SARATOGA SPRINGS — The perennial post-Labor Day business shakeup has begun in the Spa City, despite a steady increase in year-round businesses.
Todd Shimkus, president of the Saratoga County Chamber, explained how new business openings -- like Solevo Kitchen -- and seasonal departures from the Saratoga Marketplace are part of a broader trend of young entrepreneurs establishing roots in the city, as businesses that rely mainly on tourism during the track season play less of a role in the downtown economy.
“If you talk about where we are today in terms of an evolution, we are the Capital Region’s downtown," Shimkus said. "And we’re talking about year-round. The bulk of the downtown businesses outside of the marketplace are very consistent, and the types of uses in those spaces are very similar. So, if a restaurant doesn’t make it, there is often another restaurant that will come and replace them, just by the nature of the way the building is constructed and laid out."
While Shimkus could not pinpoint when exactly the downtown switched from being boarded up during the winter to being open for business year-round, he said one of the biggest factors in that change has been the expansion of the Saratoga Springs City Center and the growth of the city's convention, meeting and function business. This has been solidified by an increased in the number of hotels that provide lodging for those convention, meeting and function attendees and attract tourists beyond track season.
“The second piece of that evolution is that City Center expansion a couple of years ago, along with the new restaurants and hotels for weddings," Shimkus said. "That’s where you see that growth and the year-round traffic we see. At some point, there were enough different things to fit everybody’s tastes, and I don’t know precisely when we got there, but that’s where we are now."
A new generation
Solevo Kitchen, which opened Sept. 21, serves "old school Italian cuisine" on the corner of Phila and Henry streets. With the help of Bonacio Construction, siblings Ronie and Giovannina Solevo converted what used to be a parking lot into an intimate restaurant and bar that feels part chic bistro, part family dining room.
With Ronie Solevo driving the aesthetics and branding and Giovannina Solevo on the business side, the Solevos said they hope to continue a tradition of made-from-scratch Italian cuisine. As the fourth generation of their family to own an Italian restaurant, the Solevos learned the ropes at their parents' restaurant, Campania Ristorante, outside New Haven, Conn.
Eventually, the Solevo parents retired to live in the Spa City, which elicited entrepreneurial inspiration from Ronie and Giovannina.
"The dream was always to open a restaurant in Saratoga," Ronie Solevo said. "Our parents had this mom and pop goldmine, and we're just taking it to a point where it's commercially viable [in today's economy]."
As digital natives with experience working in New York and Washington, the Solevos see themselves as part of a growing coalition of millennial entrepreneurs in Saratoga Springs.
"We want to be at the forefront of ushering in a new wave of young professionals," Ronie Solevo said. "This city is not just on the rise. It has risen, and it isn't going to stop."
Ronie Solevo compared the Spa City to a miniature cross between Georgetown and Brooklyn, while Giovannina pointed to a lower cost of living and an optimal business climate — not to mention the water, which Ronie Solevo said is the key ingredient to their in-house pasta.
Shimkus said business owners like the Solevos are what has set Saratoga Springs apart from other upstate cities.
“It’s the same kind of thing you’ve seen in places like Silicon Valley or Portland, Ore., where people find the places they want to live and see if they can find a job there," Shimkus said. "And that’s what Saratoga has become. People want to move here and figure out where to work later."
Indeed, that's just what happened with the Solevos: After walking down Phila Street one day, Giovannina Solevo saw the property for sale and immediately called her brother.
"She said, 'Get your butt up here. No more time off. We're opening now,'" Ronie Solevo recalled.
Post-Labor Day moves
After 12 years owning Sloppy Kisses, "a treat boutique for dogs," Melanie Dallas found herself ready to close the business by the end of this summer.
Standing among the remaining dog portraits, specialty treats, and other dog accessories at the 425 Broadway location, Dallas recalled how her youngest daughter, Eva, would ask every year if the family could go on vacation, to which Dallas would always have to reply that someone needed to be at the store from open to close and through weekends.
"I think people go through cycles in life," Dallas said. "At the beginning, I wanted to make money -- be my own boss and take care of the kids on my terms. Now, I don't care about the money. I want to travel with my husband and go to breakfast at new places, and whatever else [empty nesters] do."
Dallas said she has always been an advocate for downtown becoming more of a year-round economy. But at this point, she said, she just wants to take a vacation.
At the close of business, she plans to go with her husband to the Dominican Republic.
Other businesses closing downtown include the Hungry Spot Cafe at 480 Broadway, Gemset Jewellery in the Saratoga Marketplace, and Smokin' Sam's Cigar Shop at 5 Caroline St.
Elsewhere in the Saratoga Marketplace, Bella and Lindy's and Paper Dolls are expanding.
Alyssa Menshausen, the owner of Paper Dolls, said she's expanding the stationary and boutique paper products business beyond Broadway to six other Northeast cities, with the Boston and Providence metro areas as the first targets.
In addition to selling their own stationary for wedding invitations and other events, Paper Dolls carries limited craft brands, like Shinola, a Detroit-based company known for its high end notebooks, watches and even bikes.
Part of the expansion, according to the 29-year-old owner and lifelong Spa City resident, is a broader sales operation online.
"We opened our website, and right now we're selling stuff we sell in the [Saratoga] store online, but we're going to start selling our wedding invitations and stationary on there as well," Menshausen said.
Bella and Lindy's owner Jill Rodriguez will help fill the gap left open by the departure of Sloppy Kisses by expanding her pet store to an additional space within the Saratoga Marketplace.
Rodriguez described her business as a "lifestyle boutique for pets and their people," with a customer base of loyal local dog owners and tourists who buy gifts for their pets after visiting during track season or a convention at the City Center.
With the expansion, Rodriguez said she hopes to continue building those customer bases along with attracting newer ones, and that the concourse of the Saratoga Marketplace is the perfect fit for a boutique business like hers.
"We love being in this building," Rodriguez said. "It's its own little community."
The right tenant
Nearby, at 1 Caroline St., a building owned by Mark Straus of the Saratoga Marketplace, is still looking for the right tenant after serving for years as a jazz bar.
Patrick Donovan, the property manager for the Saratoga Marketplace, puts his decades of downtown Saratoga institutional memory to work by finding the right tenants to achieve harmony in the popular corridor along Broadway between Caroline and Lake Avenue.
"We're not putting a pizza parlor next to another pizza parlor," Donovan said in a phone discussion with a potential client, as he inspected the interior of 1 Caroline St.
Donovan said the rise of the City Center has allowed him to be pickier in choosing tenants, which he said adds to the stability of the downtown economy as a whole.
"I think a lot has changed over the years," Donovan said in a tunnel under Caroline Street and Broadway which connects several of the properties. "The City Center is used in a big way by a lot of people that come to town... So I know this: the next business here is gonna be something that upgrades the place."
Shimkus echoed similar sentiments, saying the plethora of choices property owners have in choosing new businesses for their buildings is a major factor that has separated the Spa City from the pack.
“I’ve worked at three chambers and three regions that are very different in Massachusetts and New York, and if you talk to folks in downtown revitalization, they’ll say you’re in the best possible position when the property owners wait for the right tenant rather than the one who walks in with the first check, and that’s what we have here," Shimkus said. “I can remember when Henry Street was nothing but the Parting Glass, and look at it today. We’ve focused mainly on the downtown, and that’s given us a competitive advantage."