The Future of Downtown, Part II: What do business owners say?

To help get a better understanding of how the pandemic has affected the local economy, Soapbox spoke to a few downtown businesses to hear about their experiences. The answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Woods Hardware, 125 E. Ninth St.

Woods Hardware started as a locksmith company in 1933 and became Woods Hardware about five years ago. They describe themselves as a "community center that happens to sell hardware.” Originally located on Main Street, this full-service hardware store is now at on East Ninth Street.

Matt Woods is their CEO.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the way you operate downtown?

We were extremely fortunate by being classified as an essential business. We were able to stock cleaning and personal protection items throughout the pandemic. We definitely had to maintain strict protocols for cleaning, distancing and employee safety because of our status as an essential business.

In which ways have you had to adapt in the post-pandemic economy?

We just had to be more nimble with less staffing at times as well as adjust our hours to meet more of the residential demand vs. our business to business demand that lessened due to so many buildings being closed.

What’s the most exciting thing you see happening downtown, your favorite downtown businesses, etc.?

It's always the energy of the people that live down there. So many people take so much pride in their community and seeing the urban core thrive gives the sense that Cincinnati is on the verge of even greater things.

What are the greatest challenges for downtown businesses today?

We need businesses back to full capacity.  So many great entrepreneurs took huge risks to build really great businesses and due to no fault of their own, they are struggling. I'm hoping the recovery will be V-shaped and they'll be back to full operations quickly.

Fausto Restaurant, 44 E. Sixth St.

In 2019, The Ferrari Bros. opened Fausto in the lobby of the Contemporary Arts Center. It is a casual service counter restaurant serving California-inspired cuisine. The menu is light, healthy, and features as many items from local farms and producers as possible.

Tony Ferrari is chef owner of Fausto and The Ferrari Bros.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the way you operate downtown?

Yes, first we had to shut down due to government mandates and also, being in the Contemporary Art Museum, we didn't have much of a choice to stay open nor did it make sense to do so at the moment. After a couple months of regrouping, re-concepting, and pivoting we decided it was a good time to reopen to be here for our city and feed the people. We also missed our staff and wanted to give them purpose and opportunity. We are now back open but with a more casual counter service, take a number, relax with friends, and enjoy great food.

In which ways have you had to adapt in the post-pandemic economy?

Keeping things very simple, tight, and easy to navigate. Staffing and the labor pool are already at a shortage, and with less business and finances then before. We have no choice but to slim things down along with days, hours, and menu items to be sure we keep our doors open. One thing we cannot part with is quality and the best products possible. We will never be ok with cutting corners and would rather close our doors for good then to cook food we don’t believe in or not support our local farmers who work hard and have families to support as well. We kept all the covid things — delivery, curbside, meal kits, grocery items, in house events, etc. as we have nothing to lose by keeping them current. These things we also would have never thought of had we not gone through this pandemic.

What’s the most exciting thing you see happening downtown, your favorite downtown businesses, etc.?

We are excited to see offices, events, and the arts slowly coming back as its the backbone to business in downtown. It’s what we all used to rely on and now with restrictions and still some closed it’s been tough just relying on foot traffic and the small density of locals living in the area. We also wish more people from OTR and the surrounding areas would frequent the downtown area more, given it’s only a couple blocks away from OTR. To us its all the same and one big neighborhood! We love going to Mitas, and getting coffee at Deeper Roots’ new location on Fourth Street.

What are the greatest challenges for downtown businesses today?

Just trying to make things work and change enough to survive without confusing guests. It’s important to stay firm and consistent in hopes that patrons will catch on, support, understand, and be respectful of these crazy times we all have to deal with for now.

For us in particular, we noticed most people don’t come because parking around the CAC is tough and most don’t like to walk very far, the other big hurdle for us is being in the museum. People are very confused about where we are. How to get in? do they have to pay and or see the museum to eat? Be a member? It’s been tough to say the least. We are looking forward to offices opening back up since that is what makes our lunch business thrive. 

Is there anything on the horizon at your business that our readers should know about?

For now we are sticking to our current set up for the time being until more people are happy to be out, offices start opening up, and more event spaces allow more seating. For the most part we are back open as normal and hope more folks come hang out with us at our beautiful space and eat great, affordable, local food options.



Deeper Roots Coffee, 388 W. Fourth St.

Located in the Historic West Fourth district, Deeper Roots Coffee opened in early 2021. The company has been roasting specialty coffee since 2011 and has two other locations — one in Oakley and another near Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine. They strive to be “good for the people” by relationally sourcing coffee from around the world.

Jon Lewis is their director of community engagement.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the way you operate downtown?

After a long decision-making process, we signed a lease and announced the downtown coffee bar way back in January 2020. Everything was put on hold for the first half of last year, and the project was picked back up and the build-out was completed by the end of the year. 

The hope for that location was to serve the nearby residents who want to enjoy a walkable neighborhood coffee shop. In addition, proximity to downtown offices would have brought some daily foot traffic but because of the pandemic, many offices are still pretty slim as folks work from home. And the hope of people coming downtown for events also had to be put on hold.

In which ways have you had to adapt in the post-pandemic economy?

The specialty coffee industry had the advantage of a built-in capacity to serve coffee to go. A lot of people were already used to that and many more made the pivot. With the movement from the office to working at home, we saw a shift to buying bags of coffee — whether from the shop or from the website — to brew at home.

What’s the most exciting thing you see happening downtown, your favorite downtown businesses, etc.?

We're obviously excited about the community of businesses that has popped up around Historic West Fourth — Rebel Mettle Brewery, Handzy & Gumdrop, Koko & Forage — there is a lot of positive energy emanating from our block. And more is on the way. 

What are the greatest challenges for downtown businesses today?

A real challenge for any volume-dependent business is the dramatic disruption in the flow of people. When the lifestyle of gathering, eating, and drinking together is no longer possible, the businesses that serve those purposes have to find a way to keep moving forward. Fortunately, people are still eating and still drinking coffee — it's just a matter of meeting people's needs and wants in a safe and satisfying way.

Is there anything on the horizon at your business that our readers should know about?

We're ready to open with limited seating for 'for here' coffee service. We're so grateful for the support we've received throughout the year and as we open for seating, we're excited to welcome our neighbors and the city to enjoy their coffee with the kind of hospitality we love to extend.


Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center, 25 Race St.

The Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center is a brand new $27 million state-of-the-art venue with both outdoor and indoor event spaces at The Banks. Its first events are scheduled for September 2021.

Music & Event Management, Inc. is the concert promoter for both The Taft Theatre and the ICON (as well as a few venues outside of downtown).

Rosemarie Moehring is director of marketing

Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the way you operate downtown?

Yes, we could not operate at all because of COVID-19
  
What’s the most exciting thing you see happening downtown, your favorite downtown businesses, etc.?

We are excited to open the new Andrew J Brady ICON Music Center at The Banks. The Banks Entertainment District continues to develop, and with the addition of our new music venue as well as the implementation of DORA, I think Cincinnati continues to establish itself as a must-visit city.
 
What are the greatest challenges for downtown businesses today?

For us, not being able to operate until capacity and social distancing restrictions are lifted.
 
Is there anything on the horizon at your business that our readers should know about?

We are very optimistic that live music will return in mid- to late-summer this year.  One thing I believe the pandemic did not take away is people’s love for music, specifically for live music concerts. We look forward to the day when we can open our doors again and bring people back together to see their favorite artists with their friends and family.

1628 Ltd, 11 Garfield Pl.

1628 is a curated coworking space in downtown Cincinnati that offers communal space, office leases, and private event and meeting spaces for the modern professional. 1628 Ltd opened in 2016.

Tamara Schwarting is founder and CEO.

Did the COVID-19 pandemic affect the way you operate downtown?

During the 2020 spring shutdown, we closed 1628 for communal coworking in
compliance with the Governor’s Stay at Home order. We migrated most of the 1628 staff to working at home. Our mail service was essential to our 1628 members, so we maintained limited onsite staff to process mail so it was received in a timely manner.

We also pivoted the 1628’s Women Empowered programming, moving it to a digital
platform instead of in-person. 

Once the restrictions were lifted, we resumed communal coworking and have been
hosting small business meetings. The pandemic has been very challenging. We are
approaching our fifth anniversary and each year prior we were seeing significant year-on-year growth in revenue. That was not the case in 2020.

In which ways have you had to adapt in the post-pandemic economy?

As a result of the pandemic, we saw a sharp decline in corporate business meetings.
Business meetings are a key revenue stream so we’re optimistic and hope to see this increase steadily. During 2020, we continued to look for new ways to drive awareness of our conferencing and coworking capabilities for those who need a place to work or to host smaller gatherings.

As a result, we launched a partnership with Kinley Hotel which enables their hotel guests to use our facility for communal coworking and meetings. The partnership is also driving awareness of our ability to provide event space for social and wedding-related events.

What are the greatest challenges for downtown businesses today?

Lack of people. Most business days are still very quiet downtown with significantly fewer people on the streets. Sometimes, I think there are more construction workers than there are office workers. The large office buildings are still mostly empty and this has a ripple effect to the other smaller businesses that help to make up the vibrancy of downtown. My hope is that when the office workers return they make a special effort to frequent those beloved businesses. We are eagerly awaiting your return.

Is there anything on the horizon at your business that our readers should know about?

The 1628’s Women Empowered program is launching a new initiative; WE Connect. WE Connect is a six-month mastermind program built to support women-identifying business owners and professionals.

The 1628 Art Gallery summer exhibition, Leftovers, opens on June 5th.

If you missed part one of this story, click here.

 

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.
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