By Lorraine Blasor
For News is my Business
The upcoming corporate relocation of a leading convenience store chain to a long-shuttered Loíza Street building, from which it will also run a Quiznos Sub, offers further proof of the ongoing revitalization that is pumping considerable money and breathing renewed vigor into this well-known San Juan area unique for embracing all economic classes: from low-income and middle class to the rich.
This corridor of commerce is attracting a new breed of entrepreneurs and among the more sizable recent investments are Tresbé, an ecologically-minded al fresco eatery, and Caba Wine Bistro: each venture costing $200,000 and $500,000, respectively.
These and other food and drink related businesses that have opened in recent years are turning Loíza St. into a popular gastronomic hub.
On the public side, the San Juan municipal government recently announced an ambitious agenda to revamp Loíza St. with a price tag in excess of $1 million. The plan includes repaving street and sidewalks, burying utility cables and changing the traffic pattern to ease vehicular congestion.
No start-up date has been announced yet, which leaves the project contingent upon Mayor Jorge Santini getting reelected in November’s election and carrying through with what for now must stand as a campaign promise.
Equally significant is the upcoming relocation of the corporate headquarters of Bayamón-based To Go Stores to one of the street’s most prominent corners: the intersection between Loíza St. and San Jorge St. The move, slated for September, is sure to improve the area not least because it involves the rehabilitation of a long-shuttered building that had become part of a string of highly visible blights that also include the skeleton of an unfinished condominium three blocks up.
“Loíza is a street that is undergoing a revival and has a lot of ambience. We’re very excited to be part of it,” said Nelson Capote-Ortíz, president of To Go Stores, which is moving into the former IBM building, a three-story structure designed by famous architect Henry Klumb and currently being restored to its former state after years of neglect following the exit of its last tenant, a government agency devoted to providing rehabilitation services.
The building’s purchase and rehabilitation represents “a million dollar investment, without a doubt,” said the executive.
To Go Stores is part of a low-key, privately held company that started out in the early 80s by running gasoline stations islandwide and then, little by little, began adding adjacent convenience stores to reach the current total of 32, of which 12 are in the metropolitan San Juan area. Each store fills an average 2,000-square-feet of space and carries some 4,500 SKUs (stock-keeping units).
The Loíza St. store will be the first one not to be attached to its own gasoline station although it will likely benefit from the presence next door of a gasoline station run by a different operator.
The building is sure to become a popular hub as its first floor is being turned into a multi-themed convenience store that will include a bakery section, a Quiznos sandwich store, a lounge with WI-FI, and a wine cellar with an extensive selection of wines, specialty beers and premium coffees. It will initially operate on a 24-hour basis.
To Go Stores purchased the 30,000-square-foot-property from Scotiabank, which in turn picked it up after taking over the failed R-G Premier Bank. Initially the company considered another building in Guaynabo but then a friend of Capote-Ortiz led him to the Loíza St. site.
Although the exterior will be kept exactly as Klumb designed it in the early 1950s (with the exception of an eaves extension over the entrance to the c-store), the interior is being rehabilitated to accommodate three different operations: the third floor will house corporate offices and employee-training rooms; the second floor will be an upholstery fabrics showroom for Yañez Diaz, a company run by Capote Ortiz’ designer wife, Amarillys Pla.
The Quiznos on the first floor, one of six franchises To Go Stores is slated to open at an investment of $100,000 to $150,000 each, also will include a novel concept that Quiznos recently tried out in California: a yogurt sideline named GoFoYo.
Diversity tenants create eclectic mix
The revitalization of Loíza Street, largely spurred by the construction of Gallery Plaza, two 24-story luxury condominium towers built at the intersection of Loíza St. and the upscale Condado area between 2004 and 2009, has been fitful at times.
The area’s lower commercial rents make it an attractive location for business but this has not prevented some spaces from staying empty for long periods of time. Much of the new activity is centered along the stretch that is nearest Condado.
Entrepreneurs coming in now reflect a wide mix of interests and fields (from fashion and food to professional services such as lawyers and notaries) but, for the most part, share a common reference point: a desire to create a unique ambience that will attract a new customer base and ensure repeat business.
Caba pumped half a million dollars into converting a seedy locale used as shelter by vagrants into an elegant wine bistro that caters to an older crowd, mostly professionals in their 30s and up who appreciate fine wines and artisanal beers.
“This is the alter ego of The Plan B. It is a quieter place, a place to sit down and talk,” General Manager/Chef Alejandro Vélez said referring to the next-door pizza restaurant with the eye-catching red facade that draws a younger crowd.
(Both Caba and Plan B, located across from Gallery Plaza, are the brainchild of entrepreneur Freddy Zamora.)
Great care was taken to minimize any inconvenience the business might cause surrounding neighbors, according to Vélez.
For example, patrons who smoke are directed to a side terrace decorated with cabaña-style umbrellas and wine barrels doubling as tables so they don’t block the street sidewalk. Also, parking is provided to ensure that neighbors can keep their regular parking spots on the street.
Ambience clearly infuses Huma, an alternative multi-concept space that opened across from Goyco Public School: it is a spa, boutique and art gallery all rolled into one.
Owner Cynthia Uz said she invested $5,000 to fix up the rental commercial space, cutting costs by enlisting her father to do all the carpentry work.
In keeping with the store’s Moroccan vibe, the decor mixes colorful pillows, a large area rug, low tables and seating for customers to relax while appraising clothing or jewelry. The spa section in back is cozy. Here clients can try out massages plus different hot and cold therapies.
“It is a very human space,” said Uz.
Idealistic, but practical entrepreneurs
Loíza St. entrepreneurs include idealistic young people with a hip sensibility but a decidedly practical business sense.
Yadiel Berrios, 33, opened El Rex Canteen as a clothing store but soon decided he could do better by selling beer and tacos
(He turned over the clothing business to friend Justo Ortiz who now runs it out of an upstairs store named Beast).
“We’re doing well,” he said as he set up tables in front of the small space he occupies next-door to two restaurants, Kamoli and Follaje, on the corner of Taft and Loíza St.
“We complement each other,” he said of his neighboring businesses. “We share space and clients. We help each other to grow. In union there is strength.”
“Good, attractive, affordable”
Mario Ormaza considered the virtues of portability when he chose to recycle a decommissioned shipping container into a kitchen for his al-fresco eatery, Tresbé, on the corner of Loíza and Palmas Street.
If he needs to move his business elsewhere, he said, all he has to do is pack up the container and go.
“Instead of investing $100,000, $200,000 in cement, I can take this anywhere,” he said during a break from helping out in the kitchen.
Ormaza, whose industrial kitchens family business includes a sideline devoted to recycling containers for housing and commercial uses, said he started the eatery to show people what can be done with a container.
Eager to reduce the restaurant’s carbon imprint, Ormaza said he collects rainwater to use for cleaning and to water a small orchard planted with peppers, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and spinach. The four tables on the wood deck where customers eat under the shade of trees and beach umbrellas have no tablecloths; people use compostable cutlery and take out orders in compostable packaging.
Such details admittedly add to his business costs but Ormaza feels strongly about protecting the environment. As for Loíza St., he lives in the area.
“I have always seen it as an up and coming neighborhood,” he said, citing the street’s walkability as its best feature. “This area is special. Loíza St. is where everyone mixes: rich people, the middle class, the poor. When all three meet, good things happen.”