Music City Marvel: Acme Feed & Seed's New Gig
A Nashville native reinvents a longtime social hub.
Let me show you something,” says Tom Morales. He’s on the second floor of Acme Feed & Seed in downtown Nashville, and within seconds of my arrival he’s beckoning me to follow his long strides around the second floor of a spacious former warehouse. He’s pointing up at a beam about 14 feet high and silently continues on for a few dozen steps before he stops to show where it at last joins to another. “80 feet!” he says. “And it’s American chestnut. You couldn’t find this today!”
Nobody likes change. But when it inevitably arrives, everybody wants someone responsible to oversee the fraught transition from yesterday to tomorrow. And Tom Morales, much of Nashville appears to agree, has been a responsible caretaker of change. His Acme Feed & Seed, which served as a grain wholesaler and retailer until 1999 and reopened in July 2014 as a bar, restaurant, and events venue, has become one of booming downtown Nashville’s anchor attractions. It’s located at the apex of the city’s most prominent coordinates—the corner of Broadway and First Avenue, right at the edge of the Cumberland River.
A project like this could have gone badly awry. The building is in an area thick with tourists; the space easily could have been reborn as an alcohol-powered factory designed to lure a high volume of out-of-towners and efficiently extricate from them high volumes of cash.
But Morales took a different route—threading a needle between tourism and local culture, between preservation and profit. Acme Feed & Seed sits not only at a geographic crossroads of downtown Nashville, but also at the corner where yesterday’s commodity economy intersects with today’s urban entertainment district.
Acme Feed & Seed’s story is about a building, and a committed owner shaping a local icon for the future.
“Our whole perspective was to save an iconic landmark and make it appear not to have changed at all.”Tom Morales
The late-19th-century building occupied today by Acme Feed & Seed was one star in a vast galaxy of wholesale and retail operations that lined river ports throughout the American interior. Nearby, along the fertile lands flanking the Cumberland River, small farmers raised livestock and harvested thousands of bushels of corn and other grains, earning Nashville the moniker “the Minneapolis of the South.” In turn, they required the services of feed vendors, plow salesmen, shippers, and insurers, many of whom clustered in Nashville, creating a vibrant boom town.
Among those who moved to tap into that economic energy was local businessman J.R. Whitemore, who around 1890 built a three-story structure just up a low embankment fronting the bustling river. Architecturally, it wasn’t especially fancy: essentially three large shoeboxes set atop one another, the whole affair placed on a limestone basement. Each floor measured 50 by 150 feet, with the narrow end fronting Broadway and the flank facing the river. Yet the stern brick building wasn’t wholly without ornament. On Broadway, the upper floors had large windows with handsome segmental arches. It was topped with a cornice in full Italianate glory, complete with a low central parapet.
Over the years, a parade of local suppliers leased 101 Broadway to conduct their business. It has been home to the Continental Baking Powder Co., Southern Soda Works, Tennessee Wholesale Drug, and two moving and storage operations. In 1913 the Bearden Buggy Company took it over, installing a sizable elevator to get its buggies and carriages to the upper floors.
The Acme Stock and Poultry Company leased 101 Broadway in 1943, moving from its original location a few blocks downriver. In the same year, the Grand Ole Opry radio show started broadcasting from Ryman Auditorium, a proud old edifice just a few blocks away. The Acme’s owners repainted 101 Broadway a deep blue—it was painted its now-classic white in the 1960s—and affixed pilaster-like red and white checkerboard tin panels to the first and second floors, styled after the Purina logo.
Farmers from the region and residents of the city came to the Acme to buy seed corn, farm supplies, and chicks. For a time, the company ran a thriving poultry hatchery on the third floor, selling dyed chicks at Easter and live turkeys at Thanksgiving. It became a de facto community center, a place where people met and socialized as they bought necessities. On weekends the store often hosted curbside concerts, with local bands playing on a flatbed truck parked near the loading dock. The proprietors once raffled off a pair of live pigs, named Mike and Ike, who had become plump from eating Purina feed provided as an advertising ploy.
Over time, commercial farmers migrated outward, attracted by more abundant and cheaper lands. Nashville’s riverside role as a commercial supply center was eclipsed as truck and rail delivery became more dominant. Furniture stores moved in to take over some of the sprawling buildings along Broadway and near the river; others were boarded up or collapsed.
And so began a slow pivot, with Nashville shifting from commercial center to the nation’s country music capital. One by one, Broadway storefronts closed as suppliers of commercial needs and then reopened as vendors of entertainment. The Ernest Tubb Record Shop moved to Broadway in 1950; Tootsies Orchid Lounge opened in 1960; and Robert’s Western World, a bar and clothing shop, took over a popular steel-guitar store in the 1980s.
What started as a trickle of tourists curious about the new Nashville turned into a torrent in the 1990s. Downtown, which like other urban cores nationwide had suffered through long stretches of seediness and blight, came back. Dozens of entrepreneurs took the blueprint drafted by earlier honky-tonks and copied it up and down Broadway. They acquired funky storefronts, put neon signs outside and low stages inside, added taps for cheap beer, and hired bands to play covers of “Friends in Low Places.”
The formula worked. On warm and busy nights today, the sidewalks can become impassable, with crowds of tourists spilling over into the street. In a telling sign of the times, the former Phillips and Quarles Hardware Store, situated on another prominent corner directly across from the Acme, was reborn as a Hard Rock Cafe.
Throughout all the changes, the Acme, improbably, continued to sell bulk feed and seed—although pet food had replaced much of the livestock feed. (A banner hung in front touting “Free dog dip every Saturday.”) In 1998 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The nominating application noted that “it has maintained a remarkable degree of architectural integrity, so much so that most of its original materials remain intact.”
“I remember walking by, and I remember the smells of pet food,” says Robbie Jones, a local historian and past president of Historic Nashville. “The Acme is one of those quiet little buildings that sat on the sideline for a long time, even though it’s in the center of lots of activity.”
But the world that the Acme helped create had moved on, to large-scale wholesalers and suburban pet food retailers. In 1999, the store sold its last sack of pet food and closed its doors. The building, owned by the Turner Family Trust since the 1940s, would remain empty for more than a decade.
Tom Morales was raised in Madison, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. He was brought up grilling every weekend in the backyard (“I was 14 before I knew that a chicken neck wasn’t a delicacy”) and eventually began catering backstage at rock concerts (his first gig: cooking up 1,500 pounds of crawfish for The Charlie Daniels Band). This led to work hiring crews to set up commissaries on sets for high-budget movies around the world. His Nashville-based company, TomKats, now has screen credits on 330 films and TV shows, including Autumn in New York and Sex and the City.
“You have talented people, but they burn out,” Morales says. Aiming to establish a home base to allow his staff some rest and recuperation, he opened his first brick-and-mortar restaurant in Franklin, Tennessee. A decade later he bought the beloved and historical Loveless Cafe, then launched Southern Steak and Oyster, both in Nashville.
Morales remembered going to the Acme building for Easter chicks as a child, and after it emptied he made overtures to the Turner Family Trust. “Our whole perspective was to save an iconic landmark and make it appear not to have changed at all,” he says. “You’re competing with memories, and you don’t really want to mess with those.”
After about a decade of on-and-off negotiations, Morales at last secured a 30-year lease and was handed the keys to the building. “It was just nasty and dirty,” he says. “Pigeons had been living here.” The oak flooring was so black that he wasn’t even sure it was wood.
He and his investors, which included country music star Alan Jackson, set about renovating. Among their guiding principles: Do no harm, and keep the building’s ambience intact. Morales and his partners ultimately spent about $6.5 million on the project.
The windows had suffered from weather and age, and all were replaced with replicas, double-insulated to make heating and cooling more economical. (Salvageable original windows were reused as space dividers, hung from beams indoors.) The flooring on the top level was what one might expect for a space where chickens were once raised by the thousands; it was torn out and replaced with a concrete floor, which also helped isolate music and noise. Any subflooring that could be salvaged was, with much of it crafted into the bars and tables now in use on the ground floor.
Then there was the roof, which offers a panoramic view of the river and the park that fronts it. In order to add a roof deck (stepped back to make it less visually intrusive from the street), Morales ran 10 steel columns from bedrock in the basement up through the building to the roof, on which he built the deck.
The rest of the building he left mostly open and raw. The first floor has a bar and low stage; the second is a more informal lounge, with bars at either end and a sushi counter behind low dividers. The third floor is even less altered and serves as open space used for receptions, concerts, and community events.
Morales considered adding a steel truss in order to remove a wooden support post smack in front of the first floor stage, but then reconsidered. “I was going to take that out for the ego of the artists. But then I thought, hey, that’s been there longer than any of them,” he says.
The end result has pleased many in Nashville, especially those concerned about wholesale changes to a building laden with memories. “They kept a lot of the original character, and the openness of the space,” says Tim Walker, executive director of Nashville’s Metropolitan Historical Commission. “I think they did a really good job overall.”
The ultimate plan wasn’t just to save a building, but to re-establish a downtown hub for residents. “It was the Home Depot of the time, but with a whole social setting,” Morales says. “Part of our business plan was to revive that community.”
Tourists do stop by, of course. The intersection of Broadway and the river is the natural turn-around point for those exploring the honky-tonks. So the first floor is geared more toward travelers passing through. Still, the bands are less liable to be playing country hits from the '90s. Morales’ booking folks strive to bring in musicians trying new things, and those on the cusp of being discovered. “It’s probably the most diverse music hall in Nashville,” he says. “We call it a ‘funky tonk.’” During a recent lunch hour, a DJ on stage was spinning forgotten records as part of the Acme’s “Vinyl Lunch” series.
Upstairs is more oriented toward locals. There’s yoga on the roof, a cocktail lounge on the second floor, and that third-floor space for community events. “Everybody said, ‘Oh, this is a tourist area, you should be going after tourists,’” Morales says. “But we also targeted the local millennial who was socially active, who was dying for a place on Lower Broadway.”
“The business model was to attract locals and tourists, and from what I’ve seen it’s succeeded,” says historian Robbie Jones. “The make-up of the building is different than the others. It’s doing what it’s intended to do.”
The day I visited, a crew was mapping out the floor plan of a new radio station Morales is planning to install in a little-used alcove just inside the front door. The idea? To broadcast performances and promote musicians who might not gain widespread traction elsewhere. “We’re going to spin Nashville musicians who aren’t on major labels,” he says. “There’s no outlet for that. There’s a whole subculture of musicians who aren’t getting the exposure.”
Morales leads me to an old black-and-white picture hanging on a wall showing a band playing on a 1949 Ford flatbed outside the feed store. He found an identical truck in North Dakota, had it painted up like in the photo, and has plans to have bands play on the back of it at store events.
He nods at the photo. “I bought that old truck,” he says, smiling. “And now we’re doing the same thing.”