The Business of Surviving at the Surface: Legacy Business
One loose line in a lease may have kept Bellevue Barber Shop, rooted in the same few-block strip of Main Street where it has operated since 1947, from becoming a relic of history.
An absentee property owner and intense devotion to the brand have kept Lawrence The Florist in business after more than 40 years.
Still, as downtown Bellevue continues to become an urban metropolis crowded by skyscrapers, tech workers, new residents, and retail shops, some small-business owners who operated for decades in low-rise (and low-rent) strip malls and storefronts are feeling squeezed when it comes to maintaining a presence in downtown Bellevue.
So, how do small businesses such as barbers, watch repairmen, and florists survive downtown?
New development in Old Bellevue pushed Bellevue Barber Shop co-owners Kurt Hester and Todd Russell from several locations, forcing them to consider moving to Bel-Red or other outlying areas. But they couldn’t find a space small enough for their two-chair operation (now three). Besides, Hester asked rhetorically one weekday morning in between cuts: “Being an (entirely) walk-in business, if you move, how do you get the word out to everybody that you’ve moved?”
Their saving grace came when the co-owners reached a deal with the developer of Meyden, a 2.75-acre, five-story mixed-use building at the corner of Main Street and Bellevue Way Northeast in Old Bellevue, just a few blocks from their shop’s original location.
“They put in a real loose written stipulation that we would be able to rent 500 square feet from them,” Hester said. While 500 square feet is far too small for most other downtown Bellevue storefronts, it’s perfect for a barber shop. “That’s the only thing that has kept us in business, was that little line that said they would let us in here.”
Hester said business rebounded to old levels when the barber shop moved in early 2016 to its new space, where parking is plentiful (though weekend events that close streets still can drive away some Saturday customers).
Downtown Bellevue’s rapid growth alsohas created other challenges for small business owners.
Ron Rogers, the one-man operator of Rogers’ Fine Timepieces and Jewelry, said break-ins have hit four businesses in the Bellevue Plaza complex where he works, and he has been victimized twice in three years.
And more people and more construction activities are disruptive to traffic flow, according to Rogers, creating a problem common in most urban downtowns. “The big issue for existing customers and future clientele will be parking.”
Another possible concern for Rogers: Vulcan Real Estate, the development company owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, purchased Bellevue Plaza for $45 million two years ago, sparking concerns of additional development.
Rogers, however, said a meeting with a friendly Vulcan representative left him optimistic about the long-term health of his business.
Rogers’ operation appeals to the large subset of Bellevue workers who live outside the immediate downtown, he said. If he moved to a less commercial area and possibly charged lower prices, he would probably lose some of his massive potential clientele base.
A few blocks away, Pankaj “PK” Bhandari, who purchased Lawrence The Florist last year, said his business would fall apart if it relocated.
“Rent is high,” Bhandari explained. “Every year, it’s an increase of 3 percent, which is very hard. We are trying to get more business. We are walking (around), as an introduction to every hotel, every big company.”
Asked about moving out of downtown and to a location with more affordable rent, Bhandari responded very simply: “We can’t.”
As downtown Bellevue’s residential population has exploded, shopkeepers have more potential customers. But that density and the increase in mixed-use towers have increased the demand for new businesses, many of which compete with existing storefronts.
“Eighty percent of business is from all the downtown area,” Bhandari added. “This is our main store and main location.”
Besides, as all three business owners agreed, since they have survived for three decades and more in downtown Bellevue, why move?
“We’ve enjoyed being in Bellevue our whole time,” Hester, the barber shop co-owner, explained. “I can choose to cut hair anywhere. But it’s nice that the pieces fell together that we could continue to be here.”