'Not a zombie restaurant' will claim the last vacant space in the Choo Choo complex

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Vice President of Operations for Nic & Norman's David Valentine talks to the Times Free Press in the space for the future Nic & Norman's at the Chattanooga Choo Choo. The restaurant is owned by Greg Nicotero and Norman Reedus who are a director and actor, respectively, in the hit television show "The Walking Dead."

A restaurant owned by zombie celebrities will bring the last dead space in the historic Choo-Choo building to life, said an owner of the historic property.

"It's the only empty space we have," said Jon Kinsey, a principal in Choo Choo Partners, the group that owns the iconic building on Market Street. "We were excited because they chose us for their first expansion because they love the building."

Nic & Norman's will open in the 5,600-square-foot space in spring 2020. The restaurant is co-owned by "Walking Dead" actor Norman Reedus and director and special effects guru Greg Nicotero. Their restaurant in Senoia, Georgia, where much of the series is filmed, opened in 2016, and they've been on the hunt for their next location.

"Being part of an entertainment complex was what we wanted," said David Valentine, vice president of operations for Nic & Norman's. "And we like being part of a historic location where we can give back."

The 20-foot ceilings, soaring archways and exposed brick inside the space were important selling points, and the restaurant group will work with local contractors and architects to renovate and restore some of the original elements from 1909 along the way, Valentine said. River Street Architects and Tucker Construction will lead the work, he said.

"We really want to bring this back to the way this used to look," Valentine said.

That plan is consistent with the mission of Choo Choo Partners, who turned down several other potential restaurant tenants before Nic & Norman's came calling, said Adam Kinsey, who is another principal in the ownership group and Jon Kinsey's son.

"Everything we try to do is local, authentic and historic," Adam Kinsey said. "Our tenant mix is really curated for the neighborhood. We held out for the right tenants."

Local restaurateur Tim Hennen, another partner in ownership of the Choo Choo building, had planned to open an eatery in the space, but he decided the timing wasn't going to work out, Jon Kinsey said. When Nic & Norman's expressed interest in the space, the Kinseys took a trip to Senoia to see the original place.

"It has a great menu, a great staff, a great neighborhood feel," Adam Kinsey said.

While Nic & Norman's originated around the filming of "The Walking Dead," it's not a zombie-themed restaurant, Valentine said. It's focused on great food, community and bringing people together to have a good time, he said.

"This is not about zombies," he said of the eatery, which will seat about 200 and have 80 to 100 employees.

The place in Senoia was originally something of an escape hatch; Nicotero and Reedus really just wanted a place they could eat and drink in peace after shooting wrapped, Valentine said. It has evolved into a community hub and a strong business, and there are plans to continue expansion into other markets once the Chattanooga restaurant is up and running, he said.

"We're looking at Savannah, at Nashville," Valentine said. "But this is a good start to get away from a filming town and test the brand."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.