As downtown Greensboro businesses struggle, some growth happening

by Eric Ginsburg

Rosalind Robinson, who owns Full Scoop ice cream shop with her husband, believes in downtown businesses promoting each other. (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

The owner of Simple Kneads Bakery sent out an urgent call for support on Aug. 18, saying that without a miracle the bakery would be forced to close. Despite widespread circulation of the cry for help and a strong response from customers and fans, the downtown bakery closed within the week.

Many people were caught by surprise, given the short notice of the Facebook posting, but not the employees. For weeks prior, and possibly longer, rumors circulated that the business was facing staggering debt and wouldn’t be able to pay its workers on time. While some people have chalked the closing up on a list with other businesses struggling in a sluggish economy, others suggest that no matter how much people tried to come to the rescue, the closure was already a done deal.

“Because the community came out, we got paid,” former employee Elizabeth Pullan said. “I’ve been really saddened because I don’t get to do what I love.”

Regardless of the exact reasons Simple Kneads closed its doors, it is clear that countless local residents felt a strong affinity for the business and its products, and are sad to see them go. It was only a few weeks ago that a post from Simple Kneads’ Facebook page bemoaned the recent loss of two other local bakeries, including Ganache only a few blocks away.

Numerous other businesses have closed in recent months, many of them in Greensboro’s central business district. The list includes local clubs Much and Heaven, the Elm Street location of the Donatos Pizza chain, and Riva’s Trattoria on Greene Street.

“It concerns me because you wonder what happened to them and how can I avoid [closing],” said Amanda Perez, owner of Across the Tracks Vintage on Elm Street. “If too many people drop out there won’t be enough here for people to come downtown to shop.”

Countless nearby business owners and residents heard about Simple Kneads and other downtown businesses closing, but new businesses seem to be opening at an even faster rate, some relocating downtown and others as startups.

Perez purchased her business when it was still the Clothesline on Spring Garden and moved it near the train tracks dividing South Elm, opening on July 4. The new location not only provides her with more space, including for a garden out back, but is also $1,500 cheaper per month. Soon, Perez hopes to sell flower arrangements and offer herbal classes, too.

After two years of renovations, Margaret Elaine was ready to open the Sweet Shop this past Valentine’s Day. Like Perez, Elaine runs the business with the help of her children, offering a wide variety of pound cakes on the corner of Elm and Lee streets.

“I wanted to see this end [of Elm Street] pop too,” Elaine said. “This corner I thought was prime.”

Development on Elm Street south of the train tracks has been slower than Elaine and others expected and hoped. Yet First Fridays have helped draw people in, and nearby businesses send customers her way, particularly Mellow Mushroom and some of the art galleries.

“What’s key for the businesses downtown is promoting one another,” said Rosalind Robinson, who owns the Full Scoop ice cream shop with her husband. “We try to be positive about things, and downtown has come a long way.”

References from other local businesses have been key for the Full Scoop since it opened April 1. After considering slightly cheaper properties in Southside, the Alvin and Rosalind Robinson opened the shop on McGee Street between Elm and Greene because of the higher foot traffic. It’s their first business, and now that students are back in town, things are starting to pick up.

Maintaining a business in general is no small feat, let alone with high rents downtown or as a start up with little funds to advertise. After five years of running Manny’s Universal Café just two blocks off Elm Street, owner Manny Polanco still has to work a second job to cover all his personal and business bills.

“It’s been harder than I expected,” Polanco said. “I thought by now there would be a steady flow of traffic.”

Polanco isn’t alone: Elaine also has to find work at night to supplement her income. And, like Robinson, Elaine and Perez, Polanco couldn’t do it without family support.

“If you’re lucky you’ve got low labor costs,” said Polanco, “and fortunately my family helps me out.”

Polanco said if he considered moving to a higher foot traffic area it would need to be nearby. He was surprised by the news that Donatos closed, saying he ordered their pizza every other week, but that a location like theirs might be ideal if he could afford it.

Though the last year has meant closing for some along Elm Street, like Minj Grille, it has also meant hope. Design Archives relocated from Tate Street and is now bustling across from the Green Bean. On the next block, the Snack Bar opened earlier in the year around the same time as Nico’s Restaurant and Bar across from Center City Park. Last fall, Bin 33 moved in at 324 South Elm St.

Now there’s construction on the storefront at 318 S. Elm St. and a new sports bar named Rally Monkey’s is coming together up the street.

“About three years ago downtown Greensboro was booming, and that seems like it was the peak,” said Lynwood Ebron II, general manager of Downtown Dollar, which he hopes to open in September. “I think this area will really take off in the next year or so.”

Ebron, a 2009 UNCG graduate, understands the importance of keeping overhead low. The store recently closed in Greenville, one of the two existing locations, and was forced to cut payroll at the Winston-Salem location to make ends meet.

The store will sell an array of cheap products such as bathroom and kitchen supplies, snack food, school materials and will feature an internet café in the front with access costing around 15 cents a minute.

“I did everything by hand in this store,” he said. “This is my baby.”

Many of his counterparts feel the same way, sinking everything they have into their dreams of being small business owners. Things may be picking up, as Ebron said, but many will continue to struggle, some to the point where it isn’t possible or worth it to keep going. Yet they remain hopeful, and after everything they’ve put in already, none of them seem ready to throw in the towel.