What Makes a Downtown Business Work?

Retail and restaurant owners weigh in on what makes a successful venture in DTLV

Illustration by Spencer Olsen

Illustration by Spencer Olsen

Walk past the Arts Factory on Charleston Boulevard and you’ll see empty rooms where toy stores and boutiques once lived. Between Sixth and Seventh streets on Carson Street, only two of four establishments are operating. But interest in Downtown remains, and new ventures try to make it where other shops and restaurants before them could not. No easy answer exists for what makes a Downtown venture work—deep pockets? Savvy business sense? Pure luck?—but it’s a question entrepreneurs, chefs and owners continue to ask.

For Cory Harwell, who owns restaurants around the country, including the popular Carson Kitchen on Sixth and Carson Streets, it’s all about the story. “You have to have some soul,” he says. Harwell says Carson Kitchen’s success depends on more than late chef Kerry Simon’s name recognition—their tale is told through a twist on familiar food and obscure bites, as well as a communal atmosphere. “If you have an impulse to open up a business Downtown and expect people to walk in, it’s not going to work,” Harwell says. But an original concept and quality product do not guarantee a bustling space, either.

Chef Bradley Manchester of Glutton, a highly rated restaurant on review and travel sites, almost had all the right ingredients but still saw its doors close in December. Manchester says one mistake was the name: People thought Glutton signified large, unhealthy portions, when in reality, it was small, locally sourced entrées. And while weekend diners would most likely wait during the brunch and dinner rush, Glutton couldn’t maintain that consistency throughout the week. This could be because there are simply not enough people living in the area.

Limited residential housing is an often discussed topic. A common criticism of Downtown Project—a $350 million revitalization undertaking intended “to transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world,” according to its Facebook page—is that the staff poured their energy and resources into tech, retail, bars and restaurants before filling up the neighborhood with people to patronize them. The original investment was slated as a five-year plan. Now in its fifth year, DTP is no longer operating under a set timeline.

DTP executive vice president of operations Michael Downs says that if they could go back in a time machine, they would make residential options a focal point sooner. They are in the middle of building Fremont9, a 231-unit complex with 15,000 square feet of retail space near Fremont and Ninth Streets. “Having Fremont9 opening up in December [2017] is probably two years too late,” he says.

Yet plenty of other businesses have survived without residents in the area. Retro Vegas was the first antiques shop to open on South Main Street nine years ago. The area is now home to other shops selling vintage furniture and novelty knick-knacks. Co-owner Bill Johnson says that although they have an online presence, they mainly rely on walk-in purchases.

The same goes for Institution 18b, a streetwear store that opened a year and a half ago on an island of vacant warehouses and auto shops. To owner Wil Eddins, the worst part of owning a retail store near Main Street north of Charleston Boulevard is that nobody else has followed suit. To get people in the doors, Institution 18b hosts events such as product launches and First Friday parties, and “it’s social media, really,” Eddins says. “That’s how people know what’s going on.” It’s a sentiment Downs echoes as being a main contributor to thriving DTP businesses such as VegeNation.

“People who leverage social media have been successful,” Downs says. “I think [chef] Donald [Lemperle] from VegeNation is a really great example.” The vegan restaurant hired a creative director who manages their social media and plans food pop-ups and yoga events. Scroll through their Instagram account, and you’ll see posts almost every hour during the day. This is something Manchester said he wished he’d done for Glutton, but their “shoestring budget” didn’t allow for it.

More than creative marketing and a strong social media presence, Eddins says, “Have real money or you’re not going to last.” Johnson says businesses should understand that they won’t have a paycheck for a couple of years—sage advice that applies to entrepreneurs regardless of location.

But even with the challenges, there is one thing these business owners have in common: They all want to be Downtown.

Eddins says that even though there are still no other retailers near Institution 18b, he wouldn’t change his decision to be there. “I still want to be in the Arts District because of what it is,” he says. “Having a unique space was always what I wanted.”

Vegas Seven