What you'll find to eat at The Wash, East Nashville's newest micro food hall

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

A local entrepreneur and native son has turned a slice of underutilized East Nashville land into a prime spot for dinner and drinks. Hamilton Development, led by Tyler Cauble, has launched The Wash, a car wash turned six-bay micro food hall that also serves as a business incubator.

Each bay comes mostly equipped for restaurant use and has a small footprint, keeping the overall entry costs for restaurant entrepreneurs relatively low. Cauble also offers year-to-year leases for greater flexibility. Without indoor seating, restaurants can streamline their staffing needs, critical while finding employees remains a challenge.

That's a boon for less established business owners trying to gain a foothold in a climate rife with steep rents and other inflated costs. Located just off Gallatin Avenue at 1101 McKennie Ave, it's also helped add another social gathering space to growing East Nashville.

Tyler Cauble, founder and owner of The Cauble Group, at The Wash in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

"I think it's critical to the neighborhood's character that developers take a more conscientious approach to the type of development that they're doing and how that impacts neighborhoods, people's cities," Cauble said.

The Wash is not scalable nor is it likely to be massively profitable, but that's not particularly the point, Cauble said. Its primary function is as an affordable entry point for restaurant startups. Flexible leasing allows owners to use it as a launching pad for expansion. It also affords the neighborhood the chance to try the food of talented up-and-coming chefs.

"It's like that saying: Some of the most talented musicians won't ever be discovered, and it's not because they don't have a song to share with the world," Cauble said. "It's because they never have the opportunity. So that's kind of what we wanted to provide."

The cost of doing business

Hopeful entrepreneurs agree about The Wash's benefits. By early May, weeks after it opened, the waitlist to sign a lease there was more than 30 restaurants strong.

It's no secret that traditional restaurant build-out is notoriously expensive and laborious, with kitchen ventilation systems alone costing tens of thousands of dollars. Add to that the grease trap, sinks, dishwashers, walk-in coolers and other necessary infrastructure, and startup costs quickly balloon into the six-figure range or beyond.

What's more, the average restaurant space in Nashville is between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet, according to Cauble. That can make rent cost-prohibitive for fledgling business owners. The Wash's 400-square-foot bays keep overhead down. 

"By having six concepts right next to each other, they have shared amenities," Cauble said. "So no one person is having to maintain all of the exterior of the building, having to pay to maintain the chairs, the tables, all the stuff that they would typically have to pay for."

Jeremy Young, of Tootsie Lou’s tacos, at The Wash in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

Jeremy Young and Drew Dunston, the chefs and owners behind Tootsie Lou's Tacos, said they searched the country for the right spot to launch their concept, a small taco shop inspired by their time living in Austin. 

Both have fine-dining backgrounds but said upscale restaurants are too much work for the return. Young and Dunston's primary goals were to quickly make a profit turning out high-quality but affordable food while still working reasonable hours — a unicorn as far as restaurants go. They found their opportunity at The Wash.

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"A lot of the structure and opportunities that are afforded by The Wash as a concept directly aligned with how we were structuring our restaurant to begin with," Young said. "A lot of it has to do with being smaller and running tighter, and that's something you can't do in a traditional brick-and-mortar restaurant. And so when this popped up, we just jumped at it."

The cost savings enabled them to self-finance, which means they don't have to kowtow to investors and can make decisions on the fly.

Drew Dunston, of Tootsie Lou’s Tacos, at The Wash in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

"We've already seen the benefits of that," Dunston said. "I think us being able to maintain complete control is only going to help us grow."

As labor and supply issues continue to impact restaurants' low profit margins, restaurants need flexibility in order to survive, Young added. 

"It's everything. That's the complete fine line between success and utter failure... I can't overstate how important it is."

Offering flexibility in a COVID world

Flexibility is built into The Wash's design. Each of the bays, with the exception of craft cocktail bar Bay 6, has a pass-through window, and the small parking lot has three 15-minute spaces for easy pickup. All dining space is outdoors on an approximately 80-seat patio, so indoor capacity restrictions aren't a concern. 

A variety of tacos available at The Wash in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

"They can pivot very easily if we ever have some sort of disruptive event again like COVID," Cauble said. "It's kind of why we designed the space like we did; it's essentially COVID-proof."

Kelvin Tran is the owner of The Poki, a poke restaurant in The Wash with another location in Brentwood.  As the oldest son of a single mother with eight kids, Tran said he has a responsibility to take care of his family.

"During COVID everything was uncertain, everything was so expensive (and we didn't) know how the restaurant business was going to do," he said. "So we were looking mainly for something that's small square footage to minimize risks."

The dining area at The Wash in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

The Wash provided everything he was looking for. Cauble and his team also helped navigate the red tape restaurant owners usually need to shoulder, including permitting, guiding contractors and dealing with codes.

"Here, everything is pretty much preset — it's kind of just laid out for you," Tran said. "You just buy your equipment and move in, so that just saved us a lot of headache and a lot of time and money."

Kelvin Tran, owner of The Poki, at The Wash in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

Tran said The Wash provided more opportunities for his family. His siblings often help him in the restaurant. 

"At the end of the day, I'm not doing this for me," he said. "I'm doing this for my family. And, you know, we do this together as a family."

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Cauble said that, as Nashville grows, developers need to take a more conscientious approach to the way they build projects.

"The neighborhood is now better because this is here," he said. "You've got six startups that all have local entrepreneurs, they're all giving back to the community, and now we've got a spot for the community to come hang out at. Whereas before, it was just an abandoned car wash."

What's at The Wash?

Bay 1: 2 Peruvian Chefs. Fresh and flavorful Peruvian-style ceviche is a highlight here, but the lomo saltado is also excellent. Be sure to check out the specials. More here

Bay 2: Soy Cubano. This restaurant opens early with Cuban coffee and crisp, flaky empanadas. For lunch or dinner, order the excellent Cuban sandwich, made with all the proper ingredients. More here

Bay 3: The Poki. Try the deeply flavorful signature bowls here — the gochujang-infused Gangnam Spicy Tuna Bowl is a standout. You can also build your own from a collection of seasonal vegetables, sustainably raised and harvested seafood, non-GMO tofu and other proteins. More here

A buñuelo at Tootsie Lou's Tacos at The Wash in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, May 10, 2022.

Bay 4: Tootsie Lou's Tacos. This restaurant serves a well-edited menu of vegetable-forward and meaty tacos on house-made tortillas. The roasted chile-rubbed carrot taco is deeply flavorful and perfect for vegetarians. The adobo chicken taco with crisp bits of skin is a must-order. More here

Bay 5: East Side Pho. From the owners of East Side Banh Mi comes this Vietnamese soup and salad spot with deliciously rich pho, local meat-studded Bun Bo Hue, steam buns and great options for kids. More here

Bay 6: Bay 6 Cocktail Bar. This tiny but elegant bar serves seasonal craft cocktails and keeps a few on draft, too. There's a small wine list dominated by piquette, a few well-chosen draft beer options and some ciders and shots, too. More here

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Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com