Thursday, May 30, 2024

Town Square: Proximity to Triad cities gives Kernersville a boost

Körner’s Folly on South Main Street was built in 1880 by interior designer and painter Jule Gilmer Körner. The building now serves as a 22-room nonprofit museum where visitors explore original furnishings and artwork. Photo by Nancy Hall

By Bryan Mims

Thirty-four-year-old Daniel Dyson floats among white tablecloths and flowing wine at The Prescott in Kernersville, ensuring the comfort of diners savoring the nectar of Napa Valley. “I’d love to sit down and talk with you,” he says, bustling about the farm-to-table restaurant. “But I have this dinner party.”

The Prescott opened last December on South Main Street. Posted at the front door is a point of pride: “Voted Best New Restaurant in the Triad 2019.” Dyson co-owns it with executive chef Trey Prescott, whose culinary concoctions include venison meatloaf, roasted duck breast, crab beignets and pumpkin ravioli. Most of the ingredients are grown within a few hundred miles, if not just up the road.

Among the clinking glasses is Trey’s father, Bob Prescott, a former Kernersville alderman and owner of Smitty’s Grille, a popular seafood diner in town. He bought the former Bistro B restaurant to start a foodie-friendly spot because “my son is a good chef. I mean, this wine dinner is spectacular.”

He came to Kernersville in 1981, when the town had 5,000 people. Its population in 2019 is estimated at 24,767. Located mostly in Forsyth County with a sprinkling in Guilford County, it proclaims to be “The Heart of the Triad.”

The Prescott rubs elbows on South Main Street with a handful of hip hangouts: Wired Cafe, Yoga Path, Hemp Hut and The Traveling Bean. As the dinner guests sip on merlot, two women in black yoga pants break into a sweat at the Triad Indoor Rowing gym. At the corner of East Mountain Street is an irresistible calorie factory called Cake and All Things Yummy. A short walk beyond that, on North Main Street, is an Italian restaurant called Giadas Trattoria. Across the street is the Kernersville Brewing Co., which is next door to Eclection, a chic craft shop with a coffee and wine bar.

A decade ago, none of these businesses existed. It took a serious sprucing up of Main Street to give downtown the panache it needed to woo creative entrepreneurs, the kind who don’t just bring in the business but lend a cool factor. One business that opened just before the transformation is Love That Music. Co-owner Sandi Love remembers a downtown in 2005 that was much like elevator music: humming along and agreeable enough, but lacking a catchy tempo to make the masses stop, feel the rhythm and put on their places-to-play list. And, she notes, it wasn’t all that eye-catching either. “The power lines were draping all over Main Street, and there were no trees,” she says. “It was not at all like it is now.”

Beginning in 2006, Kernersville dug into a two-year, $3 million facelift for the heart of downtown. It included removing the utility lines and running them behind the businesses, clearing away the overhead clutter on Main Street. The town built wider sidewalks and decorative walls, installed pedestrian-scale lighting, planted trees, put in benches and other street furniture, and added parking spaces. “And that just made a world of difference in the looks of the town,” Love says. “People just seem to really respond to it.”

It’s not just boutiques, bakeries and breweries responding to Kernersville but bigwigs such as In 2020, the online retail juggernaut will open a 1 million-square-foot fulfillment center east of downtown and employ about 1,000 people. The site is near a 580,000-square-foot FedEx Ground hub that opened in 2011 and employs more than 700 people.

Other high-profile employers in Kernersville include Deere-Hitachi Construction Manufacturing, with a workforce of more than 800. Its 1 million-square-foot plant, a joint venture between Moline, Ill.-based John Deere and Japan’s Hitachi, opened in 1988 and churns out hydraulic excavators. US Duct (maker of industrial ductwork), Grass America (hardware and hinges), Summer Industries (paperboard tubes) and Finzer Roll (rubber rollers for equipment) also have plants in Kernersville.

But what happens on Main Street gives a town its street cred as a worthy place to live, work, play and be social. On a weeknight, Chris Federico, a native New Yorker, turns down the Simon & Garfunkel tunes infusing her cozy cocktail bar Breathe Cocktail Lounge. In 2016, a few years after she opened downtown craft shop Eclection, she and her husband, Jeff, decided to open a bona fide lounge upstairs. “I was like, ‘We need to do something with the second floor,’” she says. “We owned the building for 10 years and didn’t do anything with it. I said, ‘Everybody is asking for a bar. Let’s do a bar.’ So we did a bar.”

The decor is refined, with cushioned seats and sofas and candles glowing on round tables. She plans to eventually open the rooftop for guests who want to mix and mingle in the fresh air. “It’s definitely built around [people] having conversations,” she says.

After all, Kernersville’s history essentially began with a tavern at the crossroads of two main stage lines. Owned by an Irishman named William Dobson — the locals knew him as “Captain Dobson” — his tavern and inn hosted President George Washington for breakfast in 1791. The property changed hands a few times before Joseph Kerner bought more than a thousand acres around the crossroads. In 1871, the village incorporated as the town of Kernersville. A couple of years after that, the railroad came through town and set off a population boom.

Modern-day, fashion-forward taverns like Breathe, along with award-worthy restaurants and three craft-beer breweries — Kernersville Brewing Co., Gypsy Road Brewing and the Brewer’s Kettle — help make the town a destination rather than
a way station between Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

Kernersville’s allure extends beyond wine dinners and happy hours; it invites visitors to stop and smell the roses — and the goldenrod, milkweed, thistles, tulips and zinnias — at the Paul J. Ciener Botanical Garden, located on South Main. The garden, which opened in 2011, was named for the founder of a local Ford dealership whose dream was “to create a great garden in the heart of the Piedmont Triad.”

The old, family-run businesses also have a perennial appeal that reaches beyond the town limits. Take the Musten & Crutchfield Food Market on North Main, which opened in 1938. Its wooden shelves are stacked with containers and bags of candy, jars of jam and preserves, and mounds of potatoes, tomatoes, and vegetables. The store is renowned for its pimento cheese, a recipe Elva Musten whipped up in 1938 that remains as popular as ever. John Crutchfield is her great-grandson and the current owner.

“She also made potato salad,” he says. “But pimento cheese is key because that’s really what has kept us in business. That’s our niche. That’s how we were able to stay in business during those really, really tough times when people were starting to abandon independent stores for chain stores.”

Musten & Crutchfield was a full-fledged grocery store up until about 2001. John’s father, Robert Crutchfield, was ready to close up shop for good because of the intense grocery competition. But then, Lowes Foods agreed to sell its famous blend of cheese, pimentos and mayonnaise. “That was the first major account that we got,” he says. “And then we added Walmart to that and, not too long ago, we added Food Lion.”

There are about 75 stores within 50 or so miles that now carry Musten & Crutchfield pimento cheese. Crutchfield is eyeing the Triangle as a market. “At least once a week, I get somebody asking me, ‘When are you going to get to … fill-in-the-blank?’”

Pimento cheese, of course, is a Southern staple, and it’s bound to end up on one of the seasonal menus at The Prescott, along with goat cheese, fig jam and buttermilk dressing. Tanya Nichols is one of the first servers hired there. She moved to the Triad from California a couple of years ago “so I could afford to retire.”

“I’ve been in this business for 25 years, so to have this caliber of restaurant so close to me …” she says, trailing off. “The chef does an amazing job.”

The chef’s partner, Daniel Dyson, finally has a moment to sit and chat, though the night’s demands have him preoccupied and taciturn. Asked why he is passionate about this restaurant venture, he says, “Why not? There’s not a place like us in Kernersville.”

With that, he’s back on his feet, beating a path between the harried kitchen and the happy cacophony of his guests. The farm has made it to the table, good drink and conversation are flowing, and Main Street is the main attraction.

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