Hop Alley – Main Street

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest review from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

Ok, let’s tally the score.  Over the last two years in Alpharetta and nearby areas we’ve seen eight growler stores, two growler gas stations and two breweries open.  Craft beer is the name of the game.  Now we can add one more.

A brew pub called Hop Alley recently opened to great anticipation on Main Street next door to Smokejack.  Owner/brewer Brandon Hintz graduated Georgia Southern in 2008 with a degree in construction management with dreams of following in his father’s footsteps.  The housing market crash lead Brandon and his wife to pursue work in Iowa for the Army Corps of Engineers.  While in Iowa he got into home brewing, eventually joining a home brew club and landing an internship at a local brewery.

At the insistence of his wife, they moved back to Atlanta and Brandon found employment as a brewer at Sweetwater.  Brandon noticed that all the brew pubs  in Iowa seemed to bring the community together. He wanted to bring that sense of community to the Alpharetta area.  After exploring several sites, Brandon chose the space on Main Street.  Coming from a construction background, they did the build out themselves and saved money and time.  From the back deck to the materials inside to the shiny tanks behind the bar, the whole space invites you to come in, have a beer and a good time.

Brandon sees Hop Alley as a chance to expose people to new craft beers; getting people out of the familiar to find something new.  I’ve tried several kinds of beers that I’ve never had before like a saison and a red rye PA.  The vast majority of the beers that are offered are Brandon’s own recipes.  He really has a passion for brewing and is always tinkering with new combinations.  Look for new beers rotating through the schedule in the following months.  The selection is always changing with the seasons, so expect to try something new.

It’s not all about the beer, though.  Hop Alley has a full bar featuring tons of varieties of infused liquors like a bacon bourbon.  There is also a series of fruit and candy infused vodkas that people are snapping up by the bottle.

Enough about the booze; let’s talk food.  Don’t come to Hop Alley expecting typical bar food such as chicken wings and the like.  Brandon hired a chef formally of Going Coastal in Canton to help create a menu of unique and locally sourced cuisine worthy of a high end restaurant.  My wife and I have dined on burgers, salads, steak and sausage sandwiches, and we have never left unsatisfied.

The burgers are some of the best I’ve ever had; juicy and flavorful. The bacon could dent a car it’s so big.  The steak was tender and the Portuguese chorizo sausage on my sandwich was spicy and left me longing for more.  I wish I had ordered the platter and not just the sandwich.  The meat is from Heywoods Butcher in Marietta and the produce comes from North Georgia farmers.

The two best sellers at Hop Alley are the chicken avocado salad and the 50/50 burger (half meat, half bacon).  While the most popular items will stay the same, the rest of the menu will rotate seasonally.  Since Hop Alley has been open the menu has already changed four times.  They use their own beer for the beer batter for the few items that are fried.  Fresh, not frozen, in house prepared and local are the buzz words for the food.

For all the good points, Hop Alley is not without some criticism.  The service has ranged from very good to passable, something that I think will improve over time as they hone their staff.  I tried the bacon infused bourbon, and did not like it.  I really couldn’t taste the bacon and it was a whopping $9 for just a shot.  Pretty scary.

Hop Alley Brew Pub on Urbanspoon

It’s cool to see all the brewing equipment right behind the bar.  Spend some time inside and you’ll likely be able to watch the process.  Brandon is always open for folks to ask questions about beer and brewing but be respectful when he’s in intense periods of work.

Hop Alley is in a great location and it is a very welcome addition to Alpharetta’s craft beer scene.  Will Alpharetta become a OTP beer mecca?  Only time will tell.  Judging by the crowds darkening their doorway, Alpharetta has embraced Hop Alley, as have I.  Cheers!

Bowling alley coming to North Point?

Site rendering of proposed North Point bowling alley

The City of Alpharetta has received a request to allow a bowling alley along North Point Parkway. The site under consideration is the five acre parcel of land adjacent to Bahama Breeze.  This site has sat idle for nearly ten years.

According to architectural renderings obtained by this blogger, a 60,000 square foot bowling alley and entertainment center would be constructed on the site.

This location once held two stand-alone restaurants (name them both and you’ll pick up the spare). In 2007 the restaurants were demolished and the property rezoned for a mix of retail, office and restaurant uses. These plans never came to fruition and are no longer viable given current market conditions.

The property owner seeks a change in master plan and a conditional use permit to allow the bowling alley use on the property. The request will be heard by Alpharetta’s Planning Commission in August and later by Council.

The application comes shortly after another entertainment complex begins construction in Alpharetta. Top Golf has begun clearing land for their massive new complex off West Side Parkway.

The potential owner or operator of the bowling alley has not been revealed to the city. Bowling alley operator Stars and Strikes has a corporate office on North Point very near to this site, but sources with the company say they are not involved with this project. Instead Stars and Strikes is planning a new location in Sandy Springs at the corner of Roswell Road and Dunwoody Place.

Artist rendering of potential entertainment options

Blogger Eli Zandman wrote a story back in May about Brunswick’s new Tavern 45 concept currently being rolled out in Norcross and Marietta. Other bowling concepts mentioned in his article include Dave and Busters, AMF and Lucky Strike Lanes. Might one of these be considering Alpharetta?

Will a bowling alley be compatible with the development around the mall? Which concepts would you like to see come to town? Leave me a comment.

Legal ads and local news reporting

Legal ads. They’re the mice-type blocks of legalese in local newspapers that most ignore. If you’re brave enough to read them you’ll find foreclosures, meeting notices, liquor licenses and bid invitations. Recently while perusing these I found a legal ad inviting newspapers to bid on providing legal ads. Crazy huh? Actually I found two of these. Both Roswell and Alpharetta are currently considering bids from newspapers to become each city’s legal organ.

A legal ad seeking bids for legal ads

Are legal ads still necessary or even relevant in this age of the internet? Municipalities are becoming much more transparent on their web pages and social media campaigns. Forsyth County and the city of Alpharetta in particular are very transparent online. I can get far more detail on what’s going on than I can with a legal ad in a weekly newspaper.

Nevertheless municipalities will spend tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars on this slow and antiquated way to disseminate information to citizens. But don’t blame them. State law requires the selection of a legal organ. Alpharetta, Johns Creek and Milton all use the Appen Newspapers for their legal ads. Roswell currently uses the Neighbor Newspaper (owned by the Marietta Daily Journal). Forsyth County and Cumming used the Forsyth County News.

Legal ad contracts create a relationship between municipality and newspaper that isn’t directly disclosed to readers. Effectively the municipalities are customers of the newspapers. And even if a paper doesn’t have a legal ad contract with a city, in the future they might bid on the business.

It’s these same newspapers that report on the happenings at city hall or a candidate. And like any article a paper writes about a client, the story is almost always going to be positive. It would be extremely unwise for a newspaper to report negatively on a city, a city employee or politician when these same people decide who receives lucrative legal ad contracts.

Most stories that are critical of local governments are first reported by either bloggers or media from Atlanta (the AJC, WSBtv, etc). That should come as no surprise.

I’m not leveling criticism at any particular newspaper. I know several local journalists and think they do tremendous work bringing compelling news to their readers. But readers need to understand when there is a financial consideration happening behind the story.

Alpharetta’s last bastions

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

In this column we sometimes talk of restaurants who make Alpharetta first on their list. A chain will plant a flag here in the burbs before attempting to conquer a larger portion of metro Atlanta. Recently that’s happened with the burger chains like Smashburger. Others like Qdoba Mexican Grill have followed this strategy.

But what about those leaving? A small handful struggling restaurants and retailers have largely left metro Atlanta yet still hold onto turf here in the burbs. Do you know of any in Alpharetta? Here’s a few.

Fuddruckers - A few days ago a co-worker gave me a false alarm. She thought Fuddruckers had closed their North Point location. I double checked and her information was incorrect. But that news wouldn’t have surprised me. North Point’s location is one of only three left in metro Atlanta. The chain has been sold numerous times and has been in and out of bankruptcy.

I’ll admit that I go here once or twice a year. Suppose it is nostalgia. Somehow these guys have kept at it, surviving well into the burger craze. They’ve even managed to survive with a Five Guys just across the parking lot.

Artuzzi’s - Windward Parkway is home to the very last location of this chain that once had eateries across metro Atlanta. In its glory days six or eight years ago this restaurant had throngs of cubicle dwellers at lunchtime with lines out the door. Today their menu looks bland compared to similar fast-casual Italian joints like Figo or Mirko. But the place appears to be under new ownership. Can they turn the ship around?

Blockbuster - This one gets an honorable mention (or maybe a dishonorable mention). But Alpharetta managed to hang onto one of the very last retail locations of Blockbuster video. They were on Crabapple Road in the Kroger shopping center but closed recently. Today the last Blockbuster store in metro Atlanta can be found in Norcross. The purveyor of movies in legacy media formats failed to stay with the technology, allowing themselves to become a commodity.

Can you think of any other chain restaurants or retailers that have managed to cling to life in Alpharetta? Let me know in the comments!

Independence Day in Alpharetta

Today we feature a guest post from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

July 4, 1776, the date that America declared its independence from Britain.  America has been onward and upward ever since.  It’s the freedoms we’ve earned since that day that allow me to write this article, although it’s the freedoms allowed by Lee to let me have this article published.

Independence Day is my favorite holiday, mostly because I can celebrate in the fashion that Americans love – by blowing stuff up.  Growing up in Atlanta, I had no access to personal fireworks due to Georgia laws.  Imagine the sadness of a ten year old boy standing in the driveway holding a lowly sparkler craning my head to the sky longing for more.

The fireworks laws in Georgia have turned most of the citizens into interstate traffickers.  When I was able to drive, my friends and I made the short 90 minute jaunt out I-20 to the first exit inside Alabama, where there was nothing except half a dozen fireworks stores.  We would load up and head back, risking fines and possible jail time.  That’s how much we love this country.  Today, the laws have relaxed a bit.   Fireworks tents have popped up in most large parking lots offering all kinds of sparking, flaming, exploding bits of freedom.

There are tons of other options for fireworks in Atlanta other than the “where are my fingers” do it yourself  variety.  I spent many a night asleep in the backseat while my parents fought traffic for hours trying to leave Stone Mountain after the display ended.  I’ve been to Lenox and Roswell.  Lenox was insanely crowded.  I ended up sitting in a bush in the Lenox mall parking lot.  Not the most comfortable experience.  It felt like I had Black cats going off on my rear end from the thorns.

I love Alpharetta’s Independence Day celebration at Wills Park.  Highway 9 is lined with families tailgating in their folding chairs and kids running about with the classic sparkler.  In addition to the fireworks, there is food, live entertainment and bouncy houses inside the park itself from 5:00 PM on.  My wife and I discovered a special secret place to view the fireworks – the parking deck at North Fulton Hospital.  It’s free on the weekends, but you will have to pay during  the week.  Drive to the top, park your car and wait for the magic.  As the fireworks roll on, look to the South. You will see numerous other displays from around the city – Roswell, Canton and maybe even Lenox.  It’s very peaceful.  Plus, it’s easy to get out and get home once everything is over.

So everyone have a safe and fun July 4th.  We want you around on July 5th to continue to celebrate the freedom of America.

Photo credit: bayassa (creative commons)

DMD’s fourth annual doughnut eating contest

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

The 2011 DMD doughnut eating champion

Dutch Monkey Doughnuts’ annual doughnut eating contest continues to grow. It’s turned into the premier competitive eating contest in our area. This year’s event will be on Thursday July 4th at 1:00pm. Four challengers have been selected to take on last year’s champion. You won’t want to miss this spectacle of extreme gluttony.

A children’s event starts at noon. Kids must consume a very gooey doughnut without the use of their hands. Bring extra towels.

What: The 4th Annual Independence Day Doughnut Eating Contest
Where: Dutch Monkey Doughnuts, 3075 Ronald Reagan Pkwy, across from The Avenue Forsyth The Collection at Forsyth
When: Thursday July 4th, 1:00pm
Why: Why not? Proceeds will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

More info can be found on Dutch Monkey’s Facebook page.

Alpharetta Restaurant & Retail News – June 2013 redux

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday.

We’ve got a couple of new items in the last few weeks. Felt the news was worthy of publishing a second restaurant news column this month.

Hop Alley has finally opened in downtown Alpharetta and is generating a lot of buzz. The buildout is beautiful and the location perfect to take advantage of the food truck crowds. I’ve only been once but enjoyed the burger and onion rings I tried. This place has got a tremendous amount of potential.

Great Harvest Bread will open a location on Windward Parkway next to the new Mambo’s Cafe. This will be only the third metro Atlanta location, the next closest being Johns Creek. They’ve closed all their ITP locations. Will Great Harvest steal business from Panera on Windward?

And speaking of Windward… It appears that Xian China Bistro may have temporarily closed. No additional details are available.

Mama’s Pizza will close their Old Milton Parkway location at the end of June to re-open near the mall. Look for them to open in August on North Point next to Figo Pasta where Mango’s Cuban used to be. This is an interesting move for Mama’s. The Brookside office parks have provided a brisk lunchtime business for these guys for years. Will they do as well on North Point? Either way it’s a boost to the mall restaurant scene. Mama’s makes a pretty good New York style pie.

I’m hearing rumors from a reputable source that a new “artisan” pizza restaurant may be coming to the former Luciano’s space in Johns Creek. The concept will be from the restaurant group behind Luciano’s and Pampas Steakhouse. Will the success of Campania encourage competition?

I’ve confirmed that the folks behind Jose’s Mexican Grill (coming soon to North Point and Webb Bridge) are the same guys that ran Rio Nuevo on North Point. Let’s hope they make a better go of things this time.

A new Hungry Howies franchise is opening in south Forsyth on Bethelview Road. While their pizza is nothing to get excited about, this location it noteworthy because it is the first in the northern burbs of Atlanta.

In retail news – we’ve been watching the former Dolce Vita space in Johns Creek for a few months now as someone’s been renovating the space. We now know who. This will be the new home for Alpharetta’s Muse Salon and Spa. They will leave their current digs on Kimball Bridge when the construction is complete. Muse is perhaps Alpharetta’s most trendy salon. A scene from the movie The Joneses was filmed here.

And finally, Alpharetta antique lovers will soon have another store. Cumming antique shop The Green Bean Exchange will open a new location on South Main Street behind the Bank of America.

Avalon’s tax abatement – incentive or icing on the cake?

North American Properties has secured a lucrative tax abatement package for their Avalon property in Alpharetta. Granted by the Development Authority of Fulton County, the abatement reduces Avalon’s tax assessment by 50%, gradually phasing back over ten years. The net result is a huge property tax savings for North American Properties.

The plan is implemented as a sale-leaseback transaction. The Development Authority purchases Avalon using bonds valued at $550 Million. The property is deeded to the authority and leased back to North American Properties. Lease payments service the bonds.

Since the Development Authority is a tax-exempt organization they pay no property tax on their interest in Avalon. North American Properties isn’t tax-exempt and is subject to tax on their interest in the lease. As part of the deal the parties agree that this value is a fraction of the market value of the property, or 50% in this case. That value increases by 5% each year.

Abatement packages like this are controversial. The Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation has sued multiple times over projects in downtown Atlanta and Buckhead. One such case went to the Georgia Supreme Court. Projects in Alpharetta are rare. But with Avalon’s bond price tag hovering at half a billion dollars, the abatement deal ranks right up there with the biggest in Atlanta.

Proponents of tax abatements argue that they are valuable incentives used to lure development and jobs to an area. An argument could be made that the abandoned Prospect Park site was a blight requiring incentives to encourage development. In Avalon’s bond application they claim the project will create 1000 temporary construction jobs and 1,100 full-time equivalent when phase 1 is complete.

Opponents might argue that these incentives are often just icing on the cake for a developer. Many of the deals approved by Fulton’s Development Authority have come after a project is well underway. That argument could be made for Avalon. They have already purchased the property, got the site plan and zoning approved, demolished the old structures and have signed leases from tenants. The site is “going vertical” soon. Property tax abatements were never discussed as a condition of Avalon coming to Alpharetta.

At the end of the day, North American Properties will pay substantially less property tax to Fulton County, Fulton Schools and the City of Alpharetta. Alpharetta’s tax digest will be reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars for a few years. Is it a legitimate incentive to bring a huge project to Alpharetta? Or is this just an extra helping of gravy for a developer?


BurgerFi – Windward

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Today we feature a guest review from Mike Christensen. Follow Mike on Twitter @SCSA31274.

The name BurgerFi reminds me of the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fi, which means always faithful.  BurgerFi must mean “burger faithful” because the place has been packed since it opened just a short time ago. BurgerFi opened to much fanfare and hoards of folks crowded the doors clamoring for the latest, greatest in burger offerings.

BurgerFi is a chain out of Florida with 47 locations. Alpharetta is the fourth location in Georgia.  They focus on all natural, grass fed beef with no additives or chemicals.  In addition to burgers, BurgerFi offers five different styles of hot dogs including a 100% Wagyu Kobe beef dog.

What goes better with a burger than a cold beer?  BurgerFi has several craft brews on tap as well as wine by the glass or bottle for your imbibing pleasure.  I was pleased to see Red Hare represented.

For your sweet tooth, BurgerFi offers frozen custards, frozen concretes and cupcakes.

Let’s start with the space itself.  BurgerFi took over a store front at the end of the small strip occupied by Fed Ex.  The first thing they did was blow out all the windows and walls to create a nice patio outside.  No fences and a hard, heavy roof lends a sense of both openness and coziness.  Large fans outside keep things cool. A variety of seating including picnic tables gives off a vibe of a neighborhood gathering place.

A large sliding door leads you inside. That’s where things go downhill.  It’s very busy inside with no real flow to get to order your food.  You have to squeeze past all the tables to get to the counter.  Seating is tight due to the large outdoor space.  If there is a line, which there has been every time I’ve been there, it extends into the dining area making seating that much more awkward.

You place your order and receive one of those pager buzzy square things. Have a seat, if you can find one. On our first visit, my wife and I had to stand around then leap on a vacated table, claiming it like an explorer in the new world.

Lighting is supplied by really cool chrome ice tongs with bare bulbs hanging beneath them.  The decor of stainless steel and light colored wood really works.  It’s industrial, yet warm. Unfortunately the chairs are a little small for the normal burger consumer.

On our first visit I opted for the basic cheeseburger along with fries and onion rings.  The burgers come with the BurgerFi logo branded into the bun.  It’s cute but it doesn’t really add anything.  The burgers are on the small side but big on flavor.  The bun had a soft, yeasty quality that was welcome on my palate.

The fries were crispy, salty and very good.  You can order your fries with numerous toppings including salt and vinegar, cheese, herbs or chili.  The rings were also good with a light coating over thick cut onions and good onion flavor.  They were greasy to the touch however.

Next time I ordered the cardiologist’s best friend, the B.A.D. (Breakfast All Day) burger. It’s a gut-busting combination of bacon, maple syrup, hash browns, a fried egg, onions and ketchup.  It tasted like any other burger, if not worse.  I couldn’t taste any syrup. The hash browns formed a thick potato mass at the bottom of the burger that made chewing difficult.  It was an interesting concept but poorly executed.

My wife opted for the Kobe beef hot dog.  Looking more like a kielbasa sausage, split and grilled, it was actually very good.  Then again, it didn’t taste much different than what you can make at home.

The milkshakes are extraordinary.  Making shakes with custard instead of ice cream leads to a creamier, smoother shake.

Leave your diet at home when visiting BurgerFi. The calorie count, listed on the menu, is enough to make your belt explode. But hey, who said burgers were healthy?

BurgerFi on Urbanspoon

Cost is the other negative.  Get happy with your choices and two people could rack up a $30 tab.  A burger, fries and a drink can run you around $12.  Add in a $4 shake or a $6 concrete, and your arteries won’t be the only thing taking a pounding.  It’s just a little pricey for a fast casual burger that doesn’t really stand out among all the other choices in the area.

BurgerFi is firmly in the middle of the pack in terms of the burgers.  The throngs of people roosting in the dining room seem to speak to Alpharetta’s desire for something new on the burger horizon.  Too bad there’s nothing really new or memorable at BurgerFi.

Could movie theater relocation sink Alpharetta’s Mansell Road?

In the next two years both of Alpharetta’s movie theaters along North Point Parkway are likely to relocate. The result could leave gaping retail holes along the city’s southern-most corridor.

The first to go will be AMC at Mansell Crossing. The chain is building a new theater up the street in the former Parisian anchor space at North Point Mall. It’s expected to open this fall.

While the chain hasn’t formally announced the closure of the Mansell Crossing location, it certainly wouldn’t make sense to operate two theaters in such proximity. The Mansell Crossing theater space measures 51,000 square feet.

Adjacent to AMC Mansell Crossing is a Barnes and Noble book store.The book store benefits from theater foot traffic. It’s a great place to kill time before a movie starts. This customer base simply isn’t there when the theater moves up the street.

The retail book business isn’t doing well. Barnes and Noble announced recently that they would close 200 retail locations over the next decade. Might this Alpharetta location make that list? The store here measures 25,000 square feet.

Regal theaters is building at the Avalon project on Old Milton Parkway. Their small eight screen theater on North Point will close once that move happens. That leaves 34,000 square feet vacant.

Two large spaces are already vacant along Mansell Road. The former Home Depot Expo Design Center, across GA-400 next to Sam’s Club, has sat empty for years. It measures in at a massive 87,000 square feet.

Also vacant is the old Champps Americana restaurant space. This 10,000 square foot restaurant is fully equipped yet the broker marketing the place can’t seem to find a tenant.

That’s over 200,000 square feet of retail space that could go vacant along or near Mansell Road over the next two years. It’s an alarming statistic that should keep political and business leaders up at night. Could the rash of vacancies cause a closure domino effect? Might Mansell’s restaurant row be next?

What incentives should the city consider to attract new business to this area? And there are uses that might work in these enormous vacant spaces? Leave me a comment!

Photo credit: Alonzo Jeter

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