Business sans usual

The destruction of five businesses at 50th & Bryant sparked a slump for those left at the corner

Parrots chirped, squawked and talked as Tom Morgan signed for a delivery of pet products on a sunny Monday afternoon in his neighborhood pet shop, Birds ‘N’ Stuff, at 50th Street and Bryant Avenue.     

A big blue-and-gold macaw named Herbie repeatedly cried “Hello!” as an African grey parrot named Hello rang a bell, craned his neck and asked, “How are you?”  

For Morgan, the answer to that question is not as positive as it used to be. Business fell sharply last February after a fire across the street wiped out restaurants Heidi’s and Blackbird Café and boutiques Patina, Shoppe Local and Stacey Johnson Jewelry design. Half the corner’s businesses were gone in a matter of hours and almost overnight, much of the area’s foot traffic followed suit.

 “At this time of day before the fire, you couldn’t find a spot out there,” Morgan said just after the lunch hour, nodding to the road in front of his store. “Now look at it. It’s empty.”

Morgan said his business is down about 20 percent and he’s holding his breath while waiting for something new to emerge across Bryant. Other area businesses, even the long-popular Malt Shop, are also feeling the loss and hoping for a speedy revival at the corner.

 After a lengthy inspection, the city deemed the burnt building — sitting roofless, boarded and supported with steel beams — a total loss, but a demolition date hasn’t been set and the planning process for a replacement is just getting started. Rick Haase, who co-owns the building and Patina with wife Christine Ward, said he guessed demolition was two or three months out, but everything so far has moved slower than he anticipated.

Haase said the goal is to create a new building similar to the existing one. It would ideally include two retail businesses in addition to Patina, as well as a couple restaurants. Blackbird Café has plans to reopen this fall at 38th Street and Nicollet Avenue and Heidi’s is searching for another location, so the new building would likely house two new eateries.

“We’re missing being there,” Haase said. “Like Christine told me, it feels like we’re operating without one of our limbs.”

For the businesses left at the corner, the feeling is mutual.

“Just tear it down and start building again,” said John Kurimay, owner of Kurimay Interiors next door to Birds ‘N’ Stuff. “I’d like to see something up there soon, but it’s not going to happen.”

Kurimay hand-crafted the banquet booths for Heidi’s, which were lost in the blaze that started as a grease fire in the restaurant’s kitchen. He said though the fire was tragic for the owners and staff of the lost stores and restaurants, it has had a lasting impact on the surviving shops as well. Some, including his, were already weakened by the recession, and the fire created a “double whammy.”

He said the biggest drawback for his shop has been the loss of out-of-town customers who came to eat at the restaurants and do a little window-shopping. Finding new faces has been a challenge since the fire.

“In order to survive, you’ve got to have constant traffic from outside the neighborhood,” Kurimay said. “The neighbors know that you’re here, they know that you’re working. I never worry about that.”

Kurimay is trying to recoup his losses with a little more networking and word-of-mouth advertising. He attended a local networking organization meeting in mid-May, a first for the 68-year old furniture expert.

But his lease is up this fall, and he might not renew it if business doesn’t pick up.

Across the street at the Malt Shop, nothing seems out of the ordinary. Tables have been full, even during weekday lunches, but owner Dick Henke said things are not as great as they seem. Business is down about 10 percent since the fire, he said.

“For us, the retail shops are really what we miss,” Henke said. “Patina shoppers would fill this dining room all day long.”

Without the boutiques, shoppers who would swing in for a malt or burger are gone — many of them, anyway. Area resident Kathy Williams, who met friends Mary Cook and Elayne Lipp at the Malt Shop for lunch recently, said she makes fewer visits to the corner because of Patina’s absence, but she won’t stop frequenting the restaurant.

One business at 50th & Bryant never experienced business prior to the fire. Kasia Organic Salon opened days after the flames were extinguished and turned its open house into a community gathering to support the lost businesses. Though she chose the area for its thriving mix of restaurants and retail and is sure the lack of foot traffic has affected her business, she’s been slowly growing and attracting customers from beyond the neighborhood.  

If any of those clients are pet owners, Tom Morgan hopes they catch a glimpse of his new bright-yellow awning at Birds ‘N’ Stuff, part of his effort to regain some ground. He’s also expanded his inventory and rearranged the store to include more shelving.

Business might be slow, but for Morgan, it’s never quiet. His birds make sure of that. And even in the slump, he said it could be worse.

“We just aren’t having frosting on our cake at the moment,” he said.  

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.