I had a great remedy to the Tuesday blues last week—I needed to interview a “Peak Performer” for the March issue of Biz941, and since we’d decided to feature hockey player (and good friend) Karen Magee, I arranged for an in-person interview at the Sporting News Bar & Grill in the new Holiday Inn Sarasota-Bradenton Airport.
Karen, you might remember, is one half of the Wonderfuls, who owned and operated Jake’s Downtown.  For two years, Jake’s seemed, in my eyes, anyway, a rallying point for downtown businesses—not least because Karen’s partner, Andrea Rankin, became president of the Downtown Merchants Association and brought happy enthusiasm to the effort to unite merchants for a better, more profitable downtown.

CCB and I ran into Karen on Main Street one Saturday last December. She was visibly upset at having just let go a longtime employee, but the real story was in what she didn’t tell us: The following Monday, Jake’s closing was announced.

“One thing we like to tell people: It’s OK to say ‘I’m done.’ Sometimes it just doesn’t work,” says Karen, who’s operated her own business consulting practice for nearly five years now. On Tuesday, when we finished discussing the finer points of business professionals on ice, the conversation drifted to the Jake’s ordeal and Karen’s professional opinion of the downtown business environment.

“As a business owner, sometimes the good idea is to stop.” Bad enough to see your friends close their store; worse still to hear Karen tell us that Jake’s Downtown had been Andrea’s dream (and one she pursued with infectious enthusiasm). When business began to slow, the Wonderfuls faced what so many business owners are facing these days. As Karen puts it, “How far in debt do you want to be?” It’s always tempting to hold on for one more day, but “sometimes the pot of gold is nowhere to be seen,” says Karen. “We looked at six different scenarios, and nothing would make money.” With Christmas on the horizon, they decided that pulling the plug would at least give their employees a chance to find new employment during the hiring swells of the holidays. Once they took it into serious consideration, the decision was reached in a matter of hours. 

Unfortunately, other business owners have been around so long, they’re virtually paralyzed by the choice: stay open and lose money, or close and face scenarios that are not necessarily any better. “This is all they know. Once you hit 50, are you really going to go out and find yourself another job? And what’s the job market look like right now?”
“We absolutely refuse to blame the landlords.” In fact, they don’t blame anyone. Karen’s experience as a start-up specialist gives her a Zen-like attitude about their struggles: “It is what it is and we’re not going to complain.” Still, she reveals just a hint of exasperation regarding the excuses and grumblings she’s heard from other business owners—especially in lieu of making productive changes to their business. “Our landlords were great. I once heard someone threaten to go to the newspaper because ‘my landlord is bad to me. He won’t work with me,’” says Karen. “I said, ‘You’re really going to tell the newspaper to write a story because your landlord wants you to pay your rent?’ We signed a lease. If they work with you, that’s good. But they’re not obligated to.”

“It’s not the customer’s job to support your business. It’s your job to provide them with something they want at a price they want to pay.” The movement to support local businesses is great, but blaming customers for not coming into your store is, at best, unproductive.

“If you’re not going to stay open late, then don’t complain.” Jake’s joined the small crowd of businesses attempting to harness Main Street’s restaurant market by staying open into and after dinnertime. “It was disappointing. Mattison’s [serving dinner] at one end and Café Americano at the other, and we were the only retailer open.” Sure enough, thirty percent of Jake’s sales came between 8 and 9 p.m. Andrea once challenged downtown businesses to stay open late just one night, just to see. Those who did reported positively on the experiment. “Other places,” says Karen, “at 5:30, that’s it, they’re closed.”

“Just go put up some frigging signs that say ‘Downtown,’ would you?” Karen says this with a laugh, but obviously it’s a big deal. She suggests that local government efforts are focused too much on creating new shopping destinations without promoting the ones that already exist.