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By Julia Masters for the Nashville Business Journal
When Austin Ray opened the first M.L.Rose Craft Beer & Burgers 15 years ago, it felt like a one-off.
Melrose needed a neighborhood bar and restaurant and he needed to pay his bills, after operating the since-closed Bar Twenty3 in the Gulch.
The thought of expanding — quickly prompted by M.L.Rose customers within the first year — was overwhelming at first.
“Some of these locations came out of sheer opportunity and knowledge of the real estate market and locations in Nashville neighborhoods,” Ray said. “There was a real ‘aha’ moment when M.L.Rose No. 2 opened in Sylvan Park [in 2012]. We were flooded with business and I knew this wasn’t just a one-off. This is a beloved concept in multiple neighborhoods. It immediately made me think of how many neighborhoods, especially at that time, had more residents than restaurant offerings.”
By the end of 2024, A. Ray Hospitality will have seven locations of M.L.Rose, and well over 500 employees, scattered across Nashville and its surrounding cities — Melrose, Sylvan Park, Capitol View, Mt. Juliet, Franklin, Gallatin and East Nashville.
Since 2008, Ray has turned M.L.Rose from a one-off to one of Nashville’s fastest growing locally owned brands.
And in doing so, Ray has played the long game.
Prior to acquiring the 1940s era building on Gallatin Pike last year, Ray had had his eyes on East Nashville for seven years and turned down other opportunities where either the parking or the visibility was just not quite right. The Inglewood location marks the first project where Ray will serve as a commercial landlord to two other tenants and is prioritizing finding local businesses.
“There were folks who helped me out along the way on the real estate side. … I really want to pass that along and do the same thing to younger people. It’s really difficult to find locations for restaurants,” Ray said. “It’s a super hot market. There’s all these outside restaurants and larger corporate entities with a lot more money to grow and landlords who have built really expensive buildings and need to get really high rents, which I get, it’s just unfortunate for the creative small businesses and young operators and young chefs in the marketplace.”
In addition to owning the East Nashville location, Ray also owns the Sylvan Park restaurant building and is part owner in the retail center that will house M.L.Rose’s Gallatin location.
Acquiring some real estate along the way, while leasing in other locations, has been a smart strategy as M.L.Rose expands, Ray said.
Building ownership alleviates some of the fear of rent hikes many restaurant owners face in Nashville. 2024 has already been a year for restaurant closures, including The Dutch by NYC-restaurateur Andrew Carmellini, A. Marshall Hospitality’s Americana Taphouse and Burger Dandy and Maneet Chauhan’s Tansuo.
Last year, 12South, one of Nashville’s neighborhoods experiencing an influx of high-end retailers and restaurants, lost two staples, Josephine and Taqueria del Sol. The latter cited rapid development as the reason for closing.
“The mix has worked really well for me. Nashville has been a great market to acquire real estate if you can find it and I think that’s another benefit of just having been in the market for a long time, knowing the area’s neighborhoods, the streets and the buildings and the parking situations,” Ray said.
Ray has a large appetite for risk, but he also needs times to digest big decisions and phases of growth. That means another integral decision he’s made is hiring a strong leadership team.
“Putting a focus on the culture of the company and on recruiting amazing leadership, people who know more about the restaurant business than I do, has easily been the best decision I’ve made along the way, with acquiring some national real estate along the way as a close second,” Ray said. “A mentor of mine told me once that the third location will make or break your growth plan. With two M.L.Rose locations I did not have any corporate leadership team. I was opening the mail, I was paying the bills, I was watching the cash, I was doing all the leadership recruiting and hiring. … I was very uncomfortable at that time until I made my first big leadership hire with a lot more experience in the restaurant business than I had.”