By Kassidy McDonald │[email protected]
In every city, there are certain businesses that are able to withstand the test of time. The secret? These establishments rely on generations of loyal customers as well as tourism during peak times throughout the year to keep their doors open. Alexandria is no different; from Old Town to Del Ray, the city includes many businesses that have achieved the coveted milestone of being open for more than 25 years.
According to a study conducted by JPMorgan Chase & Co., 51% of small businesses nationwide are 10 years old or less, and 32% of small businesses are five years old or less. The study also found that roughly one third of new businesses shut down within their first two years, and half exit within their first five years, making it extremely difficult for small business owners to surpass the statistic of being open for more than 25 years. Not only is it hard to keep a small business open for that long, but every business in the country had to adjust their business models to try and stay afloat during the global COVID-19 pandemic. Clothing, jewelry and gift stores shut their doors and relied heavily on pickups, deliveries and online business, while restaurants relied on takeout or socially distanced outdoor dining during the height of COVID-19.
Joe Haggerty, CEO of the Chamber ALX, Alexandria’s Chamber of Commerce, said the organization performed significant outreach during COVID-19 to keep businesses from shutting down. It acted as a “centralized information source” that would pump out advice to Chamber members daily, with helpful tips such as how to get Paycheck Protection Program money and how to fill out necessary paperwork.
Haggerty called Alexandria businesses “flexible and resilient,” and said that much of their success during the pandemic can be attributed to the way residents shop and eat locally.
Though no easy feat, with a little luck and a lot of community support, it’s possible for businesses to weather pandemics, technology advancements and cultural shifts in order to become household names. Here are three Alexandria establishments whose doors have been open for 25 years or more.
King’s Jewelry is located in the heart of Old Town on King Street. It is owned by Norman “Brad” Bradford, who joined the business in 1962 and then bought the business in 1978– after it had been originally opened by Moritz Bier in 1955. Bradford’s wife Cathy, daughter Tari and sons Andrew and Greg all work at King’s Jewelry, making it a true family affair.
Andrew has lived in Alexandria since he was a child and has watched his father successfully run King’s Jewelry his entire life. The business has changed a lot, Andrew said, as it has been important to keep up with styles of jewelry and watches that become trendy at any given period in time.
King’s Jewelry sells necklaces, rings, bracelets and watches, and is also home to a full gold shop. In the back of the store, there are three goldsmiths who perform custom work and repairs. For Andrew, the most important part of the store’s business is the generations of customers that keep coming in.
“Their moms bought their engagement rings here and now they’re here, and even sometimes the third generation comes in,” Andrew said about the store’s customers. “So just that repeat business or referral is the biggest thing for us – and the best advertising we can get.”
That doesn’t mean that in the 67 years King’s Jewelry has been open, it hasn’t experienced hardships. It has been a constant cycle of staying current, Andrew said. When the shop first opened, much of the inventory was giftware; it has now changed to be mostly jewelry. The store usually acquires inventory from attending jewelry shows, where items are hand picked to sell in the store. King’s Jewelry focuses on quality rather than just carrying the typical major designer lines you can likely find in any jewelry store.
Andrew also said that about 10 years ago, the entire inside of the store was remodeled. While it was closed for two weeks, they gutted the interior and rebuilt all of the jewelry cases to be more modern.
COVID-19 also proved to be a challenge to King’s Jewelry; shopping for jewelry is usually a tactile experience where people want to touch the items they’re buying. The store closed for a two-month period at the peak of the pandemic and had to focus on another way to keep the business afloat.
“We were still doing stuff from home or delivering if someone needed something, [like if] we had their engagement ring and it was here before we closed – because it was kind of a quick shutdown. Once we reopened – because our business is a face-to-face thing – we had people come back right away and it was really good to see,” Andrew said.
According to Andrew, his father Brad semi-retired during the pandemic, so he doesn’t come into the store as much anymore, but will do a lot of the store’s work from his home. Brad often says “I’ve been walking through that door for 57 years!” Besides the immediate family, Andrew said the store has about 10 staff members who have been working for the business for a number of years and have become family.
Andrew attributes King’s Jewelry’s 67 years of longevity to the trust that they have built over the years in the community.
“Because we have been here so long, a lot of people have had friends or family that have shopped here, so it is a place they know they can trust,” Andrew said. “There’s a lot of people that have grown up here … and you get new people that come and go. You ask a neighbor, ‘Oh I just moved here,’ and they tell you this is the place to go.”
The Alexandria Pastry Shop & Catering Company
For restaurants, business life expectancies are even lower than businesses in general. An Ohio State University study found that 60% of restaurants don’t make it past their first year and 80% close within five years of their grand opening.
One place that defies this statistic is the Alexandria Pastry Shop & Catering Company. It’s located in the Bradlee Shopping Center and has been open for the past 34 years. Tom Lally opened the bakery and cafe in July 1988 after living in Alexandria for almost 46 years.
Lally’s business, like the Bradfords’, has found success in Alexandria because of the steady growth and customer loyalty that spreads by word of mouth.
For Lally, some of the most successful moments in his pastry shop’s lifespan involve the young workers that he has been able to influence along the way. Over the past 34 years, he has been employing college and high school students in Alexandria part time to work in the shop. They answer the phone, take orders and interact with customers – which are lifelong skills that he said have helped them in their future careers.
From lawyers to doctors to one of his workers moving on to work on Air Force Two, Lally said teaching these kids over the years has served as his biggest sense of pride.
“[One of them] called me up [one] time and said, ‘Tom, everything I know about working I owe to you.’ And that is very rewarding,” Lally said. “When you leave here you know how to treat people who work at a restaurant because you know how you’ve been treated.”
During the pandemic, which was a hard hit for the Alexandria Pastry Shop & Catering Company, Lally said he “applied for everything he could get” from the government so he could keep his business alive. Without the government, he said he could not have gotten through the worst parts of the pandemic.
Another change for 25- plus-year-old establishments is that social media is now a huge part of business success.
For Lally, social media “wasn’t relevant at all” when he first started his business. Now, the pastry shop has an Instagram page, a Facebook profile and also responds to online reviews as often as possible.
Although business isn’t quite back to where it was before the pandemic, Lally said he’s hopeful for the future. The establishment is making more wedding cakes because more weddings are happening post-pandemic. Yet corporate catering, which used to be a big part of business, is not as frequent because of the amount of people working from home. Constant adjustments are to be expected of a long-tenured business, but Lally attributes his success to many of the things he has kept the same.
“We’ve kept the same quality; we use fresh eggs, imported cream and chocolates and real vanilla – everything is the best we can get and we have continued to have the best we can get. I also emphasize service. Treat people like you want to be treated. People respond to that and come back,” Lally said.
Some of Lally’s customers who have moved out of the area still come back to visit him for a pastry or cake. He said that word of mouth is one of the most important strategies for businesses planning to stay around for a long time.
“A happy person will tell two to three people,” Lally said about his customers.
Chadwicks, a restaurant serving casual American cuisine, has operated at 203 Strand St. since January 1979, and was bought by Trae Lamond and his wife in July 2015.
Chadwicks Georgetown opened in 1967 and was already an institution by the time the Old Town location opened, meaning the Chadwicks name has been around for the past 55 years in the Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia regions. Lamond, a lifelong resident of Alexandria, bought the restaurant on July 1, 2015, in what he says was the happiest day of his professional life.
The pandemic hit Chadwicks hard too, as the decree from then Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to shut down restaurants due to COVID-19 came down on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, which is usually one of the busiest days of the year.
“We had to run with a skeleton crew up front, so that meant a lot of hours for the staff that stuck it out through the delivery/curbside days. Our back-of-house staff stayed on all the way through. Keeping our long-tenured back-of-house staff through COVID helped us remain consistent once we were allowed to re-open,” Lamond said. “I am very proud of how they all toughed it out and I honestly think we are in a better position now than ever before.”
One particular challenge for the restaurant industry is the constant competition with other dining options, which makes it difficult for any restaurant to survive for many years. Like King’s Jewelry and Alexandria Pastry, a loyal customer base is the key to surviving periodic economic downturns, Lamond said.
“One of our biggest challenges has been trying to stay relevant in an industry where there’s always something new and exciting opening just around the corner. We have done a lot to try to stay relevant in the past several years. We try to stay on trend with new menu items, cocktails, craft beers and such,” Lamond said. “ We’ve also recently renovated the restaurant from top to bottom, including adding a new outdoor balcony and dining space. Hopefully this will help us compete with some of the newer restaurants.”
For Chadwicks, consistency and the well-known name is integral to their long-lasting success. Customers grow with the businesses that stick around long enough – and even establish special relationships with the staff.
“You know you can always come see [chef] Ogi for a delicious half-priced burger every Monday, or Karen for the best weekend brunch in Old Town,” Lamond said, crediting his success to the city residents, as they are “100% the reason for [Chadwicks’] long term success.”
Next up for Chadwicks is adding to their front-of-house staff, and continuing to make their loyal customers happy.
“Chadwicks will remain open until people stop eating burgers and drinking beer,” Lamond said. “As for passing the business down a generation, I will have to check with my second and fourth graders and get back to you.”