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Why developers need chefs to get cooking in a mixed-use world

Author Dotan Zuckerman (c.) with chefs/restaurateurs Steve Palmer, Kimball Brienza and Scott Crawford

By now, most developers know the fundamentals of a good mixed-use environment: an activated street level with experiential retail, a dedicated focus on placemaking and community programming, and a commitment to hospitality.

However, there’s one key ingredient that separates the good from the great.


For a mixed-use experience to be truly special, developers must recognize the importance of curating a roster of best-in-class, chef-driven concepts.

Chefs are the anchors. When we think about a project’s anchor, movie theaters or grocery stores traditionally come to mind. I believe chef-driven restaurants are the new anchor given the crucial role they play in driving human energy in a mixed-use development.

With 63% of diners preferring local, independent restaurants over chains or franchises, it's obvious that chef-driven concepts offer more than a good meal. They bring the soul, passion, and character to the party that enlivens the community and becomes an amenity for the neighborhood.

When given the opportunity, prioritizing these concepts will drive foot traffic, increase rents for the surrounding uses, and create extraordinary guest experiences. With patios that spill onto sidewalks and front greenspaces, chefs naturally activate the ground floor, creating an integrated mixed-use environment.

It’s a proven platform. Throughout my career, I’ve focused on curating chef-driven concepts at some of the nation’s top mixed-use projects. This is the foundational pillar of Portman’s retail strategy.

It all began at Avalon, the $1 billion mixed-use destination in Alpharetta, Ga., where we curated a chef-driven restaurant mix including concepts by Ford Fry, Steve Palmer, Alex Kinjo, Ali Mesghali, and Giovanni Di Palma. Today, Avalon’s F&B lineup is considered the cornerstone of the project and one of the best in the region. 

It would have been easier to lease the whole project – which already had Whole Foods and Regal Cinemas – to national restaurant tenants. To the surprise of the brokerage community, we took a different approach. Pioneering this strategy at Avalon wasn't easy, but it was worth it. 

With momentum on our side, I replicated this strategy at Fenton, the massive mixed-use project in Cary, N.C., known for its chain restaurants. Using the relationships we built at Avalon, we created an impressive community of chef talent, which included renowned local chefs Mike Lee and Scott Crawford.

At Portman, we design chef-driven dining experiences for all of our mixed-use projects. We benefit from a decades-long track record of success in supporting chefs and inspiring confidence in them to experiment with new concepts, enter new markets, and open new locations.

At Spring Quarter in midtown Atlanta, we engaged Steve Palmer to reimagine the historic H. M. Patterson & Sons-Spring Hill Chapel into a day-to-night F&B destination. We also worked with renowned Atlanta chef Fuyuhiko Ito to give him a space to debut a new Japanese modern concept and a private omakase bar.

At Junction Krog District in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, we will soon welcome two concepts from popular Atlanta restaurateurs: Yuji by Alex Kinjo and YEPPA&co by Pietro Gianni and Stephen Peterson.

Across our portfolio, we have 10 chef-driven concepts opening within the next year.

The secret sauce. Deals with chef-driven concepts are complex and expensive. It takes incredible discipline to say “no” to national credit restaurants willing to pay rent premiums for the same space. 

But it’s the chef-driven concepts that bring a passion for the guest experience. During the pandemic, it was local chefs that hustled to stay open, adapted to offer curbside pickup, and paid as much rent as they could.

Recognizing this is the right approach is just the first step. The second is making the commitment that the project will be brand-aligned with the chef’s vision, which is crucial to getting them on board. Finally, you need to dedicate the time and effort to build trust and nurture long-term relationships.

When you’ve done it right, you’ve created a mousetrap that differentiates you from competitors, raises the barrier to entry to protect your project, and achieves a major milestone in developing an integrated community where premier global retailers and major fashion brands want to be. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.

My mentor Ron Pfohl used to say, “It's like pushing a boulder up a hill. Once you reach the top, the boulder starts rolling and building momentum.”


Dotan Zuckerman, head of retail development at Portman, is responsible for the retail programming, merchandising, and leasing strategy of the company’s new and existing developments.

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