What do an optician, a wine merchant/restaurateur and a consignment boutique owner have in common? All are banking on a nascent business district emerging along a stretch of Laguna Beach’s Coast Highway where vacant storefronts sapped away retail vibrancy in recent years.
Earlier this month, recent Laguna Beach transplant Van de la Plante opened Gentlemen’s Breakfast, an eyewear boutique offering a hand-picked collection of vintage frames at 1968 S. Coast Highway. He said research makes him confident he chose the right spot for his special inventory.
He may be onto something.
Despite high turnover in retail spaces all along Laguna’s Coast Highway lifeline, merchants in the area bordered by Agate and Ruby Streets seem to share a cohesive sense of community and a positive outlook about the district’s future.
“We’re all excited about what’s going on at this end of town,” said Jeff Krohnfeldt, who with his wife Nikki last year opened Blast Consignment, carrying clothing, accessories and decorative items. They do their part to boost the area’s visibility with parties and promotions to draw in customers. “We’re shameless about bribing people to come,” Krohnfeldt admitted.
At least six shops in the neighborhood were vacant when they moved in, but storefronts are filling in. “We’re seeing more traffic,” he said, adding that a broadening mix of dining opportunities in the area helps.
A lot of buzz is building around local Chris Olsen, who will soon open the Wine Gallery in the space formerly occupied by elle H. boutique. The restaurant/wine boutique at 1833 S. Coast Highway is the first newly created restaurant space in Laguna in five years.
Royal Thai, Rumari’s, and Mozambique as well as newcomer Maro Wood Grill already draw loyal customers.
Several merchants expressed hope the new restaurant/wine boutique will serve as an important anchor for the district, drawing in new customers. “There’s a little cluster of great little businesses,” Olsen said. “I’m banking on hanging tough and making a little area where more people will come.”
Olsen opened his first Wine Gallery in Corona del Mar where he grew up. Since moving to Laguna 10 years ago, he’s looked for an opportunity with adequate parking area, a necessity to obtain a permit for a wine bar. The concept won approval in 2010 and took another year to obtain other permits.
When it opens, perhaps by April’s end, the Wine Gallery will boast a wood-fired Italian oven and a full kitchen. Over 40 guests will find seating at the horseshoe bar as well as communal and small tables where they can indulge in 20 wines by the glass, featured wine flights from small production wineries, craft beers, small plates and artisan wood-fired pizzas.
Olsen intends to cater first to locals but he hopes to also become a destination location.
Retail turnover in some spots doesn’t worry him. “I personally shop at Macalistaire’s and Vertigo and dine at Rumari and Royal Thai and Mozambique, so I think those businesses are here to stay,” he said, “The owners are all friends and great people.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” agreed partners Martin Ulrich and Chris Oswalt of Vertigo, an interior design shop open since 2009, near the Wine Gallery and Gentlemen’s Breakfast. Oswalt, who will design aprons for Wine Gallery chefs, looks forward to increased traffic when it opens.
Building consensus among merchants is key to carving out a shared identity, a powerful marketing tool that can revive neighborhoods, according to local developer Joe Hanauer. He spearheaded the branding of the HIP District, a Coast Highway area bordered by Anita and Bluebird Canyon Drive, whose walking traffic rivals downtown in energy.
Fellow merchants wanted to be included in promotions for the Old Pottery Place shops, Hanauer said of its origin. The HIP District, which stands for historic and interesting places, spans 48 participating merchants, including hotels, restaurants, retailers and galleries.
Even so, Hanauer said it didn’t happen overnight. It takes volunteerism and a shared vision, he said. Success hinges on the public knowing about it and then telling them over and over and over. “There’s the message, and then there’s the continuity,” he said.
The HIP District serves as a model for branding districts citywide by the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce, which intends to canvass various business neighborhoods about how to better market them to the public, said Kristine Thalman, its executive director. “There is a feeling of cautious optimism,” she said, of the commercial district around Diamond.
The chamber plans to create focus groups in areas such as Woods Cove, the canyon, and North Laguna to learn how merchants see their common identity, Thalman said. The next step would be to brand each neighborhood and create a signature event for each district. “It’s a good role for the chamber to have, because it represents all of the businesses in Laguna, not just the downtown area,” she said.
Though they lack a unifying moniker yet, proprietors in the Woods Cove/Diamond Street locale seem poised for collaboration. “We probably won’t wait for the focus groups,” said Krohnfeldt.
Some refer to the area as the Diamond district. Others call it Woods Cove. Olsen half-jokingly told de la Plante that they should ride the HIP Distric’s coattails and christen it SHIP, south of HIP.
Krohnfeldt suggested SoMo for South of Mozambique.
What’s your idea?
Photos by Mitch Ridder