How three local hangouts distilled Charlotte cool

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What gives a place its character and cool? If anybody knows the answer, it’s the ownership teams behind Common Market, Amelie’s and Rhino Market.

For much of the past decade, they’ve defined Charlotte cool. Their flagship locations have become some of the most popular hangouts in the city.

All three of these businesses have recently put their models to the test — expanded to new locations under the same brand and with the general vibe.

And so far, all three have been successful. New crowds of people have made their way to more far-flung locations, people who may have never regularly hung out at the original sites. New locations are already in the works.

So how did they do it?

For Amelie’s and Rhino Market, relying heavily on the design aesthetic of an individual founder even as the operation scales.

Common Market has taken a slightly different approach. They’ve let the neighborhood decorate and populate their new locations and make them their own.

Common Market borrows from customers to create its “zany pleasantness”

When the original Common Market opened in Plaza Midwood in 2002, founder Blake Barnes says he had no idea how to run a business.

“I just listened to the customers, and they led me along the path of where I needed to go,” Barnes said. That goes for both the merchandise and the decor.

That goes for both the inventory and the decor.

Over time, Common Market has gone from selling PBR to mostly craft beer. And over time, more and more customers have brought in curios and oddities to adorn the walls and shelves.

One notable collection of about six dozen beer cans from the 1960s came from a regular who found them while cleaning out his grandfather’s place. Instead of the dump, they ended up at the Common Market.

common-market-plaza-midwood-charlotte

Common Market Plaza Midwood

That ethos has continued as Common Market expanded.

The first experiment came in 2008, when Common Market opened a South End location before the mega apartment boom made the neighborhood a top destination.

“What I wanted to take from Plaza to South End is probably zany pleasantness,” said owner Chuck Barger, who runs that location. “What we’re trying to do is read the neighborhood.”

Their decor got a huge boost when Boulevard Films on South Boulevard closed. They sent two decades worth of movie props to the Common Market.

common market south end restrooms

That location was forced to close last year as development claimed the land. A new location a quarter-mile away will open soon, and another store between Oakhurst and Cotswold opened earlier this year.

The three owners are sticking to the pattern. On day one at Common market Oakwold, things were fairly sparse, the decor reclaimed. All the barstools came from Goodwill, owner Graham Worth said. Same for a set of Panthers club seats.

The neighborhood is already responding. They’ve already sent over a set of a dozen vintage lunchboxes, for example. They’re making the store their home.

“No specific person designs anything,” Barger said. “It’s controlled chaos.”

Amelie’s designs with a special set of eyes

At Amelie’s French Bakery, they’ve taken a different approach. Its locations are exquisitely decorated by the discerning eye of founder Brenda Knight Ische.

She describes the Amelie’s brand as “Marie Antoinette meets Alice in Wonderland,” or somewhere whimsical but comfy.

“I want people to be as comfortable as they would in their home,” Ische says. “It turns out we have made that work, because people are often moving furniture around, they’re putting their feet up on the table, sometimes they’re sleeping.

amelies charlotte

The original Amelie’s opened in Optimist Park neighborhood  (near NoDa) in 2008. They’ve since expanded to Rock Hill, Atlanta, south Charlotte, Uptown and — most recently — to Park Road Shopping Center.

Ische has designed them all from a color palette of blue, blood red, butter yellow and apple green. Each location screams “Amelie’s” when you walk in, but each has their own personality, Ische says. NoDa is a little grungier. Park Road is a little more refined.

Ische says she’s always on the hunt for distinctive statement pieces to decorate the bakeries. She brings them back to a 1,500-square-foot studio in NoDa she calls the “factory.”

“That’s where everything comes in as one thing and it leaves as something else,” she says. Chandeliers and furniture come in, deconstructed, frosted, painted. Then it goes into one of the locations.

As Amelie’s continues to grow, Ische said they plan to continue to have a singular focus on design. She’s 62 now and has been training the next generation. She said when she retires, there will be a smooth transition.

“It’s taken years for her to kind of see things through my eyes,” Ische said. “I don’t want it to be a job that just anybody can walk in and do.”

Rhino Market creates nonchalant cool

Rhino Market owner Rob Rondelez doesn’t think that his stores are cool. Well, he thinks they are. But if other people do, too — that’s just a bonus.

“I like a design that’s not what everybody else is doing,” Rondelez said. “If it comes off as cool to the customer, that’s great.”

The first location opened on West Morehead Street in 2014. A second location just opened Uptown. The same focus on food and service has transferred to the new spot. The same design principles have, too.

Rondolez has learned a few lessons that he’s applied to the Uptown location. There’s a bigger bar, which was packed for two weeks straight after opening.

Rhino Market’s new Uptown location

“I think you try to please people, but I’m trying to please myself first,” Rondelez says.

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Andrew Dunn
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