Businesses compete in a crowded Old Town

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By James Cullum (Photo/James Cullum)

Adriana Penachio-Sifakis never thought running a small cafe would cost so much time and money. Her shop, The Italian Place at 621 Wythe St., opened six months ago, and not even the dulcet tone of Frank Sinatra’s voice makes this lady feel lucky.

She attributes her success so far to loyal customers, hard work and good weather.

“It’s way more work than I ever anticipated,” Penachio-Sifakis said. “The cost of everything is so expensive and it’s really hard to turn a profit. You have to be patient.”

At 700 square feet, The Italian Place is cozily packed full of gourmet Italian products, including subs, non-alcoholic drinks, pastas, sauces, cheeses and wine from every region of the old country.

Penachio-Sifakis and her husband, George, owned the building at 621 Wythe St. for two years before coming to an ultimatum — sell it or turn it into a business. The latter was enticing, but complicated by the couple’s three children.

“I’m just trying to make it like everyone else in this town,” Penachio-Sifakis said. “We’ve been saved by such a warm winter. Not every day is perfect, but a majority of our clientele are repeat customers, and I have a great feeling of accomplishment.”

Finding your niche

Ask a dozen successful Alexandria entrepreneurs what it takes to make it and they’ll likely give you a dozen different answers, but there seems to be one constant: fill a niche. There might be plenty of grocery or big box retailers in the area, but there are few competitors to shops like The Italian Place or The Book Bank at 1015 King St.

“We are it for used book stores in Alexandria,” said Book Bank owner Rachel Baker. “We offer a unique experience of well-organized and interesting books. Selling books is a passion, but our rent is low for Old Town and we still pay over $4,000 a month. Nerves of steel won’t save you if you don’t put in the money or the time.”

Baker, who bought the bookstore from its original owner in 2011, has never sought outside help running her business. But like many owners, she competes with Amazon, as shoppers can find books on the Internet that are selling for cents on the dollar.

Scott Shaw, a co-founder of Alexandria Restaurant Parnters, has a different take on the best product to offer Old Town visitors.

“Men’s clothing,” said Shaw, whose company has opened or taken over six area restaurants in the last year alone.

Last fall, Shaw attended a meeting with the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership when someone raised the idea of operating a pop-up shop in Old Town. Pop-ups are a growing trend where a retail space hosts businesses on a seasonal basis.

A property was chosen, a lease was negotiated and expectations were exceeded. The 116 King St. Holiday Pop-up, which featured a collection of apparel from small New England fashion designers, was deemed a success, and the popup will reopen on March 15. This time Shaw will stake his own funds instead of AEDP.

“You have to offer something unique and experiential, and it needs to fill a niche in the community,” he said. “We have 30 different small brands and we resupply weekly, and we learned that there’s a healthy demand for new and different retailers in Old Town. The one thing you have to watch out for is the ‘Amazonification’ of retail.”

Employing expert knowledge

Bill Reagan, executive director of the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, offers free advice, planning and expertise on starting and growing a small business. He highlighted Danielle Romanetti’s knitting shop, fibre space, at 1219 King St. as a shining example of using free community resources to be successful.

“Danielle is amazing. She is so smart and really used us to her full benefit,” he said. “Our services are free, and we find that the businesses that work through us are stronger, their concepts are more viable. You have to understand the market, changing demographics and buying patterns. The world of commerce has changed so drastically over the years.”

Romanetti opened fibre space in 2009, quickly became profitable and now offers a unique view of how to succeed in Old Town.

“I filled a niche and I knew more about this industry than any other retail industry,” she said. “Location is key, particularly access to parking. Changes to parking meter rates and hours have negatively impacted the Old Town business community in the last decade, as the perception of parking availability to the public is rather negative. Having a location where a city lot or garage is nearby will be crucial in the coming years for a successful business.”

The SBDC developed a checklist for starting a new business in 2014. The list covers everything from deciding on a business structure and plan to getting a business license and finding the right location.

“We’ve helped over 3,000 businesses,” Reagan said. “Part of our evaluation is helping businesses think through their products, their market and whether they can withstand higher volume lease rates on King Street in Old Town. The point is that you don’t have to figure it all out by yourself. We will help you.”

Penachio-Sifakis said the services of the small business development center gave her confidence.

“There’s a lot of fear when you start a new business,” she said. “And now my place is professional, desirable, fresh, clean and satisfying.”

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