Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Some businesses buck the trends

Area entrepreneurs, business people find openings in hard times


Jessica Schlueter enjoys a hot cup at Java’s new digs in Hailey. The area coffee company expanded back into the Hailey market this year after several years’ absence. Photo by David N. Seelig

While the national news has been awash with stories about corporations entering bankruptcy and increasing unemployment, a different trend is appearing in the Wood River Valley.

A recent spate of new business openings and expansions is an indication that some are seeing the economic downturn as an opportunity, not a hindrance.

"It exemplifies the entrepreneurial attitude of the valley," said Neil Morrow, executive director of the Ketchum Community Development Corp. "People see a niche and go for it. I'm heartened by people's ability to withstand the economy and open when others might not think it the best time to do so."

From new retail shops, services and restaurants to the opening of second locations of existing stores, the past six months have given residents and guests a slew of new options when walking through Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue.

The interviews and stories here are in no way meant to be a complete list of the businesses that have cropped up over the past half year, but are examples of the motivation behind the new endeavors.

Hailey Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Spinelli is guardedly optimistic about new businesses springing up during uncertain economic times.

"I am an optimist, but I am also a realist," he said. "I have a Darwinian philosophy about business. If you are not skinny right now you are not going to make it, but there are a number of new niches in the new economy for businesses that are well-grounded and know what they are doing."

One indication of economic health is that there have been nearly 30 new business license applications in Ketchum since the start of the new year. While a number of those are existing businesses reopening under new ownership, most are the product of innovation and an attempt to take advantage of the vacancies created by a down market.

"These are not big conglomerates," Morrow said. "Despite the economy, these owners are finding a way to get it done."

Despite a gloomy national and local economy, restaurateur Tom Nickel and his partner, Lindy Stark, took the plunge anyway with their June 15 opening of the Brick House Bar and Grill in Bellevue.

"It's daunting," said Nickel, who also owns the Roosevelt Grille and Sawtooth Club in Ketchum. "It's not a slam dunk, but I fell in love with the iconic old building and waited for an opportunity to use it."

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Stark worked for Nickel about 10 years ago before working in real estate and banking.

"I saw the writing on the wall in October when I lost my bank job," Stark said. "We both looked at what was missing in the south valley and found that there is a lot more going on down here than people think."

Stark said construction costs and leasing costs are half what they were during the real estate boom, allowing for less financial risk in developing the former bank building on Main Street that housed Mama Inez restaurant until it folded last year.

"Bellevue is less dependent on tourism," she said. "It doesn't matter that much if Bald Mountain closes or the plane doesn't arrive. We also think people would rather ride their bikes a couple of miles to have dinner than drive 13 miles to Ketchum."

Spinelli said new secondhand stores like Ricochet and 2nd Time Around are doing well.

"The Toy Store on Bullion Street is even selling used toys on consignment now," he said.

But Spinelli warns that restaurants need to be well financed to survive.

"They have a relatively high turnover rate," he said.

Ketchum entrepreneurs Peter Stevenson and Jon Duval saw opportunity in the midst of tough economic times and opened a storefront in Ketchum for used but useable sports equipment.

Ketchum Gear Exchange opened June 1 at 471 Leadville Ave., across from Chateau Drug. The business sells on consignment, either directly over the counter, or on eBay.

"It was a good opportunity to take advantage of lower rents," Stevenson said. "We don't expect to become millionaires doing this, but hopefully it's a service to the community."

Another restaurateur looking to gain entry into the Ketchum scene is Stephanie "Penelope" Olson, a native of Idaho who's lived in town for the past three years. On Saturday, July 4, Olson will host a grand opening for her new European-style bistro, Penelope's Café.

Olson's café will be located in the Galleria shopping center on Leadville Avenue in downtown Ketchum. The restaurant's "soft opening" is this week.

Born and raised in Boise, the 39-year-old has worked a number of odd jobs since arriving in Ketchum to learn the lay of the land. Olson described her business as "something different that we don't have."

Other restaurateurs are expanding. Bistro 44, owned by Alain Gilot since 2002, has expanded its Ketchum operation to include a new wine bar, Bistro 44 Wine Bar, which opened the week of June 15. Gilot wanted to create a wine bar and dining experience for locals and tourists that was more affordable.

Gilot said he was very proud to have all-local businesses and valley contractors help him build out his French-inspired décor for the wine bar.

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