Once among the San Antonio’s largest employers, the Pearl Brewery closed in 2001, and the surrounding area had been neglected as development focused on the suburbs, said Bill Shown, managing director of real estate at Pearl developer Silver Ventures, speaking at the recent ULI Texas Forum. Shown’s firm decided to take a chance converting the run-down property into a mixed-use destination.
Crime was commonplace in the neighborhood; police officers frequently responded to calls at a rent-by-the-night hotel. Hardly anyone lived in the area, and those who did were poor and poorly educated, Shown said. To make matters worse, buildings at the Pearl property were crumbling, chemicals and asbestos contaminated the land, and the area regularly flooded during heavy rainfall.
Yet the billionaire owner of Silver Ventures, Christopher “Kit” Goldsbury, saw potential in the desolate 22-acre (9 ha) site, so his investment firm snapped it up in 2002. At the heart of Goldsbury’s vision, and of others at Silver Ventures, was altering the culinary landscape of San Antonio.
“Food is a huge part of what we do. The roots of this place are in the culinary arts,” said Allen Sikes, design and construction manager at Silver Ventures.
From a real estate investment perspective, acquiring the Pearl Brewery site “made absolutely no sense,” Shown said. But it did make sense from a culinary, cultural, and community perspective. Today, Pearl includes an array of food and drink establishments, along with a campus of the Culinary Institute of America and a twice-a-week, producers-only farmers market, as well as apartments, retailers, a hotel, and other businesses. It stands testament to the dogged determination of Goldsbury and his Silver Ventures colleagues.
“More than anything else, the most important, critical aspect of Pearl, in my opinion, was taking a really crazy, aspirational dream and being unwaveringly committed to it,” Shown said. “The world is littered with projects where there’s just tons of money thrown at them and you go, ‘Uh, nice. That’s good.’ I don’t think the world is littered with projects like this.”
Indeed, Pearl is anything but a throwaway project. Among its heartiest ingredients are the unique eateries and bars; you will not find an Applebee’s or a McDonald’s here.
Knowing that “food brings people together,” Silver Ventures set out to transform Pearl into a foodie paradise, Shown said. The thinking went like this: “Let’s really get a little crazy. Let’s change the culinary conversation in San Antonio,” Shown said. “Let’s raise the bar, across the board, and let’s do something that doesn’t exist today.”
Early on, Goldsbury campaigned for eight restaurants at Pearl. He was told four should be the maximum number because the businesses would cannibalize each other and parking would make eight restaurants unworkable. “There were serious arguments over this,” he recalled.
Goldsbury eventually won the food fight: there would be eight restaurants at Pearl. As it turned out, Goldsbury got more than his wish: Pearl soon will be home to 20 food and drink establishments, Shown said.
All the culinary-oriented businesses at Pearl get support from Silver Ventures—help with writing business plans, understanding restaurant economics, figuring out staffing, and so on. Yet, Silver Ventures does not invest in any of the culinary businesses; it is only the landlord.
Those restaurants and bars also have access to some of the finest culinary talent in the country, thanks to the Culinary Institute of America campus at Pearl, one of the institute’s three U.S. campuses, along with the Hudson Valley in New York and Napa Valley in California. About 100 students are enrolled at the San Antonio school, said Elizabeth Fauerso, chief marketing officer for Pearl.
The prestigious Culinary Institute of America established its San Antonio campus in 2008. Goldsbury enabled that with a $35 million pledge, which the institute says was the largest gift in the history of private culinary education. Much of the money was earmarked for the school’s El Sueño initiative, which helps Latinos gain skills to work in the food service and hospitality industries. The initiative also promotes Latin American cuisines.
When Silver Ventures executives approached the Culinary Institute of America with the idea of setting up a San Antonio campus, they were met with eye-rolling skepticism from institute officials, according to Shown. But the Silver Ventures executives were very persistent, he said. They proposed a pilot culinary program in San Antonio—at Silver Ventures’ expense.
“At least give us a chance,” the Silver Ventures executives pleaded with the institute, Shown said. “Let’s try it and see if it works.”
The pilot program, which kicked off in 2006, did work, and thus the wheels were set in motion to launch the institute’s new location. The San Antonio campus since has graduated more than 1,000 culinary professionals, said Shelley Grieshaber, director of culinary operations at Pearl.
Just as the Culinary Institute of America is particular about which students it admits, Pearl is particular about which restaurants join its “family,” Grieshaber said. Beyond culinary skills, Grieshaber recruits restaurateurs who exhibit integrity and a strong work ethic, she said during a forum luncheon at the Pearl Stable event space.
Grieshaber said she would never set up a restaurateur for failure by allowing two Italian eateries or two pizza joints at Pearl. Rather, she is always on the lookout for “something different,” she said.
“I’m never going to pit two places against each other and see what wins,” Grieshaber said. “This is not about a typical . . . lease-signing deal. It’s not about who’s going to get there first. If it was, this would be a completely different place.”
That being said, Steve McHugh, the highly regarded chef/owner of Pearl’s Cured restaurant, praises Pearl as a special place. He said he has been able to quiz Grieshaber and others at Silver Ventures about construction projects, fundraising ideas, and business concepts. In turn, the people at Silver Ventures seek input from him and other restaurant operators about what food formats they would like to see at Pearl, he said.
Fittingly, McHugh’s restaurant sits across the street from the culinary institute campus. A 1997 graduate of the institute campus in Hyde Park, New York, McHugh now employs about ten institute graduates, externs, and students.
In assessing the overall benefits of being a member of the Pearl family, McHugh said the place “really is truly amazing.”