As Sean Wight walks up to the corner of 12th and Ellis streets in downtown Augusta, he doesn’t see an aging biker bar surrounded by asphalt parking lots and several empty buildings.
Instead, Wight sees enormous potential. He sees a major gateway to Broad Street. Wight recognizes an extremely important corridor into downtown that is highly underutilized.
In short, Wight sees his latest undertaking that will ultimately transform an entire block of downtown Augusta.
“Nine times out of 10, when you are headed downtown off the Calhoun Expressway, you turn onto 12th Street to get onto Broad,” Wight said, standing along Ellis Street pointing to the traffic light on 12th Street. “That’s the very first turn you come to, so it’s a very important corridor into downtown.”
While many downtown business owners wouldn’t be willing to take a risk on investing their hard-earned money into property along the city’s much-neglected Ellis Street, Wight doesn’t believe in doing what’s expected.
As the owner of three popular downtown restaurants — Frog Hollow Tavern, Farmhaus Burger and Craft & Vine — Wight has changed the way many Augustans view downtown dining.
Downtown is no longer just a place to grab a quick bite or a beer before a show.
Wight has helped turn downtown Augusta into a dining destination for guests who appreciate fresh, regionally grown ingredients, meticulous service and exceptionally prepared dishes.
“We are now getting ready to invest a substantial amount of money into the corner of 12th and Ellis,” Wight said, smiling. “I sincerely believe it will transform this entire area. You have to have a little vision to see it, but I think it will be a great location for the new restaurant.”
So, what exactly is Wight planning to do with the corner of 12th and Ellis streets?
“It will kind of be a hybrid of traditional Mexican-style tacos and torta sandwiches with some classics, but it will have some Americanized versions of a few things,” Wight said. “We actually don’t have a name for the restaurant yet, but we have the concept down. The basic idea of it is everything will be made from scratch, including our tortillas. We will be hand-making our tortillas and our chips every day.”
Menus filled with dishes made from scratch with the regional ingredients and some specialty heirloom products from southern producers such as Anson Mills from Columbia, S.C., has been the focus of all of Wight’s restaurants in Augusta.
“Basically, we will be doing everything in-house like we do at all of our other places,” Wight said. “We will grind our own masa and, right now, we are in talks with Anson Mills out of Columbia to develop our masa blend.”
Wight has been using farm-to-table ingredients from such local providers since he was the chef at the Old Edgefield Grill prior to opening Frog Hollow in downtown Augusta about seven years ago.
“I was at Edgefield Grill for 10 years and I thought it was really cool because I just kind of taught myself how to do everything,” Wight said. “I had a lot of experience by then, but not so much cooking as I did front of the house. But if you are good waiter or good at the front of the house, period, you know exactly how every dish is made. So, if you have some cooking ability, you can recreate a lot of stuff that you have served.”
Over the years, Wight has learned what a difference quality ingredients can make to a restaurant’s menu.
“For example, Anson Mills provides fresh native stone-ground organic ingredients,” Wight said. “It is owned by Glenn Roberts out of Columbia and he has basically dedicated his life to bringing back older varieties of grains. They cold-mill all ingredients to order, immediately chill vac-pac them and ship them the same day. So everything is kept cold and it actually takes like corn. They don’t dry it out and you can really taste the difference.”
Wight is also looking forward to the new restaurant having a fun, casual atmosphere that will appeal to all ages, he said.
“There is nothing that will be overly complicated. It will just be pure, simple, great food,” Wight said. “There will be a tequila bar and we are going to use all fresh, squeezed juices. There will probably be some beers on tap. We are also working on a rooftop bar that will be attached to the buildings and an outdoor concert venue for special events.”
Construction is scheduled to start in the beginning of 2017, Wight said.
“Right now, the property is a biker bar. It used to be two different diners back in the day, but now it’s a biker bar and there is an old adjacent building next to it,” Wight said. “Basically, we will be combining those buildings into one, so it will look like one structure. We are going to start construction in January and we would hope to be opened by just after Masters.”
Wight joked that he and all of his friends, family and co-workers don’t need the added stress of rushing to open a new restaurant prior to Masters Week.
“I’m not going to try and force a grand opening right before Masters,” Wight said, shaking his head and laughing. “I’ve done it twice before and it doesn’t work out for me or anyone else around me.”
But Wight is truly excited about the concept of this new restaurant.
“It’s honest and casual,” Wight said, walking around the property along 12th Street. “I want it to be an all-ages restaurant and have a good late-night bar scene with tacos, beer, tequila and chips that offers a rooftop bar and a big outdoor patio in the front. There will also be some roll-up garage doors and a lot of open area for people to come in and relax and enjoy themselves.”
On the other half of the property that he purchased facing Ellis Street, Wight has another surprise in store.
“One of my good friends who I partner with on numerous things, we are going to do a farmers market over there,” he said pointing to the lot on Ellis. “If you are familiar with Sara’s Fresh Market over in South Carolina, off Highway 25, well, we may do another Sara’s Market right here next to the taco place.”
With the opening of each of his restaurants in downtown Augusta over the past seven years, Wight has helped bring more life and excitement to Broad Street.
He is hoping that this new restaurant on 12th and Ellis will encourage more growth and interest in other areas of downtown.
“I love downtown. Downtown has been very good to me,” Wight said. “I think with the growth of the new hotels coming into the downtown area and the other restaurants that have opened up in the seven years since I’ve been here, I think downtown is coming along at a pretty good pace.”
But while many developers and property owners like himself are putting a great deal of money into the downtown area, Wight also believes the city of Augusta should step up to the plate.
“I would like to see a little more involvement from our local government in terms of providing parking and more lighting downtown in certain areas. But downtown is a great place to do business,” he said. “People are coming downtown by the droves all the time. It is still amazing to me how many people live in the area and say, ‘This is our first trip down here and we love it.’ For me, this is my home base. For instance, I have really enjoyed the Flowing Wells Road location where we have for the new Farmhaus, but I still really feel that downtown is where it is at.”
Wight says he sees the city of Augusta trying to improve certain aspects of downtown, but he believes it just isn’t happening quickly enough.
“The city is beautifying the entryways into downtown like on River Watch Parkway and what they are doing on Calhoun with the lighting,” Wight said. “And there is a plan to redo all of the streets down here except Ellis Street, which I think needs the most love and gets the least amount of attention.”
But, much like many downtown property owners, Wight believes one of the keys to the future success of downtown Augusta is easy access to parking for patrons.
“There are so many opportunities for the city to invest in parking downtown,” he said. “When they do that, the retailers will come. Every retailer that I’ve talked to have said, ‘You need more parking downtown.’ And I love the small, privately-owned shops, but we need a couple of national retailers downtown like a Lucky Brand jeans or a few things like that to really bring more people downtown.”
The national retailers will actually help the smaller, independent shops thrive, Wight said.
“All of the cool, private, eclectic stuff is awesome, but that is not enough to bring the masses down here,” he said. “It’s just like King Street in Charleston. We need a couple of those big national brands downtown. I think there has to be a balance. And, as soon the city invests in parking downtown, I believe it will happen.”
Wight feels so strongly about the future of downtown Augusta that he also bought the former Clyde Dunaway Bicycles shop on 12th Street and is currently renovating the upstairs into a two-bedroom apartment.
“We will also have retail space on the bottom and that should be ready by the first of the year,” Wight said. “We haven’t found a lessor yet, but we will soon. I just thought that was a really cool building and I didn’t want to see it deteriorate anymore. I also think it will be a desirable location because of all the restaurants I have out there. There will be a lot of foot traffic.”
In order to have a thriving downtown, Wight says a city typically begins with successful bars and restaurants that soon attract retail stores.
“It is a proven model, time after time after time,” Wight said. “You have cities like Cleveland, Ohio, Greenville, S.C., Birmingham, Ala., and all of those neighborhoods in and around Atlanta. It all starts with restaurants and bars and the retail follows.”
While Wight believe the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office has done an excellent job keeping downtown safe, he simply thinks Augusta commissioners need to spend more time driving around the downtown area and really observing the parking situation when it is busy.
“I wish we could get all of the commissioners down here, even on a Wednesday night, and ride around. You cannot find a parking place,” he said. “It is awesome to see, but it is also frustrating at the same time. I swear, when it comes to a parking deck, if you build it, they will come.”
Over the years, Wight has traveled throughout the country and learned a thing or two about successful downtown areas.
“I am originally from Orlando, Fla., and I moved up here in the middle of high school to Edgefield,” Wight said, adding that his father’s family was from Beaufort, S.C., and his mother was from Orlando. “When my dad was a teenager, he had a lot of family in Edgefield that had farms and he kind of spent summers there. So he was very fond of Edgefield, but I have to admit, when I first moved up here, I hated it because I grew up on the beach, surfing and doing all of the wonderful things that central Florida has to offer.”
Wight said he will never forget his first day at Strom Thurmond High School.
“I moved up here in the middle of ninth grade and it was a culture shock,” Wight said, laughing. “I was used to going to Cocoa Beach and surfing and, the first day of school, I literally saw kids driving tractors to school. I couldn’t believe it.”
While Wight admits that he rebelled a bit as a teen, he eventually learned to really love Edgefield much like his father. To this day, he still lives on a farm in Edgefield.
“I always loved the outdoors. I did a lot of hunting down in Florida, too. I went quail hunting down there, so getting back into hunting up here was probably what saved me as a teen,” Wight said, smiling. “It took me a little while to appreciate it, but now I would rather be here than anywhere. I love living on a farm.”
But, after he graduated from high school, he still didn’t quite feel that way.
Wight actually returned back to Florida for a little while, but then decided to hit the road for a year or so and follow the band the Grateful Dead.
“I was about 19 and I was just taking a break from college here and there,” he said, chuckling. “I just totally enjoyed the music. I had a T-shirt company and we traveled around and sold T-shirts. We had FedEx ship them to us in every city that we were in. It was a good way to pay for our travels. You just had to be coordinated.”
During that year on the road, Wight said he was able to see most of the country.
“I’ve been to almost every state in the United States and I got to see a good part of the nation,” Wight said. “It was fun. I had a good time. There is a great sense of adventure that goes along with traveling across the country and going to new cities.”
Wight also began developing a great love of experimenting with food.
“When I moved back to Augusta, I worked at Cafe DuTeau and Cadwallader’s for a couple of years and I went to culinary school at The Art institute in Fort Lauderdale,” he said. “I worked in the front of house and was a wine sommelier.”
At 21, Wight said he also worked for Disney when he lived in Florida. He quickly discovered that the company’s philosophy regarding guest services had a tremendous impact on him.
“There was a training class when you went to work for Disney and, by the time you walked out of the class, you wanted to cry because they tell you things like, ‘You will encounter some families that can afford to come here every day, but you will also see a family that has saved for seven or eight years, a little bit each day, so they could bring their kids here for two days,’” Wight said. “And they would ask, ‘When you interact with them, do you want to be the one person who is ugly and rude and ruins their sacrifice?’”
Wight said Disney’s attitude really opened his eyes to the importance of treating guests with the upmost respect and providing them with outstanding service.
“Because you never know who is coming in the restaurant here,” he said. “They might have had to save and only go out once a year for an anniversary or something, so I tell my staff, ‘You need to make it special. Each experience should be special. Don’t take it for granted. You work here day after day, it gets routine. But people coming in for the first time, it’s an experience. You need to live up to their expectations.’”
When Wight moved back to the Augusta area, he brought that philosophy of quality service with him.
“When I worked in other places in south Florida and Orlando, I was exposed to the local service that they were given there and I realized that’s where Augusta was lacking,” he said. “Now, at our restaurants, I can honestly say that our food is great, but our service is equally great. And I think that is one of the things that really set us apart, is our emphasis on the guest experience.”
These days, with three successful restaurants in the downtown area and a fourth one on the way, Wight is truly appreciative of all that love and support he has found in the Augusta area.
“We’ve been very blessed,” Wight said, as he walked back across Ellis Street to Frog Hollow on Broad Street. “Ever since we opened up Frog Hollow seven years ago, we have done great. At the time, I could see downtown was ready for an elevated restaurant. The first six months we did good business, but after that it just started getting better and better and we’ve been booked ever since.”
With the success of Frog Hollow, Farmhaus and Craft & Vine, Wight says he can’t wait to see Augusta’s reaction to the new restaurant on 12th and Ellis streets.
“I love downtown Augusta and I tell the servers and the kitchen staff every day, ‘Don’t take it for granted. You have to earn it every day,’” Wight said. “Because it is truly a blessing to have people want to come here and spend their evening with us. I will never take that for granted.”