Editor's note: This is the first in an occasional series about the opening of a new downtown restaurant, Husk, at different stages in the process.
Sean Brock daily passed by the decaying brick building and vacant white house on Queen Street on his way to work at McCrady's. The chef admired them, even in their sad state, and thought it was a shame they were going to waste.
One day, David Howard, who runs the restaurant management company that includes McCrady's, invited Brock to take a walk. They ended up in front of the two structures, one with a towering magnolia in the yard.
Past, meet future.
That was more than a year ago. Now, as fate would have it, a new restaurant and bar, Husk, is taking shape in those two buildings at 74 and 76 Queen St.
Brock and Howard are playing leading roles in defining Husk, both physically and spiritually. Opening day is just over two months away on Nov. 1.
This much is known: Husk will have common ground with other local restaurants in its farm-to-table approach. But Husk's creators are pushing the concept further by using ingredients solely from the South.
At this stage, the focus is on a top-to-bottom renovation. The brick building at 74 Queen is being turned into the restaurant's bar. The white house with porches across the front at 76 Queen, the once-familiar Gibbes Art Gallery School, will be the restaurant. A smaller third building in the back will be used for operations.
'Best use of property'
A restaurant wasn't necessarily the intention when a small group led by Blackbaud founder Tony Bakker purchased the property in February 2009 for $1.25 million.
Investors also include real estate developer Anthony McAlister, oral surgeon Kevin Riker, and former Blackbaud executives Gary Thornhill, Tim Smith and Nigel Cooper.
"First of all, it was really a real estate transaction, an investment in real estate," says Howard. "Once they made that acquisition, then they tried to find the best use of the property."
But Bakker is no neophyte in the restaurant industry.
He first joined forces with some of the same investors to open Queen Anne's Revenge on Daniel Island. The pirate-themed restaurant started serving diners one week before 9/11.
Five years later, "deciding they liked the restaurant business" Howard says, Bakker and company bought historic McCrady's restaurant in downtown Charleston.
Then in December 2008, the same group opened the Buccaneer restaurant at 5 Faber St. It continued the pirate theme with museum-quality displays of artifacts from the "Golden Age of Piracy," 1690-1730. Howard says that between the two sister restaurants, it is the largest such collection in the world.
"We didn't just open a restaurant," Howard says. "Charleston was the most active pirate port in the United States, and there's a lot of history here. The Lowcountry is a significant part of that period, so we wanted to share, to educate (people) about what transpired here."
There's a spark of altruism in the development of Husk as well, Howard says.
The investors were very enthusiastic about salvaging 74 Queen in particular, he says. "That was very important to them. Very few people would buy that building. ... They just felt that building needed to be restored, period."
The property originally was home to a three-story brick house that was destroyed, likely in the great fire of 1861. The owner rebuilt a two-story dwelling with piazzas in 1874 using some of those same bricks.
The building has withstood at least a century and a half of wear and tear, compounded by neglect. Howard says it was near collapse.
The overhaul, led by general contractor Paul Koenig, began this summer. Laborers painstakingly repointed the bricks with fresh mortar. The mortar had to be a "match" -- too strong, and it would crush the bricks; too weak, and the joints would fail.
In the large white house, the floor plan along with wiring and plumbing is being reconfigured for an open kitchen, including a wood-burning oven; dining rooms; and storage. But there also is structural damage to repair as well, partly from holes in the roof that allowed rain easy entry.
Walls have been stripped down to studs. Joists have been reinforced. Hardwood torn up from one area has been laid down in another. The old double-hung windows with counter weights have been made to glide like new.
And it is only the beginning toward building out Husk to its final look, feel and functionality.
Howard expects the tab to run up to $2 million or more. "It's a massive undertaking."
Does that kind of weighty investment make sense in a weak economy?
Howard points out that concept and design work has been under way for many months. "Once you get that momentum, make an investment in architectural expenses and fees, it is not cost effective to stop. We're an optimistic bunch."
Nevertheless, "Nobody anticipated the downturn in the economy was going to last. On the other side, it's good to position yourself so when the economy comes back you're in a position to offset the leaner years."
Additionally, he says construction costs are more favorable in an ailing economy because people are more competitive for work.
Meeting of the minds
Howard is a chef and veteran restaurateur who lived in Charleston during the late 1980s but has been in Atlanta the past 20 years. There, he opened Chicago's Steak and Seafood, which grew to five locations but is now down to the original one.
He was brought in by Bakker 10 years ago to open a restaurant on burgeoning Daniel Island, which had a hotel, the Bakker-owned Hampton Inn, but no food service.
Howard decided to form Neighborhood Dining Group, a restaurant management company. NDG now oversees the operations of McCrady's, the Buccaneer, Queen Anne's Revenge and Chicago's.
"I do everything from A to Z. ... It is zero difference between operating these restaurants and my own restaurant," Howard says.
Brock, 36, is not only McCrady's executive chef, but the reigning James Beard "Best Chef Southeast." He's an innovator who has embraced avant-garde "molecular gastronomy" while growing heritage vegetables and raising pigs for McCrady's. He has been at the helm of McCrady's for more than four years.
He will continue as McCrady's chef but will split his time between the two restaurants.
Husk is the realization of what Brock expressed to The Post and Courier nearly two years ago: "My personal mission is to sing the gospel of the South. We have so many amazing things here. I think there are so many things we should be proud of. Cornbread, country ham and bourbon, there's nothing better. They're better than white truffles."
Brock says that Husk will be a documentation, a project more than a restaurant.
"It's a daily collection of pantry and fresh supplies that are representative of our culture and our history. And tell stories. It's almost like the chefs are pushed aside a little bit and the producers take center stage."
Construction is on track, according to Howard, but not without its challenges.
One is the number of people, up to two dozen, who have had to sign off when any major change in plans has been considered. They range from the owners to the electrical engineers and the building inspectors.
Howard also is learning what it takes to pass Charleston's BAR: Board of Architectural Review.
A sticking point has been the stuccoed face of 74 Queen. The concrete had deteriorated and needed to be removed to repair the bricks underneath. Howard wants to keep the brick exterior, but the BAR requires the building be returned to its original appearance.
"We're frustrated that we have to cover up these bricks dating to the 1800s with 2010 stucco. We don't see the logic in it," says Howard.
In the big picture, though, the restoration, not the restaurant, is what matters, he says.
"We will be judged by how we conducted ourselves during our time. We'll be gone, but it's going to be there. We're very conscientious about how we respect the history of the buildings under our watch."
Teresa Taylor is the food editor. Reach her at email@example.com.