture 

The focus on people, training, brand commitment, careers and opportunities runs through the city’s hospitality businesses. But it’s taken 10 years to build that up. A decade ago, as one operator described it, Nashville was a ‘beer, shot and burger’ town. Now it has a thriving and diverse food and drink environment driven by an influx of entrepreneurs and top chefs from out-of-the-State alongside pioneering local operators, in turn creating a hospitality eco-system that all can draw on.

With more than a few UK-based hospitality brands now rumoured to be running the rule over Nashville, there’s plenty to learn and look out for.

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