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Is Virginia-Highland's restaurant and retail scene being overtaken by corporate monsters?

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Is Virginia-Highland's restaurant and retail scene being overtaken by corporate monsters?

Expert examines shift from local to corporate as real estate costs increase

Virginia-Highland, one of the few pedestrian friendly districts in Atlanta, is clearly one of the best retail sub-markets.

With commercial real estate rental prices at the top of the market for any sub-market in Atlanta, the area now boasts rents that greater than Downtown, Midtown and West Midtown,  and most of Buckhead for commercial spaces. The real estate taxes and operating expenses (pass through charges) are at more than $8 dollars per square foot. Keep in mind, that's in addition to a hefty cost of $36 to $40 gross per square foot!

In the VirginiaHighland area, a 2,000-square-foot shop would cost around $80,000 per year ($6,500 per month). That's not exactly chump change, especially for  start ups or local one-off businesses.

So I took to the computer and found there are five retail spaces available (for sale and rent) in the immediate area: 1. Site for sale at $420 per square foot (sounds like Streets of Buckhead land prices in 2007),  2. Retail site for sale at $368 per square foot (also very high for a non-occupied space), 3. For rent at $32 per square foot, 4. For rent at $28.50 per square foot, 5. For rent at $30 per square foot.

As the area becomes too expensive for locally established ma-and-pa shops to succeed, can chains and corporate businesses be blamed for taking over? Perhaps the building and land owners should be blamed for charging premium rents-- the heavy rental obligations are sinking the local one-off businesses and are scaring away potential start-ups.

I went to brunch at Murphy’s last weekend with my aunt, an animal and environmental activist, business owner and Virginia-Highland resident for 30 years. I found it interesting to hear her perspective on the recent restaurant and retail additions to Virginia-Highland and her growing irritation of how the community is slowly evolving into “mainstream” and losing its fundamentalist beginnings and character.

Across from Murphy's, the newly opened YEAH! Burger in a former service station space, brought my aunt disgust as we talked. When I told her it must be better than having the service station, she looked at me as if I just ordered a three patty burger with extra bacon.

Yogli Mogli, which recently opened in the area as well,  is looked on as another sign of a  trend or fad coming to an original area, according to my aunt. Despite kids pouring out the front door with laughter, her argument is that there's one in Sandy Springs which is "so suburban." The replacement of Everybody's Pizza with the Atlanta Chain, based Genki Sushi, makes her even more upset. To her, Virginia-Highland represents a selective lifestyle and mind set, a variation of social conformation and corporations. The community has always been loyal and supportive of the local based businesses.

She is more than thankful that “THE MIX” development got struck down by the real estate Gods when the market turned. That development alone (condos, commercial, and retail space) would have tarnished Highland Avenue for her and the thought of a massive parking deck shadowing the street, sickens her stomach.

I’ve been a regular in Virginia-Highland for the last ten years and the recent changes don't bother me. More retail makes the area stronger, new concepts keep the streets busy, friendly and vibrant, and the atmosphere positive and upbeat. And to be frank,  I am the guy who does eat at Genki and YEAH! Burger.

The area still has plenty of charm. It’s not a mall, but rather unique and full of character. There's a good balance of the old movement and the new. Ten years from now, when you walk Highland Avenue and read the signage above each space, will it still be like that?

Do you side with my aunt's thinking of the neighborhood? Share your thoughts on the evolving Virginia-Highland community over the last two years-- what would you like to see fill those five empty spaces?

Shaun Weinstock

Intown residents Shaun Weinstock and Dotan Zuckerman are innovative Real Estate professionals with nearly 20 years of combined experience in helping retail and office clients align their real estate with their objectives. To learn more, visit or email our expert:

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45 responses to “Is Virginia-Highland's restaurant and retail scene being overtaken by corporate monsters?

  1. My grandparents lived on Rosedale Road off Virginia and my mom grew up in the neighborhood. I think your aunt is being both unrealistic and narrow-minded where these businesses are concerned. YEAH! Burger is locally owned by Shaun Doty, not McDonald's. Genki is also a local restaurant - not really a chain. I hate the resurgence of yogurt shops too, but Yogli Mogli isn't exactly TCBY. Businesses have to make money in order to survive anywhere. If they're raking it in, they usually don't close - unless the owner dies suddenly without an heir, or something like that. Restaurants and retail stores, no matter how much we love them, all have their heydays, and when those are over, they close, to be replaced by whatever is popular at the time.

  2. First of all, LOVE your website. Love, love, love it.

    Secondly, now that I've set you up (LOL), I'm surprised your aunt hasn't corrected you to call it Virginia Highland, not with an "s". Even in its plural sense, it's called Virginia Highland. The added "s" has just come from years of people incorrectly saying it.

  3. For instance, your headline should read "Is the Virginia Highland restaurant and retail scene being overtaken by corporate monsters?"

  4. No offense to your aunt, but I think it's great that new businesses like Yeah! Burger have moved into the Virginia Highland neighborhood! There are only two Yeah! Burgers, so it's not like they're McDonald's or something. There were two Everybody's until the VaHi location closed, and nobody was referring to them as "corporate monsters".

    Fifth Group has several successful concepts in VaHi (La Tavola & El Taco), and nobody is bitching about them... same with NNNW (Highland Tap & Fontaine's).

    And Virginia Highland institution Moe's & Joe's - have you looked at their website??? They have 8 "sister bars" throughout Atlanta!!!

    What it boils down to is that people don't like change. If Yeah! Burger is a "corporate monster", then Virginia Highland has been home to corporate monsters for quite a while now.

    It's a free market economy, so if businesses are willing to keep paying the high rents in Virginia Highland, then the landlords will keep filling the spaces.

  5. I was so sad when Caramba Cafe left & I am praying they put another mom & pop not a yeah burger, my boyfriend still refuses to eat there! We love Taco Mac (even though it is tiny) & I'm concerned how it is going to be effected once Hudson Grill Opens & Mai Lai with Ginki. There is already a midtown, why do we need another one. They need to keep the neighborhood feel.

  6. Yeah! Burger, Genki and Yogli Mogli are Atlanta based, locally owned companies. Yeah! Burger has 1 other location, Genki has 2 locations in Buckhead. Yogli Mogli can be considered a chain because it has a bunch of locations, but it is still Atlanta based.

    And the mom and pop businesses are surviving if they provide the right product and services, as with any business. You can't blame the land owners for charging to keep the neighborhood exclusive. When houses are $500K and up, the retail space has to be pricey. Brookhaven, Buckhead and Midtown are the same.

    13 of the retailers on the block are still "mom and pop"!

    The rest of the spaces are filled with restaurants, most of which are owned by groups (Concentrics, 5th group), Half Moon is part of chain based out of Charleston, and Paper Source has many location as well.

    So, as much as everyone thinks the Highlands are getting "over run by corporate monsters", have they ever thought to congratulate local business owners on their successes and expansions in such hard times?

    If they can hack it in the Highlands when the economy is still bad, just think what awaits the area when the economy turns around. I think the future of the Virginia Highlands area looks bright, and the new retailers are setting the standards high.

  7. @K-Dog: That's funny about Moe's and Joes. They put up a sign that said "What's Next? Applebees?" when Yeah! Burger was opening.

    Who knew they had more locations than Yeah! Burger!

  8. I heard the corporate giants were also taking over Toco Hills with the letter S.

    Also, Emory will be renamed Emery.

  9. I can't wait for La Fonda, Fellini's, Mellow Mushroom and Chickfila to get into Va-Hi. It will be the BEST neighborhood in all of Atlanta, just like Castleberry!

  10. It's "Virginia-Highland", its on the sign. Neighborhood gets its name from where Virginia and N. Highland meet. Virginia Highlands are something else entirely.

  11. Would love to open a Which Wich? in the area, yes we are a chain, but locally owned, and care for our customers. Thoughts? Dont bash too hard

  12. 1. I'm not sure why people think that just because something is "Atlanta Based", that doesn't make it a chain. Multiple locations means you're a chain, no matter where you're based. That said, there's a difference between being McDonald's and being Yeah Burger. Institutionalizing, and sterilizing, your establishment is what most chains do, and it's what detracts people from feeling like they're worthwhile establishments. Taco Mac & Hudson Grill are perfect examples. There is nothing unique about either of those places. Yeah Burger is different. They have a unique menu, They provide the Times to read on the weekends (one of the things I love about the place), etc. They also don't plaster TV's on every available inch of wall space they can find...and Atlanta needs a lot more restaurants that realize that dining out is about the meal and your company, not what's on TV.

    2. You should give your aunt a copy of Jane Jacobs' "Death & Life of Great American Cities"....I think she'd be able to empathize, and it's (i) pretty much the bible for modern urban design, and (ii) the best template out there for understanding what makes cities function properly.

  13. @Tanya, you and everyone else complaining about the misspelling of your neighborhood (with or without an "s") versus what the article is discussing -- the future of it -- is pathetic. you all must live very simple, boring lives.

  14. If everyone really wants Virginia Highland to remain eclectic, unique, diverse and an iconic neighborhood in ATL, they must remember to shop local, eat local. YES, the rent is High. VERY HIGH. Overhead is high, staff is expensive. These boutiques & restaurants cannot stay in business without support. Local "chains" are moving in as they have deeper pockets. These "chains" are still LOCAL, small businesses and they are creating JOBS. Also creating a buzz for the neighborhood. The owners/upper management still have a huge presence in the majority of boutiques/restaurants in VaHi, (single or multi-location.) Those who ALREADY shop/eat local, know the the faces of these "mom and pop" businesses. This weekend the weather should be fantastic. Walk around the neighborhood, talk to the stores/restaurants because Virginia Highland is not as corporate as you might think 🙂

  15. My name is Kaito Nubo and I am the executive chef and owner of Restaurant Nubo, scheduled to open spring 2013 in New Highland Tower in Virginia-Highland.

    Restaurant Nubo will be on the 26th floor of the soon to be built New Highland Tower ( and will offer guests panoramic views of Virginia-Highland.

    We will have three separate dining rooms and a bar lounge.

    In addition to Nubo’s signature dishes, the restaurant will also offer locally-inspired specials like Wagyu Grits, Seabass Jalapeno Cornbread, and Kanpachi Sashimi with Collard Greens and Yuzu Dressing.

    We look forward to seeing you when we open.

  16. Really - the only multi-unit non-local chains represented in VaHi are CVS, Chipotle and Chicos. Even these store units manage to maintain a "local" feel with good staff, many of whom are VaHi residents.

  17. I wonder if the future of Virginia Highlands is the same as that of Buckheads, Midtowns, with a lot of chains. Will other quaint neighborhoods like Grant Parks, Cabbagetowns, Inman Parks, and Candler Parks follow suit?

  18. @George...I think that's a fair concern. Most neighborhoods in Atlanta that maintain an independent feel are those that remain largely working class (or young professional). The neighborhoods that have a demographic of more established professionals are largely homogonized by chain restaurants, retailers, etc. It's kind of ironic, because you would think that as you beomce wealtheir, your tastes become more independent, and you start to seek out more unique pleasures. Unfortunately, as I've percieved in Atlanta, it seems that as a whole, the wealthier people get, the more willing they are to sacrifice independence and unique-ness in lieu of a nicer car or an extra guest bedroom.

    As this article notes, the rents in the Highlands have become expensive. They've become that way, because the neighborhood itself is very charming and wealthy. You would think that it would create an influx of high end restaurants, cocktail bars, boutique retailers, etc. for which it has a number of. However, if the residents don't frequent these places enough, then they'll all eventually turn over to the chains that have lower operating costs and deeper pockets.

  19. While I get the point of this article, it's SO poorly written that it was pretty painful to read. Does anyone ever edit these things before they get posted?

  20. I agree with your Aunt. Having lived in VaHi for 30 years, what I loved about the neighborhood in the first place is disappearing, mom and pop businesses replaced by trendier shops and gastro-eateries serving the new richer, trendier, more solidly yuppie new residents who are shelling out over a million dollars for a renovated 2000 sq ft bungalow. The newbies are people with money who love to follow lifestyle trends, especially trends in food, entertainment, technology, child rearing, sports and especially ownership of material objects. I miss the days when the people of VaHi were pioneers of lifestyle trends, not followers, when we appreciated our local businesses because they provided solid value, not the most trendy (and expensive) services and products, when we appreciated our neighbors because we truly believed in mutual respect, not imposing our own sensibilities on everyone else.

  21. Hi Shaun,

    It's Erik Maier from YEAH! BURGER. Thank you for your patronage and for the shout-out in your post. We are thrilled to be serving Virginia-Highland and have had a great response from the neighborhood so far.

    I felt compelled to let you know that we only serve humanely-raised meats and we're one of the most environmentally-friendly restaurants in the country. We go the extra mile because this is what we believe in. Please pass this info along to your aunt 🙂

    Best regards,
    Managing Partner, YEAH! BURGER

  22. Lived in the area since 2005, and I really do like the lack of big chains. Yeah! Burger has been a great addition, though, and Which Wich (@Gary B) would probably work well too. The area seems to be a good location for a limited number of smaller chains.

    I don't know if any of you have ever eaten at a Maoz, but it's a vegetarian falafel chain restaurant (pretty rare in the us). I think it would be an excellent fit for VaHi.

  23. I don't know what all the hoopla is about whether there is an "s" at the end of this neighborhood's name. I've been here for nearly 40 years and have heard it referred to as "the Highlands", the "Highland-Virginia neighborhood" as well as the official name of Virginia Highland. The name "the Highlands" is probably the term in most common usage by those who don't actually live here. And, I've heard it used by some who do "Oh, I live in The Highlands." Kind of like "the Village" rather than "Greenwich Village." We don't need to be snobs about this- so long as people know where we are, that's all that matters.

    I don't think we're in real danger of becoming a Chick-fil-a/MacDonalds type of neighborhood. The rent is too high and parking not convenient enough for those types of high-volume places. I do wish some more ambitious shop owners would fill the now-vacant spaces that have been victims of the recession, perhaps with a corresponding reduction on the rent to be in tune with the times. I'm also glad that "The Mix" is not progressing currently, and I hope it never does. We don't need that level of density, even on one corner.


  24. Funny, I was reading another blog recently about the future of another part of the metro area. Slightly different concerns, but same underlying issue - stay the same, or embrace change?

    I think ultimately healthy neighborhoods and cities always evolve. It's inevitable. The trick is doing it in ways sensitive to the needs of residents and visitors. Local is good. But sometimes chains can be handy too (like 24 hour pharmacies). And I don't know that more than one of something automatically makes it evil. What if mom and pop open a second shop? Does that condemn them to corporate soullessness overnight?

    As for "the Highlands", anybody who has lived in Atlanta a long time gets a good laugh over that mangling. There are no "highlands". The elevation of that area is the same as that surrounding it. And there is only one street named "Highland" - no need for a plural. It's a lot like calling Atlanta the "the Atlantas".

  25. I don't disagree Jayde...embracing change and evolving is one of the necessary fundamentals for successful cities. I also agree that having a mix of local/national/global businesses in a city is a good thing as well. However, when they overwhelm (which, granted, they have yet to do in VaHi), your city turns into a suburb. I think most city-dwellers live in the city to specifically avoid the homogenization that occurs in the burbs. And no, having 2 locations doesn't mean you're a soulless corporate no-gooder. However, to call corporate giants soulless no-gooders is wrong to begin with.

    I actually had an interesting conversation this weekend about why chains (local or national) tend to thrive in Atlanta, and what came of the conversation was this: Local chains (Flying Biscuit, Yeah Burger, Taco Mac, etc.) thrive in a city like Atlanta, because of the conservative and traditional culture that engulfs the city. Of course, there are pockets of creativity and liberalism, but generally speaking this city is as "red" as it gets for a major MSA. Because of this, non-traditional (and riskier) ventures aren't embraced like they are in some other cities. It's perfectly acceptable/responsible to peddle residential homes, despite having no understanding of the underlying fundamentals of your business (common for the residential broker), but if you're a restaurant (or a bar) entreprenuer, you're the type who just can't get their head on straight and get a "real job". That makes it very difficult to (i) break out of the conservative role - especially if you grew up around here - and do something new & creative, and (ii) to succeed with a new and inventive concept. However, if you can make a mediocre burger and serve it in a room with wall to wall televisions, you're sure to succeed.

    There's a small population of city-dwellers (most of which are either not from Atlanta, or moved away for a while before moving back) who crave this cutting edge style of dining/nightlife/etc. Go to Edgewood Ave on a Friday or Saturday night, and it's clear. The sound table is an all inclusive chic restaurant, cocktail lounge, and nightclub in one. The crowd is attractive, stylish, cultured, and smart. There are plenty of other similar examples down there too. Of course, this is a no man's land for many of the more traditional Atlantians. Go to Buckhead on a Friday or Saturday night, and it's also clear. The crowds are drunk, stupid, cheap, uncultured, and stylish - if the only thing you consider stylish is Polo...and that's Mainstream Atlanta. Point is, Atlanta doesn't really embrace embraces more locations of the same thing, which is why it is failing as a city.

  26. If you're passionately arguing about whether or not there's an "s" on Virginia Highland, please find a more productive way to spend your time.

  27. It's called the Highlands by residents and Atlantans, so I think calling it Virginia Highlands is perefectly acceptable.

    As for the chain debate, as many other commenters have pointed out, most of the existing businesses there have multiple locations. Everybody's had two locations until the Va-Hi one closed. Aurora Coffee has at least two locations, Taco Mac sells its terrible food all over the place, Noche is a chain, as is freaking CHEVRON which has arguably the best corner in the entire neighborhood. While I am all for locally owned, those complaining about local "chains" like Genki and Yeah Burger have not been paying attention to what's already been in the Highlands for many years.

  28. Urbanist's reply really nailed it:
    "...the rents in the Highlands have become expensive. They’ve become that way, because the neighborhood itself is very charming and wealthy...(edit)...However, if the residents don’t frequent these places enough, then they’ll all eventually turn over to the chains that have lower operating costs and deeper pockets."

    as a former retail employee down there i can speak from experience that the rent is high, but it used to be worth it. the neighborhood was pretty darn loyal and the tourists that visited filled in the gap. over the past few years, i'll be honest, the neighborhood's loyalty has dissapeared. they come in and ask for donations for their fundraisers, bring their out of town friends by to show off how great the neighborhood is, but when it comes to actually spending money...well not so much.

    they want awesome customer service (happy to help), free gift wrap (no problem), and then ask for a discount on things just because something similar costs a buck or two less at target. try walking into target and getting actual customer service. watch them laugh at you when you request free gift wrap. and i dare you to ask for a discount just because! yet who do you think can afford the discount more? the massive chain or the mom and pop? you may think i am stretching the truth but it happened time and time again.

    you can blame the high rent all you want (it doesn't help) but it really is the lack of local love that kills the independent. go ahead and spend a buck or two more at a place you dig. i try to remind myself of that as i drive past candler park market - it's more than kroger, but i love the people and the vibe so i CHOOSE to spend my money there when i can.

  29. When Taco Mac moved into midtown I complained about another boring chain restaurant coming in.

    If Moe's and Joe's were to come to Midtown everyone would complain about another typical, chain frat bar moving in.

    These are two of the centerpieces of VaHi restaurant scene. And you are complaining about YEAH! Burger being a chain?

  30. Vir-High used to have a lot of Culanary creativity. i.e. Indigo & Partners, Terra Cotta, Harvest, Dish etc. With the exception of Thai restaurants I can't think of a non bar, buger taco joint there now. So I think your Aunt misses the mix that is lacking there now. I really enjoy the casual restaurants but I used to start the night a nice restaurant and then head to a Highland Tap or Atkins Park for a night cap. Now it's just drinking. Opps. I just remembered Rose Bud, haven't been yet but on my list.

  31. @clark Rosebud is in Morningside, not Virginia-Highland.

    @J The desire to rename comes from the same cocktail of marketing and profit that reduced Virginia-Highland from what it was to what it now is. Call it what you want, I suppose, you bought it.

    The loss of local there is real, but those stores whose future we worry about replaced stores whose future we also worried about, Vermillion, Tim's etc. Hell, what happened to the auto parts place and the diner (now Chico's)? Oil and Greasy were their nicknames and they made for a good Saturday.

  32. Besides the others mentioned, Murphy's is part of Concentric, Noche is part of Here to Serve, and Wells Fargo is a huge national bank (albeit with a hideous sign) On the other hand, RoseBud is local, not a chain (I don't think), but is expensive and NOT good. I don't mind if it is part of a small, local group as long as it is good and not a cookie cutter restaurant. Moe's and Joe's has the rudest staff in the world and I would not mind seeing Yeah Burger eat their lunch until they get a clue.

  33. I love YEAH Burger! They are very friendly, the restaurant is clean and the food is very good! I was skeptical at first but not anymore! Now, if only Shaun Doty would open a new "Shaun's" in Va-Highland!

  34. Thanks Shawn, for helping to stir the pot on something that has been quietly grumbled about for years here in Virginia Highland. Who would have known that the name you used to describe the neighborhood would solicit such a passionate side-debate?

    I also must thank you for supporting Genki. We have been seen as an Atlanta "chain" by some and not in a positive way. A little known fact about Genki, that may comfort some of the nay-sayers, is that Reid Zeising, the owner of the 3 Genkis, has a unique vision when it comes to his different locations. When he selects a site, he picks a distinctively unique neighborhood each time. He says he never wants to be able to walk out the door of one of his restaurants into what looks like any suburban strip mall in America.

    Reid takes it one step further. He actually designs his restaurants to fit and gel within the neighborhood "vibe". Some would say that keeping a consistent look and feel in every restaurant helps to strengthen the brand. He feels it is more important to embrace the neighborhood's charm use it to influence the interior and exterior design. If anyone has ever visited the Buckhead or Sandy Springs Genki they can attest to how completely different each environment is and how it actually "fits" the local scene.

    It may also not be common Knowledge that after an extensive search, Genki hired a new General Manager in December. The criteria included finding a professional with a long history in the neighborhood. We were lucky enough to snag Neil Hodge back from out of town to take on the role. Neil was the General Manager of the Dark Horse for 7 years and we are fortunate to have him back in town and helping us to get more firmly planted here.

    Genki gets involved in the neighborhood at every turn. We donate thousands and thousands of dollars in food to the local Schools for tastings, Dine-Ins and silent auction items, to local and national charities with auction items, door prizes and Genki Gives, to the racers that run through we add freebees to their goody bags and even hand out free hot green tea and edamame on early and cold pre-race mornings. We even support Virginia Highland itself with free food for Taste of the Highlands, where we provide several tastings of our menu to 1000 or more people.

    Under some people's definition, we might be considered a chain, but Genki clearly does everything we can possibly do to prove to each community we join that we want to be a good neighbor.

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