MBJ: Famed chef buys building, plans new concept aimed at evolving Cooper Young
After 18 years in business, a well-known Memphis chef purchased his Cooper Young restaurant space.
Ben Smith, chef and owner of Tsunami, bought the 928 S. Cooper St. space at the end of December for $625,000 from Jeane E. Umbreit, according to the Shelby County Register of Deeds. The building was listed as 930 S. Cooper St. on the Register of Deeds site.
“I have really dug in my heels here in Cooper Young and in this building and I want to stay here,” Smith said. “I think our brand is strong enough to continue what we are doing, and I am confident enough that I ponied up and bought the building.”
Now, with deed in hand, Smith plans to take Tsunami in a slightly new direction. First — although unrelated to the purchase — the restaurant’s hours have been extended to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays to try and catch traffic from the nearby theaters near Overton Square.
Aesthetic upgrades are planned that involve fresh paint, repairing and replacing the ceilings, new sound baffling installations in the dining room and improvements to the bathrooms.
The biggest change however — phase two — involves a slightly new concept at Tsunami. The dining space on the south side of the building that has been used over the years as overflow for the main dining room or as a banquet hall will be converted into a more casual setting.
That side of the restaurant would be aimed at people who do not have a reservation but want to drop in for a drink and a few small plates.
Smith said they discovered in 2008 when they expanded the bar that there was a big market for single diners or couples who do not want to make a reservation — people who simply want good food but not the formal dining experience.
“I think the diversity of the restaurants [in Cooper Young] is good,” Smith said. “My concern sometimes is that I see this neighborhood maybe leaning more toward a drinking destination then a dining destination. I think it is a great balance right now, but I have noticed a shift there. … If this younger demographic is going to be in the neighborhood, then I expand my hours and I offer something a little less formal, a little lower check average. … There are plenty of opportunities around here for cocktails and drinking in general, I want to tap into that, but I still want to maintain the integrity that we are first and foremost a restaurant that serves food.”
The restaurant already has two fully outfitted kitchens, one of which is currently used for baking bread and pastry prep and where the secondary grill and deep fryer are located for vegetarian items that cannot be crossed with non-vegetarian dishes.
While more kitchen equipment would need to be added, Smith said he plans to have one kitchen designated to each concept.
Tsunami’s hours are Mondays to Thursdays 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.