Oak Cliff is booming. New shops, new restaurants and a tangible sense among those of us in the know that the area has arrived. Now we want more. More shops. More restaurants. Book stores. Whole Foods. Our appetite for cool, funky and convenient development seems nearly insatiable. But in the midst of this excitement, retail and restaurants that were opened to fill a void are closing.
Despite our constant requests for more shops, it seems that less seem to stay open. What’s happening? In the past 90 days we’ve lost Lorettas and Bishop Arts Floral, not to mention Starfish and the original Bishop Arts Mercantile. Why did these neighborhood locations close? And, ultimately, what does it take for a store in North Oak Cliff to be successful?
We spoke with a couple of owners of recently-closed shops to find out.
Jan McDade, former owner of Lorettas Grill on Jefferson Avenue, says, “Lorettas was born from a neighborhood need and from my passion for bringing food and drink to Oak Cliff.” But despite her desire to open a “casual place for good food where you could stay as long as you like,” her restaurant closed after only a year.
What happened? City codes, for one thing. After moving into her space, McDade was faced with unexpected expenses to alleviate years of neglect and bring the restaurant up to code. “Shouldn’t landlords be responsible for the upkeep of their property?” McDade wonders aloud. “Grandfathering should only go so far,” she believes; “The place was a huge health and fire hazard. I had to spend many dollars to bring it up to code.” The city officials also seemed combative, even with each other, McDade explains, citing difficulty between building and health inspectors.
Selling alcohol in a dry city was also a problem. “Did you know Lorettas had the cheapest beer prices in Oak Cliff? Every alcoholic drink is taxed 14 percent by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission,” she explains. City and state taxes began to weigh heavily on Lorettas, and despite breaking even after only 13 months, McDade says, “The debt I had to take on for the remodel was just too much.”
McDade wishes city codes were more owner-friendly, and recommends anyone opening a restaurant be sure of the space’s renovation requirements before entering any contracts. Although heartbroken at having to close, McDade is doing well and appreciates all of the support she received. She thinks of her restaurant experience fondly, saying “I love my hood — the diversity, the landscape, the history, the architecture. This is my neighborhood and I wanted to contribute as best I could.”
Phillip Wheless, owner of recently-closed Bishop Arts Floral, also feels passionately about Oak Cliff. Closing their doors after nine years, he says, “We learned that our personal belief in and love of the area was not enough to make our business successful.” Initially, he reports, changing people’s shopping habits was the most difficult hurdle. Wheless explains that, in the early years, Kessler Park residents admitted to never going south of Davis; instead, they crossed the Trinity for all their retail needs.
As his store and the Bishop Arts District became more established, Wheless says he saw a greater influx of customers from both in- and outside of Oak Cliff. But lunch and dinner traffic wasn’t enough to keep them going. He says, “Do not make the mistake of believing that crowded restaurants equate to retail sales.”
Wheless established some close relationships in the community during his tenure in Bishop Arts but states that the neighborhood was not enough to keep his store open. “We had some situations where we did flowers for a couple’s wedding, sent flowers for the birth of their children, and even prepared flowers for the first recital of some of the girls,” he recalls, “we helped teenagers pick out their first corsage and then helped them plan flowers for their wedding.” But despite such fond memories, Wheless concludes, “There were members of the community that were very supportive, but the community as a whole was not. The majority of our customers were not from Oak Cliff.”
McDade reports a similar trend at Lorettas, explaining, “In the beginning I believed that Lorettas could’ve survived with patronage from just OC. I don’t believe it now. To a new restauranteur, I would say, it would depend on your venue and the volume you have to have.” She advises, “I would try to draw more from Downtown, Oak Lawn, Uptown and to the south — Cedar Hill, Duncanville.”
Both business-owners learned a lot from their retail experience in the neighborhood and continue to reside in the area. Wheless is also particularly concerned about the future of Oak Cliff. “The Oak Cliff community is unique in Dallas. I have always called it a ‘hometown in the heart of the city,’” he says. “I still believe that, but I am concerned for our community. I’m afraid that in our rush to catch up with the rest of the city, we risk losing our identity.” He continues, “[Oak Cliff] has been an incubator of new concepts, new ideas and new businesses. It is wonderful that after many decades of neglect, the city is paying attention to Oak Cliff. . . but as we improve, we need to challenge those in leadership positions to remember and cultivate the uniqueness of Oak Cliff rather than transform it.”