It’s a little after 7 p.m. on a recent Saturday and the wait for a table at downtown Fresno’s new HoP PK bar and restaurant is 45 minutes to an hour.
Let that sink in a little.
This is downtown Fresno – the place that people have struggled to revive for decades – and there’s a small crowd of customers willing to wait that long because every table in the large restaurant is full.
After years of residents and others yearning for more nightlife in downtown, someone appears to have finally made it happen. What did they do that others couldn’t? And what can we learn from it?
The long-awaited restaurant and bar opened in late November at 820 Van Ness Ave., near Inyo Street. HoP PK is a partnership between House of Pendragon Brewing Co. and Pita Kabob, a Mediterranean restaurant specializing in craft beer with multiple locations.
HoP PK has been mobbed ever since it opened. The restaurant ran out of food in its first week. More than two months in and lunchtime is still packed with downtown workers. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are busy all day long, said co-owner Chafic Dada.
“It exceeded our expectations, for sure, especially the dinner crowd,” he said.
HoP PK had one thing working in its favor that not every business opening downtown has: People already know the brands behind it.
“We have a large fan base, especially locally, that helped out quite a bit,” says House of Pendragon owner Tommy Caprelian. “At the same time, Chafic (of Pita Kabob) has a huge following with his food.”
All those people were eager to try HoP PK. The restaurant didn’t need a big marketing push to let people know the new place existed. Plus, it started the process to create the restaurant two years ago, so people were waiting for it.
Also unlike many new businesses, the owners didn’t have to work out the kinks of a new menu.
They knew the Lancelot IPA would be popular because it is at the taprooms. They knew lots of people would order the shawarma fries – french fries topped with beef or chicken meat cut off a vertical skewer, grilled onions and serrano peppers, melted cheese, garlic sauce and spicy tahini.
Start it, they will come
He says the idea that people from north Fresno or Clovis won’t go downtown is mostly a myth.
“It’s more of question of ‘What’s the reason to come down here?’” he said.
When Peeve’s was up and running, plenty of customers came from Clovis and north Fresno, Scharton said. And HoP PK is drawing people from far-flung parts of town, too.
Parking isn’t an issue, at least in the evening, because meters and the spiral garage across the street are free after 6 p.m. unless there’s a major event in the area.
The crowds at HoP PK have a downside, of course. A wait for tables can infuriate hungry diners. The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, stopping the practice recently to focus on the people who were waiting.
A few Yelp.com reviews have dinged HoP PK for slow service or running out of ingredients, which Dada attributes to being overwhelmed with customers.
And business could slow down once the appeal of a new place wears off.
Of course, HoP PK isn’t alone in bringing nightlife to downtown.
The business got help by winning the 2015 Downtown Fresno Create Here Business Plan Competition, with about $100,000 in business-related services, including a $10,000 cash prize.
At first, Dada said he wasn’t thinking about opening downtown. He had the impression the area wasn’t “thriving.” But when he saw the restaurant space and its price tag – rent would cost three or four times less than what he’d pay in north Fresno, he said – he changed his mind.
“It felt safe,” he said. “We can make this happen here that we can’t make happen anywhere else for this price. The risk is worth the reward.”
It helped that the building already had been a bar and the owners didn’t have to install a new kitchen or plumbing.
Coming: Downtown ‘ale trail’
HoP PK isn’t the only place drawing crowds downtown. People flock to local businesses and galleries during the monthly Art Hop events, for example.
HoP PK’s popularity downtown is perhaps rivaled only by Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Co., whose beer garden and food trucks are attracting crowds even on Tuesday nights.
With people already proving they will come downtown for beer, Fresno’s fledgling “ale trail” could be the next big nightlife creator. It eventually will connect six breweries downtown.
Attorney Kendall Simsarian has worked downtown for more than 20 years. He has watched the changes in nightlife as he rides his bike around town for work and play.
He says the beer at Tioga-Sequoia is enough to draw people from other parts of Fresno to downtown, especially among the crowd of bicycle riders Simsarian socializes with.
“I think (HoP PK) has the same thing going for them,” he said. “They have a quality product and people are willing to go there and take the so-called risk of being downtown because what they’re here for is worth it.”
But what he really wants: “A lot of what I’d like to see is regular businesses that stay open a little bit later.”
That’s a tricky one, as restaurants need enough customers to justify the cost of staying open. And customers won’t come unless restaurants are open.
There’s more work to do before do before downtown becomes what its supporters envision. Fulton Street still has more than a dozen vacancies three months after opening it to cars.
Scharton said property owners need to invest in their buildings so they’re ready for new businesses, and getting the OK for outdoor dining needs to be quicker.
“Once its starts, it picks up speed relatively quickly,” he said. “We’re just having a little bit of trouble getting it started.”