When siblings Ben and Max Goldberg left Nashville, their hometown of nearly 15 years, to attend college out of state, they grew accustomed to hearing jokes about Nashville's reputation as a Southern flyover city.
"I remember someone asked me if we had electricity," Max says.
Ten years later, Nashville (and the Goldberg brothers) have grown up. The Music City was named the No. 5 city for startup growth this year by the Kauffman Foundation. It's also becoming an increasingly popular place to live--the city's population has grown by nearly 10 percent since 2010.
Sitting smack dab in the middle of this resurgence are Ben and Max, now 36 and 33 respectively, who have built a hospitality empire in Nashville that's helping bolster the idea that the vibrant city is more than just a town for country music lovers.
Strategic Hospitality creates what they like to call "social destinations." They open their first restaurant, a burger joint called Paradise Park, in 2007. But since then, the Goldbergs have opened casual lounges like Pinewood Social, an "everyman's country club" with bocce ball courts and a swimming pool in lieu of a golf course, as well as fine-dining establishments like The Catbird Seat, which is known for tasting menus that run $115 a person. This week the Goldbergs will open their tenth concept together, a miniature golf course called the Country Club at the Band Box.
"If you ask most of the folks in Nashville between their early 20s and mid 40s, everybody would probably know at least three or four of the Goldbergs' bars or restaurants," says Brad Smith, CEO and co-founder of Nashville-based Aspire Health, one of the city's most prominent health care startups.
More than just a country music town
Before co-founding Aspire Health in 2011, Brad Smith served as the Chief of Staff of Tennessee's Department of Economic Development in the mid-2000s, around the time when the Goldbergs were opening their first restaurant. He estimates that about half of the people and businesses he met with who were considering making the move to Nashville thought of the city as an up-and-coming place, while the other half still thought of Nashville as a "country music, almost backwards town," and weren't sure if the city would fit their needs.
Now he says that Nashville's reputation has grown even more in the last five years and he has no problem recruiting talent from both coasts to come to Nashville.
"It's a nice place for work-life balance--in Nashville if you work 80 hours a week, people think you're the hardest working person they've ever met," Smith says.
To be sure, Nashville, like many fledgling startup communities, could still use more access to capital and an even larger talent pool. Restaurants, of course, can't fill those gaping holes--but they can help boost a city's reputation as both a great place to work and live and that's partly what inspired the Goldbergs.
"It's a very visible, tangible way to see what's going on in a city," says Ben.
Ben was the first Goldberg to move back to Nashville in 2002 and to get into the bar and restaurant business. He opened his first bar, a chic nightclub called BarTwenty 3, with a couple of friends and it wound up on Conde Nast Traveler's list of top 30 nightlife spots in the world in 2004. His success helped convince Max to move from New York City and join him on their first restaurant venture.
Each item in Strategic Hospitality's portfolio represents a "snapshot" of a place that Max and Ben were at in their lives at the time. They believe that if they think a certain type of restaurant or bar is missing in Nashville, chances are, someone else thinks it is too.
Their first restaurant, Paradise Park, was a late-night diner designed to satisfy the 2 a.m. cravings of twenty-somethings. The Patterson House followed shortly after in 2009, after Max was missing the craft cocktail bars he used to frequent in New York.
"They understand what cultural aspects that they bring to that community through each of their different venues," says Sam Lingo, the President and COO of Nashville's Entrepreneurship Center, a nonprofit that helps mentor aspiring business owners in the city. Pinewood Social, for example, is popular among entrepreneurs in particular--the venue is home to a co-working space, a coffee shop, a bar, and a restaurant that allows startups to hold both casual and formal meetings, before getting back to work.
'A rising tide that floats all boats'
The brothers insist that they're only in the restaurant business for their love of hospitality --"we want to create spaces that make people feel warm and welcome" and "we've never opened a place solely to make money," say. Even so, they've built a big business in Nashville. While the Goldbergs declined to share specific revenue numbers, they say that Strategic Hospitality's annual revenue is now "north of $20 million." The company also says that it has created 504 full-time and part-time jobs since it first opened in Paradise Park in 2007.
As Strategic Hospitality has grown from one diner to a hospitality empire, Benjamin and Max say they've become more aware of how much a role they play in boosting Nashville's economy, so they try to work with local vendors and creators whenever possible. When they opened the Band Box, an outdoor lounge and bar located in First Tennessee Park, Nashville's minor league baseball stadium, they used local butchers and farmers to help them serve elevated stadium food fare. And when they developed their new miniature golf course, they enlisted a local Nashville artist to design each hole.
"When you have a lot of like-minded individuals that are taking risks on themselves and doing what they want to do, you tend to build a camaraderie amongst one another," says Ben. It's "a rising tide that floats all boats."