Downtown Liberty offers business owners special benefits and challenges

01/28/2014 12:00 AM

01/29/2014 7:44 AM

Business is rocking at the newest restaurant in the Historic Downtown Liberty district.

Owners of the Rock & Run Brewery and Pub, Gene DeClue and Dan Hatcher, opened their restaurant in the middle of December after 1 1/2 years of dreaming and planning. It started shortly after they met.

“We decided mutually over some home brews that this would be kind of cool to start the business,” said Hatcher.

DeClue had the experience. He had been a stay-at-home dad and home brewer for 16 years, playing in a rock band on weekends. Hatcher, who runs long distances, had owned and managed several construction companies, and was looking for a new business opportunity that could keep him closer to home.

After building a serious business plan, they bought a bigger brewing system, set up a makeshift brew pub in DeClue’s garage and started to bring in investors who helped launch the business.

The plan — focused on craft beer and wood-fired pizza — is working out well. Rock & Run is doing steady business that keeps draining the kegs of DeClue’s brews and the hard-to-find craft beer from other brewers that the pub keeps on tap. DeClue brews twice a day, six days a week, at the business at 110 E. Kansas St.

“We literally can’t keep up,” he said. “It’s a surprise it happened this fast.”

Liberty’s historic square offers businesses the benefits of downtown foot traffic, charming old buildings and space that can cost less than the equivalent square footage in a strip mall. Low traffic means big chains generally aren’t drawn in to compete against the local independent businesses.

But there are special challenges, too. Expanding a space might mean dealing with more than one landlord. Attracting customers after nearby offices close for the day requires giving people a reason to drive out of their way through neighborhoods to reach you.

Not everyone can make it work.

Although Rock & Run is one of two restaurants that opened in the last year (the other one, The Bell, opened last spring), two in the same area have also closed: Cork & Brew in July and Los Compas in December. That leaves two big openings on the square, which is currently 29 percent vacant.

Gordon Hadden, part of the Historic Downtown Liberty Inc. economic development team, says the square draws in mostly independent small-business owners. Restaurants usually have an easier time making a go in the area than other merchants, because customers who walk in their doors are nearly always planning to spend money.

The name of the game for success in downtown Liberty is becoming a destination and building a following.

“We have to build up our word-of-mouth reputation to get people to come in to the square,” said Hadden.

Historic Downtown Liberty Inc. came into existence in 2007 with the goal of supporting merchants, doing cooperative advertising and planning events to get more feet on the ground downtown. Its staff works on keeping the area looking nice with small improvements, like street landscaping, and larger tasks, such as promoting tax incentives for property owners to improve their buildings.

Hadden, who owns property the area, says there are more than 100 property owners there. Those numbers make collaboration more of a challenge. Each property owner negotiates a different lease. Historic Downtown Liberty Inc. cannot dictate what kinds of businesses go in or what hours they keep. Although there is an ideal model for historic main street areas of matched business hours and balanced store and restaurant offerings, the group can only encourage cooperation among the merchants and promote joint marketing efforts.

The complications of multiple property owners can be a challenge for restaurants, as it was for Mark Miller, a partner in The Jem, which occupied the spot at 6-8 E. Franklin St. recently vacated by Cork & Brew from November 2010 to March 2012. The restaurant space straddles property owned by two landlords. That made the space in the historic building larger, but it also meant double bills and more overhead.

Miller and his former business partner opened in downtown Liberty because they loved the area.

“I wanted it to be in the historic area because of the ambiance I was trying to create,” says Miller.

The restaurant was meant to attract an upscale demographic with high-quality wine and food. For Miller, the Liberty square and the concept went hand in hand. It worked well on the weekends, when they created a “destination” atmosphere with live music, but The Jem failed to draw a strong lunch crowd, and weekday evenings were often weak.

Although Miller attributes a split with his business partner as one reason The Jem closed, he says they always faced a challenge in being off the beaten path. He found people living near the area often seemed not to know that the square existed or that restaurants were open there.

To reach downtown Liberty, motorists must drive off a highway and through historic neighborhoods. About 2,500 to 3,000 cars pass through the square each day. Nearby on Missouri 152, the daily car count is 10 times higher.

“The challenge was to get people to come across the bridge and drive to Main Street and check out the square,” Miller said. “We were constantly working on that, with some success, but we weren’t in the business long enough to see it through.”

Downtown Historic Liberty Inc. tries to address the pass-by problem for merchants in part by having several events a year to draw people to the area. There are “night out” events, trick or treating on Halloween, monthly classic car nights in the summer, and the Taste of Liberty. The organization also supports a Saturday morning farmers market from spring to fall. That’s in addition to the dozens of other concerts, festivals, performances and talks around the square and at the theater and museums in the area.

All that activity has brought more than enough traffic to provide success for Ginger Fuller and David Bradley, owners of Ginger Sue’s. Their bruncheonette opened in 2007 at 12 W. Kansas St. They serve just breakfast and lunch, closing by midafternoon. The concept has been so successful on the square that they have been able to branch out to a second location in Lee’s Summit.

Fuller, who grew up in Liberty, says they chose the historic downtown in part because of ties to the area.

“It just kind of felt right to be part of a community that we knew something about,” says Fuller.

They found it to be a great place to open a business, a spot where a community of unique local merchants fit the concept they were building.

“I think downtown is a great destination,” Fuller says. “We’ve seen lots of success in our location and have seen growth every year since I’ve been there.”

Fuller credits Ginger Sue’s concept, consistent service and hard work with their success. Although many of their customers are locals, they have also built destination business. She says they understood from the beginning that being active owners and growing their concept from scratch was going to be key to their long-term survival, and it has been.

“Would I like a thousand more people a day to drive by that store? Of course, but we chose the downtown square for a reason, and the traffic we get is great,” says Fuller.

One of the owners of the now-closed Los Compas restaurant, Tracy Ayala, says she never felt she had a problem drawing customers to the Liberty square, either.

The business at 5 E. Kansas St. also opened in 2007 but had been down a bit in its final 18 months or so. Ayala attributed that drop primarily to the decreased time she had to manage the restaurant after opening another, JJ’s Homestead, in Kearney. With a third restaurant — a Los Compas in Independence — she found her resources spread too thin. The lease was coming to an end for the Los Compas on the Liberty square, and the family that had been running it was moving.

“We just couldn’t be at all three places at one time. We knew we wouldn’t be able to take care of that place the way we wanted to,” said Ayala.

With the slower winter season settling in, it just seemed like a good time to make a break.

Ayala always found good support for a restaurant on the square.

“We definitely loved the people and hated to close there,” says Ayala.

If the opportunity presented itself, she says she would consider a spot in the Historic Downtown Liberty area again.

Closed restaurants have created holes that at least one property owner has decided to take into his own hands.

Huey’s on the Square, a breakfast and lunch cafe, has been open about 1 1/2 years. Don Altis owns the restaurant and the building at 18 N. Main St.

He didn’t really plan on going into the restaurant business, but he opened Huey’s after a series of renters failed to find long-term success. Altis owns other properties in Historic Downtown Liberty, and he wanted customers to be able to find consistency when they visited the area.

“When people know something is there, they want it to still be there when they come back,” said Altis.

Huey’s has a fairly plain model. There’s an espresso machine, coffee drinks, full breakfast in the morning and sandwiches at lunch. Its success has far exceeded Altis’ expectations. Of course, since Altis owns the building, overhead is low.

Altis says the future for the square is good and sees it as a constantly evolving market. He thinks vacancies downtown drive business away, so opening Huey’s was his way of doing something stable for the building and good for the area.

“You have to have a draw,” he said. “That’s why you need more places.”

Hatcher and DeClue say their business concept at Rock & Run will help them be one of the long-term success stories. They said they had offers to take their business to other places in the Kansas City area before they even opened their doors in Liberty.

They are putting in longer hours than ever before, but they say it’s worth the work. It’s just the change Hatcher was looking for.

“It’s completely different,” he said. “You’d be surprised at how relaxing this is compared to what I normally do.”

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