Old Takoma Park continues to build on community spirit with new businesses

February 29, 2012

Landlord John Urciolo, who owns 14 properties in Takoma Park, sees a change in the stores along the Laurel Street and Carroll Avenue shopping district.

When he bought the Takoma Metro Shopping Center 30 years ago, the city was known for its loyalty to independent businesses — a TV repair shop, a carpet boutique and others. In the last six months, he’s received a constant stream of calls from what he describes as chic, well-known local restaurants that see Takoma Park’s wealth of quirky, independent stores as an attraction.

“Takoma has a community. It’s got this feeling,” Urciolo said. “I ask these businesses why they want to move here and why they don’t want to move into Silver Spring or Bethesda. They come back and say it has no ambiance. It has no character.”

The desire of regional, rather than national, chains to come to Takoma Park reinforces the small-town, Main Street feel residents hold dear. Major development during the past decade in nearby Silver Spring, where national retail chains and franchises rule, have fueled Takoma Park’s famous independent streak.

Recently, the city’s reputation as fiercely loyal to its small businesses has attracted another type of opportunity — the upscale, urban and trendy.

This spring, Bread & Chocolate, the Alexandria-based European-style bakery and cafe with locations in Old Town Alexandria, Chevy Chase and near the George Washington University campus, will move into Urciolo’s vacant storefront on Laurel Avenue. It’s part of a transformation Urciolo and others hope brings new life and new customers to Takoma Park’s Old Takoma business district, where 12 new businesses have opened in the past two years, said Roz Grigsby, executive director of the Old Takoma Business Association.

Last April, Trohv, a Baltimore-based home goods and gifts store, opened on Carroll Street, just across the District boundary line from Takoma Park. Soupergirl, a soup-making company that gained an areawide following for its delivery service, moved into a storefront in Takoma last fall.

“I looked at places in Silver Spring. I felt like I would just be another sort of anonymous shop owner,” Trohv co-owner Ben Homola said. “I feel like we have been accepted here.”

Grigsby said recent surveys and market analysis showed residents wanted more brand-name businesses with a built-in regional following, even if the businesses started elsewhere.

“Though they have locations in other places, they are still very much part of this community,” Grigsby said. “These are still the only businesses these people own. The owners are in the stores almost all of the time. It doesn’t feel like some faceless corporate headquarters 1,000 miles away.”

That’s important in Takoma Park, where in 1998 the city famously tried to block the construction of a CVS on Carroll Street to protect a family-run pharmacy. In 2004, vandals broke windows of the Subway sandwich franchise on Carroll Avenue and spray-painted “Shop Local.”

Subway, CVS and Ace Hardware are the only national chain stores in that area of the city.

“In the places we’ve been, we’ve become a part of those communities’ fabrics,” said Andy Cook, Bread & Chocolate chief operating officer. “A lot of people who live in Takoma Park want to eat in Takoma Park, and we think we have something to offer in that spot.”

Owner Ted Manousakis has reached out to nearby business owners. Cook said the restaurant has received a positive response from Takoma Park residents and is shooting for an opening this month.

“I really think it will fit in very nicely,” said Deniz Kanter, who owns the Magic Carpet gift and jewelry shop next door. “I like the openness they’ve shown. They seem like they have that Takoma Park ideology, where it’s not just about business and making money.”

Meaghan Murphy, who owns Capital City Cheesecake with her sister, will compete directly with Bread & Chocolate for customers seeking sweets in Takoma Park. Capital City Cheesecake also specializes in baked goods, although Murphy said it’s found its niche in Takoma Park as a casual coffee hangout spot.

Even Murphy sees value in the addition.

“We all — all the restaurants here — have a different feel to us. This will offer more options,” Murphy said. “It drives more traffic to Takoma Park. And the more people that come to Takoma Park, the better.”

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