Covington is attracting a diverse new wave of residents and entrepreneurs, thanks to ongoing revitalization efforts by groups like Renaissance Covington and The Center for Great Neighborhoods.
By providing financial assistance and guidance to businesses of all sorts, these groups have transformed the city’s infrastructure to support three distinct business districts in Latonia, the Westside and the downtown core.
Now, Covington is broadening its goods and services to appeal to a wider swath of the region’s consumers, while attempting to manage the change in a way that's consistent and accessible for longtime residents. Leaders say the key to achieving that balance is embracing diversity in both business owners and their clientele.
“You’ve got to know the area and the people and their different backgrounds,” says Sergio Gutierrez, who owns Gutierrez Deli at 1131 Lee St.
Gutierrez runs the deli along with his father Claudio Gutierrez and Courtney Case, Claudio’s girlfriend. They opened in 2012 across from the popular Wunderbar on a 12th Street/MLK corridor that has seen dramatic improvement and heightened residential interest in recent years.
“There’s a lot of people here from Guatemala,” says Gutierrez. “When we first moved in here, we thought we were going to do a Mexican grocery store, but we switched over to more Central American. It was a complete turnaround because the food Mexican people eat is typically a lot spicier than what Guatemalans eat, so that was a big barrier, but we had to adapt to their taste.”
In addition to selling groceries to local residents, Gutierrez also offers hot tacos, tamales and house-made quesadillas for lunch and dinner.
To further solidify the deli’s place in the community and provide affordable, healthy food to his growing clientele, Gutierrez got involved with The Center’s Plan4Health and Skyward’s LiveWell NKY programs, which are designed to improve the overall health of residents through education and easier access to fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables.
Gutierrez says he has seen Covington change for the better in the five years since he opened his store.
“I feel like the area’s just getting nicer,” he says. “When we first got here, not a lot of people were involved in the community, not a lot of people out doing stuff or walking. Before, people thought of it as a bad area, but the area’s starting to clean up and that’s helping people go out.”
‘Taking risks’ in the central business core
Meanwhile, over on Madison Avenue, KungFood Chu’s AmerAsia has been a staple of Covington’s dining scene practically from the moment the Chu family began serving their spicy, creative take on Hunan, Szechuan and Taiwanese-style cuisine eight years ago.
Johnny Chu, proprietor of Chu's KungFood AmerAsiaJohnny Chu, son of Master Chef Rich Chu, designed the restaurant with a tongue-in-cheek introduction to Asian culture. The walls are adorned with kung-fu movie posters. Martial arts films play on the TVs. There are even menu items like “Fly Rice” that truly show the futility of judging something by its name; despite the playful monikers, AmerAsia’s fare is incredibly layered.
“Honesty and taking risks to be one-of-a-kind have been my keys to running a successful business in Covington,” Chu says. “Everything I do is out of passion and a commitment to be different while also having fun. That's enough for me.”
Chu and his family remember the old Covington, when foot traffic was at a minimum.
“Covington has gone through some drastic changes,” he says. “When I first started the restaurant, few people would be seen walking past 2 p.m. Now there are all walks of life walking in downtown Covington, even past 11 p.m.”
As evidence of Covington's growing nightlife, more and more young professionals now frequent newer spots like Hotel Covington and Braxton Brewing Company, as regular crowds continue filing into longer-standing venues like the Madison Theater.
Like many players in Covington’s business scene, Chu believes Renaissance Covington and The Center are responsible for the influx.
“(Both organizations) have been indispensable resources for me as a first-time business owner,” Chu says. “The City of Covington also offers great benefits for businesses and home owners. I’ve never thought about operating a business in a different city. I've always been very happy in Covington.”
Embracing diversity holds promise for prosperity
Jerod Theobald tapped into Covington's infectious entrepreneurial energy when he chose to open a menswear retail space seven years ago on Scott Street. Soon after, he moved to the historic Mutual Building at Pike and Madison and added a traditional barbershop.
Cutman Barbershop's master barber Tarris Horton
Theobald says his Cutman Barbershop has no desire to compete with Covington's traditionally black-owned barbershops, of which there are several. Rather, he wants to complement them and introduce the concept to even more people across Covington.
Tarris Horton is Cutman's well-known master barber. He manages the shop and greets a steady stream of customers each day, by appointment only.
Before working at Cutman, Horton worked in barbershops as far south as Radcliffe, Ky., as well as other shops in the area, predominantly cutting hair for African American clients.
"Now, my clientele is probably 70 percent Caucasian, but it's some of the most diverse clientele I've ever worked with," says Horton. "I get people from all backgrounds. I get retirees and young professionals all the way down to toddlers."
Horton enjoys the range of people he interacts with every day as part of his job, and he believes the shop's success reflects Covington's rebirth.
"It makes me feel really good to be able to provide this service and get to know people on a more personal level," Horton says. "It makes me feel good about the direction of Covington and the direction of the country, really. Clients look at me as their barber and their friend. It goes deeper than just a haircut. It's great to feel that love in Covington."
Theobald echoes that sentiment, acknowledging an optimism that seems to permeate the city. He believes there's more progress where that came from.
“Covington has drastically changed in the seven years I've lived here, but in many ways, it's still the same,” he says. “There is an energy here now that didn't exist just a few years ago. There are more people and dogs on the sidewalks and new shops and restaurants scattered around town. The city still has its challenges, but there are a lot of people working to make a difference, to make Covington better. Not everyone here has bought in yet, but they will. Covington has come a long way, but hasn't lost its charm.”
That charm, it seems, is a result of people of all walks of life working together to improve the place they call home.
The Northern Kentucky Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISC and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.