The Corner of the market

The Corner of the market

For some of us, the end of August is tragic. It means the imminent closing of the pools, the coming curtain call on lazy days of shorts and flip-flops and cranky kids heading back to school. For Corner business owners, however, it means a welcome end to the summer famine. And it means massive hiring sprees, new menu items, renovations and an energetic rain dance or two—all in an effort to attract the returning hordes of UVA students whom they hope will generate enough revenue in eight months to compensate for the following four-month lull.

Take It Away Café, owned by Tom Bowe, and other Corner mainstays, remain student meccas, but Bowe says, "We all sort of agree that we’ve lost some business to the Downtown Mall.

Of course, just as some people can’t take the heat, some Corner merchants can’t take the business famine, and high tail it out of there. This summer, two franchises, Pita Pit and Tropical Smoothie, with all their slick and shiny signs and expensive overhead, have shut down. Also, Make Sense Dining, which owns the Biltmore Grill on Elliewood Avenue and O’Neil’s Irish Pub on University Avenue (as well as restaurants in Harrisonburg and Lynchburg), has decided to close O’Neil’s forever. The pub had been closed for the summer, as was typical. But Rebecca Lehnert, regional manager for Mason’s, told Restaurantarama that the company decided not to reopen the 8-year-old bar and instead focus its efforts on the 15-year-old Biltmore. Lehnert said O’Neil’s business and location were good fits for an owner/operator, but for a corporate owner like Mason’s, it made more sense to focus on one Corner location.

Mason’s must count itself lucky to have Lehnert, a 10-year veteran who knows how to navigate the Corner. To survive its chaos, "you have to love the college atmosphere," she says, and she calls all the other longtime Corner merchants who have embraced and thrived in that atmosphere, folks like Bob Mincer, Ron Morse of Baja Bean and Tom Bowe of Take It Away Café, "phenomenal people."

Going east

Despite the obvious respect Corner business owners and managers have for each other, "It’s hard to get merchants on the Corner to work collectively," says Bowe, who opened Take It Away 16 years ago. Indeed, Lehnert says merchants used to scatter the nights of their specials and spread the wealth, but now, many are having specials every night of the week. "It’s like the battle of the specials," she says. And yet, combining marketing efforts, or at least not cannibalizing each other, is becoming increasingly more important for Corner establishments. That’s because, perhaps even more daunting than UVA’s inconveniently short eight-month school schedule, is the increasing flight of business to east of the University. "We all sort of agree that we’ve lost some business to the Downtown Mall," says Bowe of recent discussions with his neighbors. One reason Bowe cites for such loss is the increasing attention the city is giving to ease parking along the Mall.

But Bowe counts at least two reasons to be optimistic about Corner business this particular school season: (1) The new student apartments on 15th Street likely will bring new customers and (2) Corner anchor Ragged Mountain Running (which was rumored to be considering moving, but instead went into bigger digs) will stay at its Corner location. Restaurantarama counts a third: Downtown Mall mainstays Revolutionary Soup and Christian’s Pizza (both 2007 Best of C-VILLE winners) have chosen to expand to the Corner (the former being open and the latter being a work-in-progress). 

Oh, and there’s a fourth reason: exciting new grub, of course! Both the Biltmore and Take It Away are planning new foodstuffs to lure you away from Downtown trappings. Check out Biltmore’s new Pittsburgh-style mammoth sandwiches loaded with coleslaw and French fries right there between the bread (an homage to Primanti Bros. if you’re a fan of Steelers country), and at Take It Away, you now can top off your gourmet salad and sandwich fare with some gourmet Gearhart’s chocolates. Who needs pools and flip-flops?

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