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‘That Place Is Cursed’: Tenants Revolve In, Out Of Downtown Gainesville Spots

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At least a few of the restaurants and stores in downtown Gainesville have been in the same location for 10-plus years.

Manuel’s Vintage Room restaurant, for instance, has been on South Main Street since 2005. Paramount Grill started on Southwest First Avenue 16 years ago. And then there’s Emiliano’s Cafe, which first opened on Southeast First Avenue a whopping 32 years ago.

But on the opposite end of the business-success spectrum are the many come-and-go tenants of downtown, names that fleet like the seasons and Gator ball games.

Wholly BBQ was open for business on Southwest Second Avenue for a little less than two years. Smokehouse Gourmet BBQ operated just over a year on South Main Street. And Lasso’s Steakhouse was open in the same spot as Smokehouse for only six months before it, too, closed.

These are three of the at least 13 businesses that, over the past eight years, were tenants among four downtown Gainesville addresses — spaces that were given a closer look by WUFT News to see what’s going right for survivors, as well as where others stumbled.

“A lot of businesses have left downtown because of the cost, and customers aren’t down there anymore,” said Anthony Grezlik, who owned and operated Market Street Pub & Cabaret at 112 SW 1st Ave. from March 2015 until closing it in November 2016.

(Clockwise from top left) Vacant space at 104 S. Main St., Original American Kitchen at 15 SE 1st Ave., vacant space at 112 SW 1st Ave., and Piper Gi’s at 204 SW 2nd Ave. (Alyssa Weiss/WUFT News)

The four spaces are:

  • 15 SE 1st Ave. — now Original American Kitchen
  • 104 S. Main St. — now vacant; most recently Five Bar
  • 112 SW 1st Ave. — now vacant; most recently Market Street
  • 204 SW 2nd Ave. — now Piper Gi’s

The owners of the two vacant spots didn’t return calls seeking comment. Of the four total addresses, 104 S. Main St. has had the most occupants over the past eight years.

In 2009, it was Rue Bar. In 2012, Smokehouse Gourmet BBQ. In 2013, Lasso’s Steakhouse. And in 2014, Five Bar, which closed a little more than 18 months after opening.

The space has been sitting vacant ever since.

Forces behind the closures

There are several reasons businesses at these addresses chose to close their doors for good. Sometimes, it wasn’t just financial but also involved strategy.

For instance, the owner of Ichiban Sushi, a previous tenant of 15 SE 1st Ave., decided to close downtown to focus on his other Ichiban location in the Northwest part of Gainesville, according to that location’s manager, Justin Whatley.

“When the previous owner [of Ichiban Sushi] passed away, his son took over,” Whatley said. “He didn’t want to deal with two locations, and the downtown location wasn’t as successful. So he closed it.”

Oftentimes, however, the decision is based solely on a lack of profits, which makes filling in operating costs a struggle.

“We needed $14,000 per month to stay in business and open doors, which is a huge overhead to take for a small business,” Grezlik said of Market Street. “We made it work for two years, but it just wasn’t viable enough or lucrative enough to keep open on a long-term basis.”

Neighboring Loosey’s bar, which continues to endure as a karaoke and music venue since opening 2010, Market Street’s location seemed to have makings of success, too.

Lots of room. A variety of parking spots nearby. Being steps from a bus stop. Big windows. Plenty of foot traffic strolling outside. And live entertainment.

But none of it was enough.

“We were the premiere place that featured burlesque and aerial performances, but walk-by traffic still didn’t walk in the doors,” Grezlik said. “When we had live shows, people would come 30 minutes before the show started, stay for the length of the performance and leave immediately when it was over.

“It was a mass exodus.”

Grezlik attributes the rise of social media as one of the reasons of the lack of patrons: “People don’t need to meet other people in bars anymore.”

He said there are other reasons he can’t necessarily pin down, but he knows he never wants to open another business downtown.

“There’s just not enough draw, and it’s not worth the extra cost” of rent and other expenses, said Grezlik, who now owns 6th Street North bar, which is about 3 miles outside downtown.

In general, it’s hard to isolate singular reasons behind business failures, said Kent Malone, a senior lecturer in the University of Florida’s Department of Finance, Insurance and Real Estate.

Factors could include: parking, ease of access, visibility of the location, and the concept being neither too boring or too experimental.

“The type of business is important because you have to have a draw for what it is you are doing or selling,” Malone said, and “ease of access is critical.”

If a business is meant as a quick stop, like a coffee shop, availability of parking is crucial, Malone said. If it takes longer to find a spot than it to get the coffee, customers are less likely to come.

Location is perhaps the biggest determining factor in success, he said, and more hidden businesses or those far from easy parking deter customers.

“If … you wouldn’t know it’s there, that’s a potential issue,” Malone said.

Even if a company has done everything right in terms of location and product or service appeal, those still have to match up with external factors, such as the uncontrollable ebb and flow of customers.

“The location, the concept and the ability to ride out lulls are all important,” Malone said.

‘I’ve never believed in curses’

Histories of failed tenants can sometimes spark suggestions that certain locations are cursed. Tommy Newman — a co-owner of Piper Gi’s at 204 SW 2nd Ave. — was aware of the rumors surrounding his restaurant’s location when it opened in December 2016.

Before Piper Gi’s, it was occupied by Wholly BBQ, and before that, it was Paluzzi’s Pasta.

“When my wife, Shanti, my brother-in-law, Jacob Riesch, and I first started telling everyone where we were going to open, the first thing everybody said was, ‘That place is cursed,’” Newman said. “I’ve never believed in curses, and that’s what we told everybody.”

Newman said he’s seen area businesses come and go, and he understood the risks when he opened Piper Gi’s, which serves primary soups and sandwiches.

“What you put into something is what you get out of it,” he said. “If you have good food, people will come.”

Newman said he believes the restaurant is continuing to do well because customers are drawn to everything being made from scratch, “down to the mayonnaise.”

“I look at the number of businesses that went down this summer, and we’re still here and we’re still standing,” Newman said, noting the seasonal lull from UF students being out of town.

“We survived our first summer in downtown Gainesville, which is quite a feat. We’ll continue to give the same quality [food] we did from the very first day.”

Meanwhile, at nearby 15 SE 1st Ave. (the former Ichiban Sushi spot), Original American Kitchen is pushing on after opening two and a half years ago.

Under the same ownership as two now-closed-down Gainesville bars (101 Downtown and 101 Cantina), OAK is the only establishment the owners have left in the city — though another location is in the works for downtown.

Bar manager Ryan Rummel said the owners are aware that the restaurant is in a space with many past tenants.

“Anybody who has worked in this industry, especially in downtown Gainesville, knows that there is high turnover and has seen a lot of businesses come and go,” Rummel said.

The first year of opening for a restaurant is crucial — and that’s when it’ll either “sink or swim,” Rummel said. Some businesses, he added, never recover from initial losses and are forced to close their doors.

Rummel thinks OAK’s survival comes down to its originality and its concept: using “local ingredients and giving a menu that is Southern and in style but slightly more refined, combined with the ambiance.”

“The concept is something that is good for Gainesville and downtown in particular,” he said.

Overall, though, downtown-business turnover can be seen in a positive light, Rummel said.

“The only thing it does is open spaces for new ventures,” he said. “That’s what’s nice about the high turnover: If you are successful, and you have another concept you want to try, it gives you the opportunity and you’re still close to the base of operations.”

About Alyssa Weiss

Alyssa Weiss is a senior journalism student. She covers the zip code area 32601 in Gainesville. Feel free to email her at alyssanweiss@ufl.edu or call/text her at (954)482-2630 if you have comments, concerns or a story idea.

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