Co-owners James Robison, Anna Michal, and Jack Robison.
As The Jaxson reported last fall, sibling entrepreneurs James Robison, Jack Robison, and Anna Michal have ambitious plans for a 1923 Craftsman bungalow at the corner of Margaret and Pierce Streets in Five Points (disclosure: I’ve known the family for years). Their new venture - the working name was Spirit Animal, but a new name will be chosen before it opens - is planned to be an 88-seat restaurant with an ample selection of craft beer and wine and a fairly unique menu driven by small plates and, notably, pie.
“It’s a little different than your standard restaurant,” said James Robison. “What we want to do is a lot of cheese and charcuterie, and vegan analogs to that, and a lot of small plates that are produce driven and in keeping with what’s available seasonally.” To devise the menu, the siblings will tap their years of experience with Grassroots Natural Market, which James and Jack opened in 2006; Anna has also worked for the market.
As for the pie offerings, the business has become even more of a family affair. The siblings’ first cousin Katie Riehm, owner of King Street’s uber-popular vegan bakery Sweet Theory, will take on the baking operation. “She brings a lot to the team,” said James. “She’s got some really creative culinary ideas, not only with the pies but also on the savory stuff as well.”
The project was originally set for a spring 2019 opening. It went before the city planning commission on October 4, where it received unanimous approval. But 21 days later, the decision was appealed by Riverside Avondale Preservation (RAP) and two neighbors up the street. The issue comes down to the planned outdoor seating: the building has been zoned for commercial use since at least the 1970s, but the outside patio would have to be built new. “The gist of it is they said that they don’t want to look at this thing across the street, and they don’t want to hear noise from it,” said James. “Which, you know, I can understand.”
The owners have been working with RAP to address their concerns, but say they’ve had trouble getting input from the two neighbors or their consultant, lobbyist Paul Harden. Meetings have been delayed and canceled so frequently that the Robisons aren’t even sure what their complaints are. “That’s been a challenge, because we don’t quite know what’s going on there,” said James. “We’re making all these changes at RAP’s direction, but we’ve not gotten input from the other two appellants.”
And so they have plowed ahead with RAP. The owners say they have agreed to nine different demands from RAP, and are currently only in disagreement on weekend hours - they’d like the option to keep the outdoor seating open with food service until midnight on the weekends, while RAP wants it closed down by 10 p.m. They have drastically altered their plans to accommodate RAP’s concerns. There will now be a wall of landscaping and a large fountain to allay noise complaints, and most seating has been moved inside the building. The outdoor patio now wraps around the building so that much of the seating faces commercial Margaret Street.
Grassroots Natural Market
The changes have held up a planned remodeling of Grassroots, which would expand the market and shift its juice bar into a second storefront on Park Street that’s now used only for storage. However, those plans depended on moving Grassroots’ beer and wine bottle selection to the new restaurant. The changes to the restaurant have left no room for bottle racks, halting the remodeling for the foreseeable future.
Ironically, given RAP’s preservation mission, the new designs alter the building far more than the original ones. The initial plans were intended to preserve the building’s residential character, with outdoor seating on a residential-style bungalow porch. The current plans require extensive changes to the interior and a much more commercial appearance outside. “We were very surprised by that,” said James.
The appeals wrangle has taken a toll on the business. The back-and-forth has delayed the project by five months and counting, and cost the Robisons tens of thousands of dollars - a big burden for a small business. In addition to legal fees, their design costs have increased. “Before we even had a building permit we were on interior design, layouts and furniture, for instance,” said Anna. Currently, they hope to open the restaurant by late summer 2019, but that’s dependent on getting through several more rounds of approvals.
Despite the hurdles, the Robisons are upbeat about the changes. “It’s a completely fresh take on the whole thing,” said James. The family have retained architect John Allmand, and have hired Larry Wilson and Rebecca Davisson of Designmind to “basically rethink the project, and try and find ways to reach a compromise with the appellants,” said James. The restaurant will have a bigger kitchen designed with cousin Katie Riehm’s input, which should elevate the pie game. It will also feature a purpose-built raised deck around the whole building. Jack notes that this will help protect the roots of the venerable old magnolia growing on the property. “It was very important to me that we protect that tree,” said Jack. Overall, the siblings are excited about their new plan. “I think the result that Larry’s team came up with is very, very impressive. We’re happier with this result I think than the original layout,” said James. “It’s more creative,” said Jack.
The interior will be extensively remodeled.
From the perspective of walkability and urban vibrancy, the project has a chance to impact Five Points for the better. It will add some much needed activity, lighting, and safety to what’s currently a dark commercial back street. The stretch between Park Street and the shopping center at Post and Margaret is now dominated by the backs of buildings and dumpsters, creating a dark barrier to walkability between the hopping Park Street strip and the residential neighborhood around it. It also plans on offering something in too short supply in Jacksonville: later food service when most places are serving only alcohol.
The project next goes before the City Council Land Use and Zoning committee from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, in City Hall. Those wishing to weigh in are invited to speak at the meeting or to email Land Use and Zoning committee chair Matt Schellenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Article by Bill Delaney. Contact Bill at email@example.com.
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