Evening Entrepreneurs

If you’re worried about whether there is any entrepreneurial spirit left in America, relax!  Last night we paid a visit to the Moonlight Market on Gay Street in downtown Columbus, and we can faithfully report that the entrepreneurial spirit in Cbus is alive and most definitely kicking.

The Moonlight Market is held once a month on the two blocks of Gay Street between High Street and Fourth.  Vendors set up tents on each side of the street — including on the sidewalk directly in front of the firm — and sell all manner of products, from artwork to baked goods and other foods to used books to plants to clothing to massages.  Unlike some street markets, all of the participants in the Moonlight Market seem to be individuals who are pursuing their passions through their small businesses and trying to make a few bucks in the process.  Without exception, the vendors are friendly, outgoing, and excited about what they are selling, and their enthusiasm is infectious.  You can’t help but pull for these people, and also support them with your wallets.  We bought some colorful artwork and some tasty baked goods from some very appreciative sellers.

Capitalism has its good points and its bad points, and some of the good points were on display last night on Gay Street.  Dozens of people were out in their tents on a very warm Saturday evening hoping to sell their handmade or hand-raised goods — even crocheted scarves and clothing that wasn’t exactly suited to the weather.  They all have stories to tell, like the young woman nicknamed Suga Pie who has a talent for cupcakes and has been working on selling them for eight years.  She’s recently created her own website and is working on her brand.  Her pineapple upside-down cupcakes are delicious, by the way.

Go get ’em, Suga Pie, and the rest of the Moonlight Market crew!  You are what makes our economy tick.  And if you want to see a little small business entrepreneurialism in the flesh, you can catch the next Moonlight Market on August 10.

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Hand-Rolled

I like to support locally owned and established businesses whenever possible.  I also like to savor a good cigar now and then.  So when I was walking down Gay Street toward High Street the other night and passed the Don Rey Cigar Shop at 11 East Gay, I had to turn in and check it out.

As its name suggests, Don Rey offers premium cigars and tobacco products.  It is a relatively recent addition to the Coolest Street in Downtown Columbus, and I’d not visited before.  The shop has a nice, open space with a seating area and an extensive selection of cigars lining the walls.  I met the proprietor, a very friendly and extremely enthusiastic cigar aficionado who made some knowledgeable suggestions for me.  He also disclosed that he hand rolls his own cigars, from a blend of Puerto Rican and Dominican tobacco, right there in the shop and gave me one for free — which seemed pretty darned generous.

I’ve never smoked a cigar that was hand-rolled by a person I’ve actually met before, so I was intrigued to give the cigar a try.  I enjoyed it last night with a glass of wine, and it was excellent.  In fact, I’d say it is one of the best cigars I’ve ever puffed.

If you’re on the Coolest Street in Downtown Columbus and feel like enjoying a cigar, stop by Don Rey and try one of the hand-rolled offerings.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Changing One Corner

When I first started working at the law firm, more than 30 years ago, the lot at the western corner of Gay and High Streets in downtown Columbus was occupied by some kind of five and dime store.  It may have been a Woolworth’s, it may have been a Kresge’s, but there was a building and business there where I bought some small item, once.

I only went there once, because very soon after I made my purchase the building was torn down and the lot was paved over for parking.  It was one of the last gasps of the Columbus urban craze for demolishing old buildings that left the core area of downtown a veritable wasteland of ugly surface parking lots.  The preponderance of parking lots gave the center of downtown a kind of sad, scarred feel that made you wonder whether the area would ever be revived.

But slowly, over the past decade, many the surface lots are being replaced with buildings.  Some of the buildings are pure residential developments, many are mixed-use concepts with retail on the ground floor, office space above, and residential at the top, and a few purely commercial buildings have been constructed, too.  And some of the commercial buildings with parking lots have been converted into something that is much more interesting — like the former tire and lube business a few blocks from the firm that was turned into a cool bar, with its former parking lots becoming fenced-in outdoor seating areas complete with fire pits and games and food truck space.

And now the big, long-empty lot at the corner of Gay and High has finally joined this welcome trend.  Work has been ongoing for a while now, and as the picture with this post indicates, it’s getting close to being done.  It’s a huge project that is one of those mixed-use developments, and the buildings look pretty cool — and are much preferable to the grim asphalt expanse that we’d been looking at for years.  We’re now wondering what business might move into the ground floor options, and are hoping they will add to the buzz on Gay Street — for some years now the coolest street in downtown Columbus largely because the original buildings on the block between High Street and Third Street somehow survived the wrecking ball.

After more than three decades, our little part of the world is being reconfigured.  Scratch another surface parking lot and substitute something more attractive and vibrant and hopefully a harbinger of more to come.  Our downtown is on the move, one parking lot at a time, and we couldn’t be happier about it.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XVIII)

I’m a firm believer in the importance of getting out of the office, taking a break from the workday grind, and having lunch with friends, family members, and colleagues.  However, there are days when the press of work is just too much.  You realize you’ve got to work through lunch, and that means you’ve got to eat lunch at your desk.

When that happens, as it did yesterday, I’m extremely grateful for Cafe Phenix.

The Phenix is one of our Gay Street neighbors, located right across the street from the firm.  You can dine in at their pleasant shop or the sidewalk eating area just outside, or take out, ordering from a full menu of sandwiches, quiches, soups, and pastries, with a full array of teas, milkshakes, smoothies, and other beverage items.  The proprietor and his staff are friendly folks who are likely to engage you in a pleasant bit of conversation while your food is being prepared, and the menu changes daily, with specials shown on a sign outside and soup offerings written on a chalkboard behind the counter.

When I’ve visited the Phenix to get carryout for a desktop working lunch, I inevitably get the soup.  I’ve had the croque monsieur sandwich, which was very good indeed, but the proprietor’s true medium for culinary artistry is bisques, chowders, gumbos, and other forms of hot, steaming, spoon-friendly nourishment.  In my opinion he is one of the very best soup makers in town.  In fact, his sausage and seafood gumbo and seafood bisque are the stuff of Gay Street legend.

Yesterday, I got a carry-out bowl of the white chicken chili, a creamy concoction stuffed with chunks of chicken, onions, potato, and great northern beans.  The Phenix threw in some moist, ridiculously buttery corn bread that I crumbled into the soup, licking my fingers all the while.  I enjoyed every bite of the result, and for only $3.99, a bowl of soup from the Cafe Phenix is awfully easy on your wallet, too.

The Phenix almost makes you look forward to a lunch at your desk.

The Random Restaurant Tour (XVI)

Sometimes, the story of a restaurant isn’t about the good food you’ve enjoyed — it’s about how you never got to sample the fare because the place went toes up before you ever got a chance to visit.

The restaurant business is a notoriously difficult one, particularly for stand-alone start-ups. Statistics show that more than half of newly established restaurants will be out of business within three years.  The most common reasons for failure, according to the experts, are lack of sufficient cash flow and capitalization, a concept that doesn’t work, a bad location, and poor quality food.

In our little section of downtown Columbus, we’ve seen several restaurants close their doors recently.  Stack’d is one that I never got a chance to try.  Located at the corner of Third Street and Lynn Alley about a block from our firm, Stack’d billed itself as “The Flavor Architects” and offered a diverse menu of sandwiches, salads, pizzas, chips, and smoothies.  It was open for a few months, then posted a sign saying that management had gone south for the winter, then a sign that the restaurant could be rented for training, and finally the “for sale” sign that is there now.  Why did Stack’d fail?  Who knows?  The only word-of-mouth I heard about Stack’d when it was open, from one person, was that the food was good but the ordering process was complicated and patrons had a lot of decisions to make.

The story was different for another restaurant that closed recently.  The Carvery, located directly across Gay Street from the firm, offered sandwiches and soups that were very good.  It seemed to do a thriving business and was always bustling when I was there.  But then it apparently experienced some kind of significant plumbing problem, posted a sign that it was temporarily closed — and never reopened.

We’ve heard that another restaurant will be opening at The Carvery’s former location, and I’d expect some other food-loving entrepreneur will eventually take a stab at opening up where Stack’d used to operate.  I wish them good luck, and hope they stay open long enough for me to visit.

 

Whirlybirds Accompaniment

I went to work this morning, and as I was working I kept hearing this great jazz music coming up from the street below during today’s Sunlight Market on Gay Street.  I couldn’t tell whether I was hearing a recording or a live band — but the music was terrific.  It was old-school jazz that had a kind of New Orleans feel to it.  It reminded me of Tuba Skinny, one of my favorite Big Easy jazz bands.

whirlybirds-facebook-picWhen I left the office and walked out onto Gay Street, I saw that the music was coming a live band.  They finished a number and took a break, and I walked up to throw a few dollars into their open guitar case and thank them for adding a little musical accompaniment to my Sunday work session.  They were a Columbus-based band called the Whirlybirds, and they were great.  You can check out their Facebook page here and hear one of their numbers here.

I’m going to keep an eye out for a chance to hear more from the Whirlybirds.

Our Own Urban (Fast) Food Desert

Yesterday we were having lunch at Pat & Gracie’s, a good spot just a few blocks east of the firm on Gay Street, talking about places to eat downtown, when we realized with a start that there are no longer any of the traditional fast food restaurants in the core downtown Columbus area.

fast-food-signsOnce, this was not the case.  There are was Arby’s just a block or so away, a White Castle, a Skyline Chili, and three Wendy’s.  Now, they’re all gone.  Unless I’m forgetting one, the only traditional fast food place even remotely in the downtown footprint is a McDonald’s located at the corner of Grant & Main, just south of Grant Hospital and the Main branch of the library, on the far fringes of the core downtown area.  The closest we’ve got to traditional fast food are a few Subway shops, including one that is across the street from the firm.  If you really want traditional fast food options in Columbus, Ohio, you need to head away from downtown and head to the ‘burbs and the highways.

Why have the fast food outlets moved out of the central downtown area?  The Red Sox Fan hypothesizes that, in the modern world, fast food restaurants have to have drive-thru service to be economically feasible, and the buildings and spaces in downtown Columbus just aren’t suited for that kind of design.  There’s no doubt, too, that rents in downtown Columbus are rising — that’s purportedly the reason for the lamentable closure of the Skyline Chili once located close to Broad and High, which did a bustling lunch trade — and high rents and fast food really don’t mix.  And it could be, too, that the downtown restaurant clientele, consisting of thousands of office workers like us and people staying at the downtown hotels, just don’t want to get typical fast food for their sit-down lunch and have found really terrific alternatives to traditional fast food throughout the downtown area.  Even if I need to eat at my desk to meet a deadline, there are lots of non-fast food options nearby where I can get something tasty and interesting on a carry-out basis.

It might be a chicken and egg scenario — which came first, the departure of the fast food outlets or the opening of lots of good, unique downtown eateries like those found on Gay Street? — but these days downtown Columbus, Ohio could be called an urban fast food desert.  I kind of like it that way.