Tag: small businesses

Why Businesses Fail on The Drag

By Faith Ann Ruszkowski, Samantha Grasso and Ellen Gonzalez

Video by Faith Ann Ruszkowski and Samantha Grasso

Why Businesses on “The Drag” Fail: An Investigation

Story by Faith Ann Ruszkowski

When Noodles & Company closed its location on the corner of Guadalupe and 24th Streets last fall, its departure was abrupt. On Nov. 4 the restaurant was serving pasta, and by Nov. 5 its doors were locked and a note hung on the window thanking customers for their patronage.

Estephanie Gomez, a journalism senior at the University of Texas at Austin, was working for Noodles & Company when it closed. She was shocked when the restaurant went out of business.

“I literally got a text at 10 p.m. the night before that said, ‘Hey, yeah, don’t come to work tomorrow but come and pick up your severance package at 8 a.m.,” Gomez said. “I didn’t catch on—oh, Noodles is doing badly—because we were pretty busy everyday at the same times. I never knew, until the night before.”

While the swiftness of Noodles & Company’s exit might have been shocking, another business deciding to leave the strip of Guadalupe Street, known as “the Drag,” is a relatively a common occurrence.

After Noodles & Company closed in November, The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which was located next door, called it quits. Pita Pit, also located on Guadalupe, closed its doors this spring. Earlier in 2015, Manju’s, Mellow Mushroom, and Jack in the Box, all located on Guadalupe, closed up shop.

Out of the 53 establishments currently on the Drag, 13 have been there for five years or less, according to data gathered from in-person interviews and business’ websites. Additionally six storefronts along the stretch of Guadalupe from 21st to 27th Streets are vacant.

Students like Ilda Arroyo have become accustomed to the high turnover of businesses on the Drag. Arroyo, who graduated from UT in December with a degree in Human Development and Family Sciences, said she noticed the constant change during her five years as a student.

“I remember as a freshman it consisted mostly of food places, but the food places have changed to businesses like the expanding Urban Outfitters, a real estate office, and a small convenience store,” Arroyo said.

So although the high turnover has become commonplace, it raises the question: why are so many businesses unable to succeed on the Drag?

Why Businesses Leave the Drag

This semester, Melissa’s Custom Gifts vacated its location on the Drag next to the long-standing Goodall Wooten dormitory and moved shop to the corner of 24th Street and Rio Grande. The store’s owner, Ken Jones, said that he made the decision to move for many reasons, one of which was that he wanted to discontinue ATX Books, which he also owned and operated from that location.

“One of the biggest things was I had been planning to end the bookstore for a very long time,” Jones said. “I didn’t need as much space, although they didn’t want me to leave because it is really hard to keep tenants on the drag period. But, it was a little bit too much space, a little bit more than what I wanted for what I was doing here, and, of course, the rent on the Drag—anywhere in this area—is very high per square foot.”

However, during his 5 years on the Drag, Ken Jones did concoct some theories about why so many businesses were failing based on personal experience and observation. For many rent is an issue like it was for him, but one of his main observations is that students do not support local businesses.

“The kids do not connect with the businesses that are there, they just don’t,” Jones said. “I ask kids and none of them know a business owner’s name. They don’t have any allegiance of any kind to anything on there. And guess what? Those businesses go out of business…They do not support the businesses that support them. Bottom line. Why doesn’t it work? It’s the students fault.”

He has also observed that business do not understand the UT campus environment.

“They come in with great intentions thinking we’ve got this concentrated amount of 39,000 [undergraduate] students we’re going to make a killing,” Jones said. “They do not do their research.”

Jennifer Hillhouse, the owner of Jenn’s copies which has two locations on the Drag and has been in business since 1982, also said that many stores open on Guadalupe without realizing how dependent their business will be on the students’ schedules. She has had 12 different neighbors since she opened her second location on the Drag near Dean Keeton.

“This is a nine-month business cycle,” Hillhouse said. “It dies in December, a horrible death, and if you have to sell at least 500 hamburgers a day to make your rent that is not going to happen in December and in June and July and halfway through August… It’s a whole town for nine month out of the year and it is a ghost town for the other three and businesses get blindsided by that.”

Matyear pointed to Terra Burger, a now closed business, as a classic example of a business that was not able to anticipate the campus cycle.

“They ran out of buns on Parents’ Day,” said Hillhouse.

What Successful Businesses on the Drag have in Common

Jenn’s Copies is one of the few businesses on Guadalupe that has achieved decades of success. The Co-Op is the longest running business on the Drag, with 99 years of service. The Wooten Barber Shop has been in business for 52 years. These are all businesses that provide services students are always in need of: prints for projects, books and haircuts.

“People have to get their haircut. It’s a destination shop,” Jones said, of his former neighbor.

Don Stafford has been working at the Wooten Barber Shop on the Drag for 23 years aggregating loyal customers all the while. He characterizes the establishment as plain, but reliable and comfortable.

“They come here because they need haircuts, but they also come here because they feel comfortable in the shop,” said Stafford. “It’s not a place where we serve wine and cheese, but come in and tell us how bad your day was or how good your day was.”

The barber shop is remarkably small, but manages to fit three stations into a space the size of the average public restroom. Jenn’s Copies also operates on a small number of square footage. Hillhouse believes modest decorations, reliable service and limited space are key to remaining in business when rent is so high and the business cycle is inconsistent throughout the year.

“When they [the shop next to Jenn’s Copies] turned into a restaurant their finish-out cost $250,000, comparison mine cost $20,000,” Hillhouse said. “I went to TOPS, which is Texas Office Products & Supplies, everything is secondhand…I only had one fancy piece of equipment and it was leased. I did not have a color copier and my husband literally painted my name on a shingle, on a piece of ply board and we hung it outside.”

Graphic by Ellen Gonzalez

“The Drag” through the Years

2100 Block Guadalupe St.

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2300 Block Guadalupe St.

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2400 Block Guadalupe St.

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2400 Block Guadalupe St. (continued)

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 2500 Block Guadalupe St.

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Screenshots from maps.google.com

 

Austin Gets Exotic with Local Pet Store

Photo by Cheney Slocum.

A chameleon hangs from a stick in its tank at ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in North Austin.

By Cheney Slocum and Jamie Oberg

“There’s something magical about a pet shop.”

Daniel Keeper sits in his office, walls lined with artifacts and oddities like dinosaur eggs, metal antlers, and a plastic monkey head that starts screeching as it senses the wave of his hand. Outside his office door a fluffy black chicken runs around his store, ZooKeeper Exotic Pets, clucking as children laugh. One couple looks adoringly at their Swoop, their five-week old yellow bird, and another girl smiles as her pet chameleon climbs up her arm and attaches itself to her sweater. Most pet stores are magical, but this one is more. It’s exotic.

Daniel Keeper opened ZooKeeper Exotic Pets in 1988, the first exclusively exotic store in the state. The current location, his fourth, is located on the corner of U.S. 183 and Burnet Road in North Austin.

At the store, Keeper and his staff care for and sell many different types of exotic animals including snakes, tropical frogs, scorpions, hedgehogs, bearded-dragon lizards, a bird-eating spider and Sophia, a two-toed sloth who hangs out in an enclosure near the door.

Even though his passion for animals was always present, Keeper didn’t begin his professional life in the pet business at all.

“I grew up and became interested in other things as well and tried to make a vocation of conventional things, so I ended up as a service manager at a rental car company in Austin,” Keeper said. “But after ten years of employment I realized I wasn’t happy doing what I was doing and I started thinking ‘I wonder if I can make a go of my interests.’”

Photo by Cheney Slocum.

ZooKeeper owner Daniel Keeper in in his office.

So he looked around Austin and realized there was only one pet store that carried exotics, and only in a small closet in the back of the store, Keeper decided to “make an entire store of that closet” and open his own store for $80 a month in rent.

Originally, Keeper maintained his conventional job from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and operated his store from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., but decided after a few years to go all in.

“My wife was so scared because we had a mortgage and a kid, but I told her it’s kind of like going off the high board for the first time,” he said. “Once you’re up there you just hold your breath and go. You do the best research you can do, you just go and put your head down and start working and don’t look back up until you’re sure it’s safe again. And that’s what I did.”

Keeper describes his store as primarily service oriented and hires only staff members who he thinks will get along with others and contribute to the store’s laid-back, friendly atmosphere.

“The average person that comes in here is happy to be here. They’re excited,” he said. “It’s not like going to the dentist; there are fun things in here. So when someone comes in its easy to strike up a conversation with them, because you have something in common.”

With such unfamiliar animals housed within its walls, ZooKeeper staff attracts a wide variety of customers and seeks to educate them while providing a fun experience, especially the children.

“Sometimes we’ll take them to the back where we are feeding the baby animals or take them to the incubators and show them that,” Keeper said. “If you’re a parent there is nothing better than walking into a place and having somebody treat your kid like they are a little person. I remember being a kid and people didn’t treat me as a human. So I try to get down on their level, and some of them are really smart, it’s just amazing to them.”

While Keeper says he enjoys educating all customers about the creatures in his store, owning an exotic pet can be a tough task.

“I’m good about helping people look into the future and get past just being excited about the animals they’re interested in and trying to show them the high points and the low points,” Keeper said. “We want them to be successful, and we want it to be a good fit for both [the animal and the owner]. We always try to show them the ups and the downs of everything.”

For some animals require exotic diets, nontraditional living quarters, or expensive regimens, Keeper said he has had to intervene in the sale of the animal.

“There’s a fine line in the pet industry about making decisions for people. When I was up and coming consumer in the pet store, I didn’t want somebody telling me I wasn’t fit for an animal. I didn’t want someone making that decision for me,” he said. “Now that I’m on this side of the counter I try to find the right animal for the right person. In a few circumstances I’ll put my foot down and say this is not the right animal for you and I’ll try to make something that’s a better fit.”

As Austin has gained popularity as a host for movies and television shows, Keeper has received callers with strange requests that might not be a good fit for the average consumer.

“We’ll get a call out of the blue saying they need 10,000 roaches or something like that. A lot of the time they’ll also need a wrangler, or someone to manage the animals while on the shoot,” he said.

The store has provided roaches and scorpions to the television show Fear Factor, and had National Geographic photograph their animals for a series on arachnophobia, or “fear of spiders.”

“We just ask that we get some legal promise that our name will get mentioned in the credits,” Keeper said. “Usually that’s what we’d like, some acknowledgement and a little PR for our efforts.”

Last year, ZooKeeper was approached with an offer for its own reality television show highlighting the culture of the store, its customers, and the exotic pet “lifestyle.”

Keeper and his staff met with the prospective producers, who also work with the show Pawn Stars on the History Channel. The staff got a contract from New York and shared tales of store pranks and fun times, but ultimately decided against participating.

“A lot of my staff was freaked out about being on camera, and every customer that came in (about 100-200 daily) would be required to sign a legal agreement to be on film,” Keeper explained. “It seemed like a lot of hassle for not much money.”

zookeeper-15

Spiders like this one are bred in the store. Some spiders will hatch up to 1,500 eggs at one time, each needing its own separate food and habitat.

Along with just selling animals, the store also has its own breeding program. Keeper began breeding animals before he opened up at his first location. Currently, the store is incubating eggs for a batch of red-bearded dragons and tortoises.

“The breeding just came out of an interest in seeing if I could be successful in it,” Keeper said. “Most of the time when animals feel comfortable enough to breed its because you’ve done a good job making them feel comfortable. If you get something to breed its kind of an assurance that you’ve done something right.”

While most of the pet breeding is just for fun, the store also breeds “food animals,” such as crickets, worms, and mice, to help supplement the store’s income. Breeding these animals in-house allows Keeper to avoid relying on vendors for the mass quantities of these animals sold. On average the store sells 500 to 1,000 mice (many of which are frozen into what employees call “Mice Pops”) and between 20 thousand and 50 thousand crickets weekly.

Whether it’s to buy some of these food animals or to just browse, there are always people poking in and out of ZooKeeper. And they like it that way.

“I think our enthusiasm for what we do is contagious,” Keeper said. “My favorite thing is dealing with kids of all ages–not necessarily just physiological kids– you can just tell when someone has that ‘Wow!’ when you see that whole amazement of having a close-up one on one experience with nature. “

What exotic pet would you want to own?

Austin in a Day

Legislation affects Texas craft beer culture

By Frances Bello, Becca Wright, Skylar Isdale and Kari Counter

A keg that ABGB will now be able to self-distribute. Photo by Skylar Isdale

A keg that ABGB will now be able to self-distribute. Photo by Skylar Isdale

This June, Governor Perry signed into law a slew of bills that gave Texas craft breweries and brewpubs have a reason to celebrate. After years of effort, Texas breweries can now sell their products in-house, and brewpubs can finally self-distribute.

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The five bills, SB 515-518 and SB 639, have changed the game for craft breweries and brewpubs, like recently opened brewpub Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. ABGB opened its doors to the public on August 30.

Read more

Rattletree School of Marimba

By: Sheila Buenrostro, Jeffrey Kahn, Katey Psencik

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What is a marimba?

A marimba is a deep-toned wooden instrument that resembles a xylophone. Rakefet Avramovitz, program director at the Rattletree School of marimba, says “it’s a big, wooden xylophone. It’s just high-vibration, high-energy dance music.”

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What makes it different than a xylophone?
The key. A xylophone’s range includes a full octave above a marimba — which means xylophones extend to the very top note of a piano. Marimbas are lower pitched.

Where is it from?
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Joel Laviolette, Artistic Director

Rakefet Avramovitz, Program Director

Jane Rundquist, student

Kate Van der Voort, student

Shanna Whittaker, student

For more information on the Rattletree School of Marimba, visit their website.

Local Austin Businesses Grow Despite Larger Companies Influx