Developer Marty Kotis’ passion for Darryl’s, murals and Greensboro
By Mark Tosczak
In the 1990s, Greensboro developer William “Marty” Kotis III was building two stores for Lowes Foods. The Winston-Salem-based chain had positioned itself as a low-cost grocer, and its stores were typically fronted by inexpensive concrete masonry. Kotis wouldn’t build that.
“I did two brick buildings with big glass windows, an arch and really made them look attractive. And they fought me on it,” he says. “They didn’t pay me any more in rent. They didn’t want me to do it that way.”
Kotis planned to own the property for a long time and didn’t want to take a shortcut. That vision, plus a willingness to work hard and a knack for attention-grabbing marketing, have been the foundation for a lengthy development career. “He’s someone who kind of marches to his own drum,” says Greensboro City Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann.
Since following his father, William “Bill” Kotis Jr., into the commercial real estate business in the early 1990s, he has taken a different approach. The elder Kotis, 80, owns mostly older properties that offer lower rent than newer structures. His son, 50, favors more modern structures.
“While it costs me more on the front end to do that, I don’t have to go back in and renovate these buildings, and they’re not throwaway buildings,” Marty Kotis says. In addition to development, his 30-employee real estate company has brokered properties across the Carolinas and, at times, owned developments in Alabama, Ohio and Virginia.
Nearly 30 years after starting his career, Kotis’ business has expanded to include operating restaurants and entertainment properties, a division that employs about 35. He’s also made a specialty of adorning many of his Greensboro properties with murals.
“I’m a big fan of architecture and changing the landscape of the city,” he says. In two areas, he’s clustered businesses he owns with rent-paying tenants. Much of his focus is on the busy Battleground Avenue northwest of the city center where he owns 45 acres.
Several years ago, he started referring to the area as Midtown. In 2016, the city followed suit, putting up signs using the term. The area now includes Kotis’ best-known properties: the RED Cinemas luxury theater and restaurants such as the Pig Pounder Brewery and Burger Warfare. He has plans to add apartments and 22,000 square feet of retail space next to the theater.
Many of Kotis’ Midtown properties are adorned with murals. He first noticed the eye-catching street art in Berlin, London and other European cities. “This is part of his brand now,” says Laura Way, president of the ArtsGreensboro nonprofit. “He wants the property that he owns to have tenants and businesses within them that thrive. And if the murals help drive traffic, that’s great.”
Kotis’ goal is to make Greensboro one of the top 10 street-art destinations in the U.S. He’s paid between $2,000 to nearly $100,000 for installations, depending on the size and artist.
His Kick Ass Concepts restaurant group is making Kotis more visible. While his family has a long restaurant history, Kotis’ personal effort started in 2009 after buying the local Darryl’s Wood Fired Grill fast-casual restaurant from Leawood, Kan.-based Houlihan’s. It was one of two locations left in the chain; the other was in Orlando, and the owner closed it shortly thereafter. Founded in 1970 in Raleigh by Angus Barn owners Thad Eure Jr. and Charles Winston and another restaurateur, Darryl Davis, the fast-casual chain was later sold to General Mills Corp. At its peak, it had three dozen locations in nine states.
“I grew up going to Darryl’s,” Kotis says. “I had my birthday parties there and stuff, and it was my favorite restaurant. I could not be the guy who closed the last Darryl’s.” After spending about $1.8 million on renovations, sales at the restaurant tripled in his first year as owner to $4.3 million.
He’s now planning new Darryl’s locations in Fayetteville, Raleigh and Myrtle Beach. His other restaurants are unique concepts and in Greensboro. There are plans for a Caribbean cafe concept and, on his downtown Tracks property, a beer garden. While he doesn’t own any chain restaurants, he leases space to about 80 operators in the Carolinas and Virginia. He’s also closed restaurants that didn’t pan out, such as the Marshall Free House, which had an English pub motif.
Kotis is not shy about latching onto a concept he likes. He was impressed by Dram & Draught, a Raleigh whiskey, wine and craft beer bar that Kevin Barrett and Drew Schenck opened inside a former service station in 2016. Within a few months, Barrett says, Kotis was trying to lure the duo to Greensboro.
Schenck visited the Gate City and came back impressed, telling Barrett, “You’ve got to see this place — it’s great. There are so many things happening out there.” He was referring to a former service station on Kotis’ 8-acre Tracks property on the southwest corner of downtown Greensboro. Kotis’ goal is to develop a district filled with shops, restaurants and street art.
The Greensboro Dram & Draught opened in September 2018. “Marty and his team are the ones who brought us out there,” Barrett says. “We could have easily ended up in a different city. … When Marty gets behind something, he draws a lot of energy to it. It’s hard to say no.”
Going to school
A registered Republican and donor to GOP candidates including N.C. Senate President Phil Berger, Kotis was appointed to the UNC System Board of Governors in 2013. It was a curious choice, given that Kotis says in his Libertarian worldview, the government wouldn’t run a university system.
“But that’s not the way it is,” he adds. He sees his role on the board as advocating for efficient, responsible spending, preventing UNC from stifling private competitors and avoiding “mission creep.” He’s a product of the system, having earned a bachelor’s degree in business from UNC Chapel Hill in 1991 and an MBA from UNC Greensboro in 1995.
Fundamental change in higher ed is needed, but he sees little evidence it is happening. “We just spent a billion dollars on more bricks-and-mortar,” Kotis says, referring to UNC System funding tied to the Connect NC Bond capital-investment plan. “If we’d spent a billion dollars on a massive online [education] platform for the university system, I think what we could have done as a state would have been revolutionary. I don’t think a billion dollars’ worth of new bricks-and-mortar in the state is going to change the world.”
He’s not been shy about going his own way on the overwhelmingly GOP board. The board fired UNC System President Tom Ross in 2015 with little explanation other than it was time for a transition. Kotis was the lone dissenter on a board that then had 32 members. Leadership had not included the entire board in the process or allowed time to review materials related to the dismissal, he told the Greensboro News & Record.
The maverick style hasn’t bothered state lawmakers, who reappointed Kotis for another four-year UNC term in 2017. “It’s also important that we have people on those boards who are not afraid to speak up,” Berger says. “I think that clearly is one of Marty’s traits.”
Kotis agrees that his style isn’t passive. “I’m not going down to the games or cocktail parties or anything like that. That’s just not why I signed up for it,” he says. “I signed up to try and make a difference.”
Kotis has also taken stances that conflict with Republicans in Greensboro. He appeared in a 2017 reelection campaign video on behalf of city council candidate Nancy Hoffmann. While council races are officially nonpartisan, Hoffmann is a well-known Democrat. “I think Marty and I have certainly found common ground as it relates to things that are important to the city of Greensboro,” she says.
Kotis has complained about “unduly restrictive city codes” and aggressive enforcement officials. “Sometimes I think his ideas may get ahead of him a little bit,” Hoffmann says. “There are some things you can be flexible about code-wise, and there are other things that you can’t.”
Taking the long view
Kotis doesn’t fit the stereotype of a highly connected power networker. “He’s actually shy,” the ArtsGreensboro’s Way says. “When you see him in a social setting, he’s not someone who tries to be the center of attention.”
Kotis says he prefers to hang around restaurant and construction workers rather than affluent business professionals. “I’m not a country club sort of fancy guy,” he says. “I’m a lot more low-key. I like surrounding myself with people that are more real — I’m not dinging country clubs — but I’m not into any sort of fake social networking.”
But he’s not shy about promoting his properties in attention-grabbing ways. In 2013, a digital billboard he owned on Battleground Avenue displayed a message purporting to be from a wife of a cheating spouse. “Michael — GPS Tracker — $250, Nikon Camera with zoom lens — $1600, Catching my LYING HUSBAND and buying this billboard with our investment account — Priceless. Tell Jessica you’re moving in! — Jennifer,” it read.
A second message appeared to promote a now-closed Westover Terrace dessert bar Kotis owned: “Jessica — Meet me at Yo Daddy’s at 7:00 p.m. for some wine therapy. — Jennifer.”
Stories about the ruse — a tactic meant to show the power of billboard advertising — appeared in newspapers globally.
Kotis’ knack for attention-grabbing moves is backed by an intense work ethic. Early in his career, while handling accounting duties for his father’s firm, he concluded the software needed to be upgraded. “I remember sleeping in my office the first Christmas after graduation because I was converting all the accounting software over to a new laptop-based software that gave me better property management and accounting results,” he says.
While working on his first development project — Greensboro’s Westover Gallery of Shops — he needed to persuade lenders to back him financially, despite his inexperience. His intent was to make the development look nice and endure longer than typical retail buildings, just like his Lowes Foods sites.
“I had these various printouts and sketches of what I wanted the project to look like,” Kotis says. “I went around Friendly Center and sold enough tenants on the concept that I was able to prelease that project before I built it.”
Since he built the Lowes grocery stores, the chain has shifted its brand to attract higher-income shoppers to compete more effectively with Harris Teeter Supermarkets Inc. and Whole Foods Market Inc.
“If I had done what they asked me to back then, I’d be sitting with two vacant Lowes Foods. I’d have to renovate them to turn them into something else,” Kotis says. “As it stands, I’ve got a high-quality building that has stayed occupied all this time.”
Profitability alone isn’t his only criteria for projects anymore. While the Charlotte and Triangle metro areas will remain larger and grow faster than the Greensboro/Winston-Salem market, Kotis thinks the Triad’s proximity between those areas and North Carolina’s attractiveness ensures a bright future. It will help if Greensboro is filled with his passions: distinctive developments and street art. “I’m at a point in my life where I really only want to focus on things that I find super interesting, where I can make a difference.”