Business of Life
The reinventions of 9 S. Front St.
October 1, 2012By Liz Biro
Hours after the downtown restaurant space at 9 S. Front St. became available in July, chefs, restaurateurs and wannabes started circling.
Hearing that promising farm-to-table Crow Hill closed suddenly, phones popped with talk of new dining concepts. Potential investors sketched ideas. Salaried cooks hatched entrepreneurial plans. Even the foodie public discussed dream-restaurant scenarios.
When one of Crow Hill’s owners stood teary-eyed outside the spot the day its doors were locked, a young chef strolled up just in time to lend a shoulder – and ask a few questions.
Downtown Wilmington has many fabulous spaces, but few excite the food-service crowd more than 9 S. Front St. From its see-and-be-seen balcony overlooking a clean, open floor plan to grand picture windows broadcasting downtown’s cool beat, the address inspires delicious thoughts.
Such ideas may be most irresistible to the building’s owners, Michael and Debra Caliva. The couple sparked their own and the city’s romance with 9 S. Front St. when they restored the space two decades ago and soon after installed what became one of Wilmington’s most iconic restaurants, Caffe Phoenix.
Like any great relationship, their attachment to the location has suffered ups and downs. Tenants came and went, but the Calivas’ devotion to 9 S. Front St. never wavered, even now as the space’s fate rests more firmly than ever in the unknown.
“The possibility to succeed in there is real,” Michael Caliva said.
Stepping off the edge
Michael Caliva wasn’t sure what that possibility was when he purchased 9 S. Front St. in the winter of 1980.
Caliva had traded college cultural anthropology studies for sailing the open sea. The single dad purchased boats in Europe and delivered them to America, docking one day with his 5-year-old son at Wilmington’s Masonboro Boat Yard. Caliva planned a brief break from sailing before heading out to charter his boat in the Bahamas.
At the marina, Caliva met the then-owners of 9 S. Front St. When they mentioned selling the spot. Caliva asked, “How much?” Without bargaining, he agreed to the $52,500 price.
“I liked the town,” Caliva said. “I thought, ‘What the hell.’”
Father and son moved into a rough apartment atop the three-story building. They snoozed in sleeping bags and cooked on a hot plate. Caliva carried 75-pound bags of coal upstairs to light the unit’s heater.
Caliva went to work on the building. By spring 1981, an art show happened on the second floor. An artist named Debra was among guests. A Wilmington native, she knew 9 S. Front St.: Her grandfather was a downtown Princess Street tailor who sent his granddaughter to buy necessities at the dry goods store that once filled the circa 1899 building.
The pair “talked all night,” Michael Caliva said. They both loved food and wine. Their first date was a testament to what became a mutual love of historical building restoration.
When Debra arrived at 9 S. Front St.to meet Caliva, he was wearing work clothes.
“I walk in and he goes, ‘Oh! We’re just getting ready to varnish the floors, and it’d go a lot faster if you helped,’” she recalled, laughing. “He had a spare shirt and spare brush, and I said, ‘OK, I’m in for it,’ and we varnished the floor – with paint brushes.
“And I still married him.”
The restaurant years
Once the pair got 9 S. Front St. in shape during a fledging downtown revitalization, they sought tenants to aid downtown’s revival.
The first floor hosted a graphic arts firm followed by three bakeries. Piggybacking on the third bakery, Michael Caliva opened Front Street News, a news stand/coffee shop, in a small section of the building to provide a community gathering place.
He served sweets and espresso by day, beer and wine by night, alongside myriad reading materials, domestic and foreign, that attracted celebrities, including Diane Keaton, who worked at the new Carolco Studios (now EUE/Screen Gems) in Wilmington.
Some months later, Front Street News was sold. The new owner wanted to expand the menu. The Calivas built a kitchen, but the owner shuttered the store. Left in 1989 with a vacant building and new kitchen, the Calivas hatched another gathering place, Caffe Phoenix.
The couple envisioned from-scratch offerings made with ingredients supplied by local purveyors, all served in a bright, airy space patterned on European neighborhood cafes.
“We both liked downtown, and we appreciated the historic nature of it,” Michael Caliva said.
“I mean there was so much wonderful stuff downtown, and we saw the potential to make it better, stick it back together again in a new way … A town needs a bakery, it needs a news stand, it needs some basic things, and we tried to supply those things and in the process make a living.”
To start, Debra Caliva said, “We made the food, we served the food, we painted the walls, we hosed off the sidewalk, we chopped the mushrooms. We did everything we could do that needed to be done.”
As soon as they were able, the Calivas hired a kitchen crew.
Caffe Phoenix quickly became a quirky place that attracted students, artists, writers, musicians and famous and undiscovered actors. It grew into a destination restaurant. Busy and stressed, the Calivas realized after nine years that they preferred restoration to restaurant work (they also refurbished a Castle Street home and are working on downtown’s “iron-front building,” 23 N. Front St., where the lounge Pravda is located).
So, the Calivas sold Caffe Phoenix and become 9 S. Front St. landlords.
Subsequent Phoenix owners never realized the Caffe Phoenix legend. They made various business mistakes. As landlords, the Calivas had to let their tenants run the show.
“We felt responsible without having any leverage at all,” Debra Caliva said.
In the last few years, questions came up if 9 S. Front St. failures were due in part to high rent.
When asked about it, the Calivas look stunned and laugh out loud at the notion that they are inflexible, profit-hungry landlords. Over the years, the couple said, they spent hundreds of hands-on labor hours and thousands and thousands of dollars, much of it via loans, on upgrading and maintaining the building.
Asked if rent for 9 S. Front St. has gone for as high as $10,000 to $12,000 a month, the Calivas admitted the price has reached that range when kitchen, parking lot and other expenses were included. But, they said, they reduced rents, sometimes by half, remodeled and loaned money to help tenants along because the Calivas knew from their own Caffe Phoenix experience that success was possible at 9 S. Front St.
With a mortgage, taxes and maintenance expenses to pay on the old building, at times the Calivas barely break even, they said.
“Yes, it’s a lot of money, but it costs a lot of money to operate that building,” Michael Caliva said.
The next phase 9 S. Front St. is never vacant for long. Almost as soon as the last Caffe Phoenix owners moved to another location, Crow Hill arrived. Weeks after Crow Hill closed, the Calivas lent the space to Checker Cab Gallery, whose owners said they hoped to create an art gallery/restaurant there.
Meantime, the Calivas advertise the space as for rent or for sale.
Faced again with filling 9 S. Front St., the Calivas seem a bit like kids in love rather than worried landlords. Talking to interested parties, they’re excited about prospects. But the now-seasoned real estate partners know to be cautious at first blush.
The Calivas want a thoughtful business plan that will enhance downtown and take advantage of 9 S. Front St.’s beauty.
They, like much of Wilmington, miss Caffe Phoenix, relish its glory days and think it could rise again, but they’re open-minded to fresh possibilities.
“I think we’re all very romantically attached to that (Caffe Phoenix idea),” Debra Caliva said.
“But,” Michael Caliva added, “you’ve got to get over that.”