WASHINGTON — When Casey Patten and David Mazza moved to D.C. from Philadelphia in 2003, the two childhood friends searched high and low for what they considered “a good hoagie” — the kind of sandwich they grew up eating at Philly’s 9th Street Italian market.
But they didn’t have any luck. According to Patten, their options were mostly limited to “large, corporate chains.”
So in 2008, when Patten, who at the time worked in commercial real estate, and Mazza, who worked in construction, bought an old building on H Street’s Northeast corridor, they decided to open the hoagie shop Taylor Gourmet. Since then, the business has expanded to nine locations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Taylor Gourmet’s success as a growing local business mirrors a national trend: the rise of mom-and-pop shops.
According to Kimco Realty Corp., a real estate investment trust that owns and operates North America’s largest portfolio of neighborhood and community shopping centers, small-shop occupancy is expected to hit 90 percent within the next 12 months. The company’s chief investment officer and executive vice president says Kimco is shifting its focus to the small-shop space because that is where he sees large growth going forward.
Bruce Leonard, managing partner at Streetsense, a Bethesda-based company that specializes in development, retail and residential patterns and planning, says there are a few different reasons as to why the small business market is doing so well.
For starters, Leonard says, before 2008 national retail brands grew too quickly and without much strategy. Then, when the market collapsed, boomers, “the quintessential shopping generation,” slowed their spending patterns.
“Now, the millennials are becoming the predominant shopping generation that the retailers are targeting,” Leonard says. Only, millennials are indifferent to the brands they grew up with, he says, and now, a lot of the national retail chains are focusing their expansion efforts overseas.
The vacant storefronts left behind by the big retailers are starting to find tenants again — but national brands aren’t filling the spaces; local businesses are.
“There’s a movement away now from national retailers, and if you look at the food scene, for instance, a lot of the local, regional restaurants do far better than the national brands,” Leonard says. “This is kind of a trend that’s leading into a preference for local-driven retail and food concepts.”
However, Leonard says “mom-and-pop” is a misnomer, when referring to the boom in small businesses.
“Mom-and-pop is really kind of a ’50s, ’40s concept of family-owned and -operated businesses. What the mom-and-pops are today, they’re really being driven by entrepreneurial 27-, 23-year-olds that are taking advantage of this vacancy in retail and maybe the discounting that’s coming with it. The millennials are a very entrepreneurial generation, so they’re the ones driving this resurgence in what you call local retail,” he says.
From big-box store to small, unique experiences
Patten, 34, says his and Mazza’s approach to making and serving the food at Taylor Gourmet sets his business apart from big-brand sub shops. Patten says all of the meats on the menu are roasted in-house and the business hand-makes all of its sauces. The hoagie rolls are baked by a local baker every morning.
“We’re not a typical deli where you’re taking meat that was produced in some commissary somewhere and sent in and cut out of a bag. We’re producing everything in-house,” Patten says.
“When you eat a chicken cutlet with us, it was taken by hand, pounded out, hand-breaded. When you have a meatball hoagie, those meatballs were mixed that morning; they were hand-rolled; they were roasted in the oven probably within a few hours of you eating them.”
Similar to Taylor Gourmet, local coffee shops Dolcezza Gelato and Peregrine Espresso have grown over the years to several locations. And while D.C.’s food scene is leading the charge in the increase of mom-and-pop shops, retail isn’t too far behind.
Courtney Stamm, 37, opened The Cheeky Puppy, an urban pet boutique, on Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle six months ago. Stamm, a Kalorama resident, says when she got her dog 10 years ago, she found combing through gerbil products and containers of mice for dog products at in big-box pet retailers “particularly unsatisfying.”
After frequenting some locally-owned pet stores, Stamm, who formerly worked in nonprofit funding and management, decided there was a need for a design- and lifestyle- focused pet store in Dupont.
Stamm says The Cheeky Puppy sets itself apart from major retailers and larger pet stores by its products. The store carries smaller lines with design-conscious products. A number of the brands she works with use sustainable materials and manufacturing methods.
“Having a dog is a privilege, and I want to be sure that that privilege is not putting a small child in Bangladesh in harm’s way while making a product that I’m going to buy on the cheap here in the U.S.,” Stamm says.
Working in the neighborhood she lives in is also important to Stamm, who says she knows the local residents — and their four-legged family members.
For Patten, being a small business owner and supporting other mom-and-pop operations is all about community.
“Me, as an individual, I like to put money into towns that I visit or live in. If you know there’s a Washington, D.C.-based group who’s busting their hump and trying to do great things, I’d much rather put money into that than go into Subway or Potbelly,” he says.
“It’s all about getting behind your community … You’ve got to get behind the guys who live here, the guys who work in it every single day, the guys who are trying to change neighborhoods, who are trying to make things better. That’s what people should be putting their money into, not just the large national chains who come here because they think it’s a great demographic for business.”
Streetsense’s Leonard says as long as there is consumer demand for the products and services small businesses offer, the Washington area, and the country, will continue to see their rise.
“Retail doesn’t really create demand; retail follows demand,” Leonard says. “Retail is always a reflection of what the market preferences are.”
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