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Examining business on the Corner

An inside look at what it takes for a business to thrive in the heart of the University

The Corner — a collection of restaurants, bars and night spots across the street from the University — is a common fixture in the daily lives of the students and staff at the University as well as the Charlottesville community.

Business on the Corner has been thriving for a long time. The Virginian, for example, has been open since 1923.

“The Virginian’s motto is ‘A Charlottesville Tradition Since 1923,’” general manager of the Virginia Myles Kois said. “We didn’t make that up, we earned it, and more importantly we’ve stayed true to it.”

Other establishments such as Littlejohn’s and The White Spot have also become staples over the past two to three decades.

“You deal with the same people every day for many years,” White Spot owner Dimitrios Tavambis said. “[A majority] of our customers are regulars”

History

According to the book, “The Corner: A History of Student Life at the University of Virginia” by Coy Barefoot, the Corner was named after the intersection of Main Street of Charlottesville and the entrance to the University. It has gradually developed into one of the three major business areas in Charlottesville, a status that it maintains today.

“It is one of three important places [for business] in CVille,” Boylan Heights co-owner J.R. Hadley said. “The Corner, Downtown Mall and [Route] 29.”

Kois said the nostalgia connected to the area is strong.

“It’s incredibly humbling to watch generation after generation come back for events like Homecomings, football games and Graduation [Weekend], and be able to hear stories about The Virginian,” Kois said.

Businesses have said cited events in athletics and University life as vital to their success.

Chris Strong, owner of Littlejohn’s Deli, said menu items like “The Sampson” and “Chris Long” at Littlejohn’s Deli are named after their namesakes Ralph Sampson and Chris Long. “The Sampson” was named at the request of ESPN, which visits Littlejohn’s three times a year — and the “Chris Long” was named with input from Long himself.

Newer businesses also continue to thrive and attribute much of their success to their location on the Corner.

“Visibility is very important for a business, which is something that we can have on the corner,” Sara Yenke, of Revolutionary Soup, said at “Entrepreneurship of the Corner,” an event hosted by the Entrepreneurship Group at the University last Wednesday.

Running a successful business

Competitive rent prices, the day-to-day demands of serving a high volume of people and the challenge of finding the right product or service to stay afloat on the Corner is collectively a difficult task.

Toro’s Tacos & Tequila Bar was an unsuccessful attempt by Hadley to sample the market on the Corner. Due to the large share of income that is provided by students of the University, he said the pricing for businesses on the Corner needs to be competitive.

“We learned — the hard way — that no, [the customers] aren’t interested in fresh squeezed OJ, fresh squeezed grapefruit, or any of these high-end cocktails,” Hadley said. “It isn’t that [the clientele] didn’t like it, it’s just that they are on a budget.”

But Boylan Heights — also owned by Hadley — is quite successful.

“Business is as good as ever,” Hadley said. “We’re enjoying the effect of sports season, with basketball and baseball season going on.”

Strong said one of the keys to success was to be mindful of the trends, in regards to what people are eating and what they are looking for.

“[Customers are] looking for value in a meal,” he said.

The demands of the customers are constantly changing along with the student body at the University.

“With every entering ‘first-year’ class comes an influx of new prospective customers,” Kois said. “What’s considered ‘hip and new’ becomes ‘lame and old’ in a flash.”

Sometimes it may even require a change in ownership in order to notice the changing trends and demands.

“My dad told me that you are never going to sell a veg[etarian] sandwich,” Strong said. “It is a need since vegetarians don’t have many options.”

Business owners also point out that it is essential to maintain a healthy relationship with other businesses on the Corner.

“We have never spoken ill about other restaurants and we never will,” Hadley said. “Because it’s stupid. Why wouldn’t you want to attract more people to the Corner?”

Mike Alexander, owner of Crozet Pizza on Elliewood, agreed with this sentiment.

“We don’t feel like that we are competing that with any of the other businesses,” Alexander said.

Businesses on the Corner can also support other local businesses to their mutual benefit.

“You want to support the community that you are a part of and…keeping that money within Charlottesville is good for everybody,” Yenke said. “It is more expensive, but the product is better.”

Costs, clientele and community

Many Corner business owners said students did not actually make up a majority of their clientele.

“We’re fortunate enough to have the best of both worlds,” Kois said, in regard’s to The Virginian’s client base. “Our lunch crowd is mostly made up of Charlottesville residents that work near the Corner. However, the dinner crowd is usually taken over by hungry undergrads, and rowdy grad-schoolers looking to re-live their glory days.”

This is especially true at daytime. The contrast between business during the day and at night is seen to be stronger for bars such as Boylan Heights.

“We have 15 percent students, 80 to 85 percent local, faculty, hospital staff, etc., during lunch.,” Hadley said. “But we have 60 percent students [and] 40 percent others at night.”

Some businesses such as The White Spot and Littlejohn’s have a reputation as late-night food spots among students, despite conducting an equal or major share of their business during the day.

[Take It Away, Littlejohn’s] have great, fast, easy sandwiches [...] and Littlejohn’s is great late night food,” second-year College student Adam Ghazzawi said.

Due to the location, rent on the Corner is among the highest in Charlottesville.

“If you want to be on the Corner, you are going to have to pay the premium,” Hadley said. “Rent on the corner is high. But I do think that it is fair.”

Hadley also said that this may be the reason why the store-front of the bookstore is still vacant. The owner and landlord of the bookstore space could not be reached for comment.

With such proximity to the University, business on the Corner often strive to be a part of the University community and experience the benefits of being aware and involved in that community.

“With the initiatives like the ‘Hoos Got Your Back’ campaign, we feel like we are responsible for protecting students as well,” Strong said. “We are one family. The students change every four years, but the admins don’t change, the faculty doesn’t change.”

Many students who are staff in businesses on the Corner also contribute to their progress in turn, sometimes in unique ways. “The Ranch Hand” on Littlejohn’s menu, for example, was invented by roommates who worked there together, and lived in a house called “The Ranch” on 14th Street.

“The more people who come to the Corner and enjoy it — they will realize how special it is and how historic it is,” Hadley said. “We are proud of being a part of that.”

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