It’s no secret that for both the consumer and the business owner that Downtown El Paso is both exciting and a risky venture at the same time. The challenge of acclimating a “driving city” to an urban environment that has been dormant for so long is daunting but the potential reward for creating a worthwhile business in the midst of this revitalization is too good to pass up.
The public is ready for Downtown to light up with activity and see both new businesses and old favorites provide great products and service.
Some Downtown El Paso businesses have survived for generations while others have quickly established themselves in this period of transition. We spoke with a slew of small business owners for some insight on how to not only survive but thrive in Downtown.
Do it for the right reasons
When starting any business the reasons you do so should be in-line with your business model. If you open a boot repair shop, hopefully you love boots. If you open a health food eatery your passion should be for healthy living and food. Paola, owner of Healthy Bite tells us, “We can make more money if we served less healthy food but we feel good paying a higher food cost to help you improve your life, we don’t make our decisions only to make a buck.” Your passion will translate into the product.
“Tricky Falls comes from an extremely hands on do-it-yourself background. All of the partners have their own specific niche, such as booking, production, bar, financials, etc. We’ve all been in the music industry for years,” said Gabriel Gonzalez.
One of the reoccurring themes of every small business owner we interviewed was: Be on point and be consistent.
It’s likely most Downtown businesss will be serving lawyers, judges, or otherwise business minded professionals with a limited amount of time as well as the general public.
The market is fickle and unforgiving but each interaction with your customer is a new audition, “Cater to your customer, make them feel appreciated and if you have quality merchandise, they’ll always come back,” said Chris Hernandez of Hernandez Fashions and Krystal Jeans.
One late lunch delivery, a lull in service or a bad day in general can cost a customer.
“Our food has to be consistent and that fact I learned from my Dad, who has been in business for 37 years at the original House of Pizza,” said Chris Rakas owner of the House of Pizza Downtown.
Work with your Downtown neighbors
Unlike any other part of the city, Downtown businesses benefit from working together versus competing. Taking advantage of the walkability and density of Downtown can create an area that can be activated by complimentary business. The “Downtown Melt” a collective of restaurants successfully pooled resources to attract the public.
Create a feeling not a design
“Downtown attracts people from all walks of life,” Roberto Espinoza, owner of Pot Au Feu reminds us.
Chances are you will find people representing every walk of life inside the Tap Bar and Restaurant at any given time. No better example exists of the power of the evocation of feeling than this bar. The design is far from modern but the flavor of El Paso exists in every bite of their world-famous nachos and the sound of chatter coming from the eclectic customer base.
“I think consistency has been the key as well as a respect for the precedent my father set when he began,” said Charlene Soule, owner of the Tap.
Know your customers
Imagine a petition created and signed by the community to bring back crème brulee after it was removed from the menu. This was the reality for Pot Au Feu owner, Roberto Espinoza when he was experimenting with trying something new. “We cater to our customers and Downtown brings in all kinds, so we try not to be exclusive and we listen to what they want,” he said.
“You need the ability to always provide good customer service but you have to be sensitive to the difference of cultural expectations on the border,” said Edie Zuvanich, marketing manager of Starr Western Wear.
In the case of Paola Herrera, owner of the Healthy Bite, she literally made it a point to get to know her customers by delivering food personally, “I try to always learn and remember food allergies and even tweak the order for customers to fit their tastes,” she said.
“We never used to deliver when we started, but we do now – it’s 30% of our business,” said Paola.
Have a plan for parking
Parking may always be a challenge in any urban environment so it is imperative that a plan is in place to ease the brunt of the parking conundrum. There is no simple answer to this issue, but planning for it should make it less stressful. Doing things like educating your customers through social media about the available parking lots or garages in the area or encouraging a walk to take advantage of Downtowns unique assets on foot is a start.
Your staff is an extension of yourself
Surround yourself with a strong team that knows and shares your philosophy for taking care of customers. In-line with consistency, this may be one of the most crucial elements in making a solid first impression and retaining business. An owner can control only so much and a rogue employee can be the bane of a business, however; a great employee can help to create that “feeling,” which can turn your business into a second home for some.
The multi-generational Holland’s department store has survived and thrived over the decades by providing, “Great customer service, quality brands and attractive prices with a mind of always trying to improve,” said co-owner James Holland.
In providing a venue for musicians to stop into El Paso, Gabriel Gonzalez told us how he and his partners felt when first opening Tricky Falls, “At first it seemed like we were on an island in downtown, unto ourselves. However, now we see new businesses of all types sprouting up downtown. It’s a good feeling to watch downtown El Paso start to bloom.”
“There are many things that go into a successful business, but downtown is a little different, it’s harder to bring people, so it’s a real genuine love for downtown and wanting to see it finally ‘happen.’ You can’t just be downtown to make money. It doesn’t work like that. It’s a bigger thing. You are part of a bigger cause,” said Octavio Gomez, owner of The Garden.
“We love downtown and we love the vibe. We know how it fluctuates and when it’s going to be slow or busy. This is all we do, so all of our heart and soul is in this place,” said Chris Rakas.