New businesses flock to Lee Road, creating a maker scene in Cleveland Heights

In the past year, new businesses have opened their doors along Lee Road in Cleveland Heights’ Cedar Lee District—filling vacant storefronts (some empty for years) and creating a community for foodies, partiers, and connoisseurs of all types. And the new businesses keep coming.

“It’s been busy,” says Brian Anderson, Cleveland Heights business development manager. “It’s certainly been positive, especially on Lee Road.”

The additions include Blank Canvas CLE, 2174 Lee Road, in November 2018; the much-anticipated Kensington Pub, 2260 Lee Road, in January; Rising Star Coffee, opened last week in the old Katz Club diner car, 1975 Lee Road; Voodoo Brewery, 2279 Lee Road on Nov. 2; and The Boujie Bakery, 1774 Lee Road, on Sept. 28.

Lee Road is becoming a craft food and beverage makers market, of sorts, Anderson says, with niche businesses sprinkled in.

The Kensington PubBusiness on Lee is on an upswing, with only about 6% vacancy, he says. The norm is 5% to 10% for business districts, he says. Cleveland Heights overall has a 13% vacancy rate—8% if you take the struggling Severance Town Center out of the mix (Cleveland Heights issued an RFP this summer for redevelopment of the 57-acre site).

“A variety of things have [prompted the growth],” Anderson says. “Some of it has happened organically over the past four to five years. It’s where that specific market has gone, with the Cedar-Lee Theatre being an anchor.”

Lee Road was in flux about five years ago, he says, until places like CLE Urban Winery, the region’s first urban winery to respond to the craft beer scene, opened in 2016, followed by Boss Dog Brewing Company in 2017 (the brewery celebrated its two-year anniversary this month).

Pair CLE Urban Winery and Boss Dog with seven-year Lee Road residents BottleHouse Brewing Company and the Wine Spot (in the former Seitz-Agin Hardware Store), then factor in the many more traditional bars lining the street, and you have the makings of a craft brewing scene, Anderson says. It's only bolstered by the opening of Voodoo Brewery this month (in the space formerly occupied by Bill’s Dry Cleaning and a shoe repair shop).

Anderson cites established restaurants like Lopez, Anatolia Cafe, and Zoma (which opened in 2016), adding an ethnic flair to the food options on Lee, while Stone Oven Bakery and Mitchell’s Fine Chocolates contribute a maker flair.

“It’s not necessarily competition, but they more complement each other,” Anderson says of all the food and drink options. “Lee Road has a phenomenally good collection of businesses. Not only do they complement each other, they have an interest in being active in the community.”

Autumn Oliver, owner of The Boujie Bakery, grew up in her mother’s Baby Cakes bakeries in Cleveland Heights and South Euclid. She went to college to study business administration before returning to Cleveland Heights to find herself fulfilling orders for the now-closed Baby Cakes.

So Oliver took her savings and opened Boujie, selling everything from individual cupcakes and whole cakes to cheesecake bites, cookies, macrons, and funnel cakes. “And I just got an ice cream machine,” she says.

Boujie is its own freestanding building with its own free parking lot, which Oliver says helps the foot traffic even though she’s a bit off the main drag, near Euclid Heights Boulevard by Boulevard School. “Business has been really good,” she says. “Lee Road is a very busy road, especially for businesses. At this end of the street, I really stand out.”

Blank Canvas CLE owner Michael Newman calls his gallery the “anti-gallery” because he doesn’t want people to be intimidated. “You think you can’t afford anything [in a gallery], but we keep prices affordable,” he says. Newman’s work is sold at Blank Canvas, along with that of other artists, but reproduced in print form to keep prices down.

The shop also hosts events such as book clubs, kids activities, and sip and paint evenings. Newman, who lives in University Heights, knew he wanted to open Blank Canvas on Lee Road. “Man, this place is jumping,” he says. “Lee Road is booming, Lee Road is really going to get there, and I’m going to get in there.”

Blessed are the cheese makers

Newman is correct—the new businesses keep on coming. Although her artisan products like triple cream cow’s milk cheese are available at places like Ohio City Provisions, Old Brooklyn Cheese Company, CLE Urban Winery, the Wine Spot, Fire Food & Drink, and the Flying Fig, Kandice Marchant will open Marchant Manor Cheese early next year in the old U.S. Bank building, 2211 Lee Road.

Marchant, who used to be director of pathologies for the Cleveland Clinic and is still working part time in the clinical hematology lab, says she started “dabbling with cheese at home six or seven years ago.” Her doctorate in polymer chemistry from Case Western Reserve University also proved useful. “Cheese making is such a blend of science and chemistry,” she says. “I kind of got hooked sideways into making cheese.”

Marchant is turning the 3,300-square-foot building with five vaults and a night depository into a cheese production facility and retail shop with the help of Peninsula-based LB Architects.

Marchant Manor CheeseMarchant will have what she calls an urban interactive cheese-making and retail shop. Customers can sit at a counter and watch the cheese being made, or browse a selection of cheeses, charcuterie, breads, jams, and other products. She also hopes to offer cheese-making classes.

Culinary Occasions, a 1,300-square-foot full-service caterer and pastry shop in South Euclid, plans to move into the 5,000-square-foot space vacated by Verne & Ellsworth Hann when the company moved further down Lee Road.

Owner Bob Sferra says the larger space will not only allow him to sell his pastries and prepare food for catering, he will also serve breakfast and lunch in the café portion of the store and hold special events and culinary classes.

The increased foot traffic he will see on Lee Road is another motivator, Sferra says. “For years, we were just putting out a nice product, not trying terribly hard,” he says. In recent years, he’s been scaling up his marketing and social media presence. “But we’re not on the trail, so people weren’t seeing us physically.”

Sferra bought the 1930s building and is working with architect Steve Kordalski on the renovations, which he hopes will be completed this spring. He wants to preserve the building’s character, just as many of the other businesses along Lee have done, he says.

Voodoo Brewery

“We’re doing our best to barely touch what’s there,” he says. “It’s kind of cool to see the repurposing of these old businesses.”

Cleveland Heights’ Anderson says Cleveland Tea Revival plans to open in the 1931 Silsby Firehouse (most recently occupied by Lee-Silsby Compounding pharmacy before it moved to Beachwood last year).

While Anderson says the recent business growth on Lee Road has come organically, the city’s economic development office does try to assist small-business owners looking to open stores in all of Cleveland Heights’ business districts with various incentives under the city's new Grow Program.

For instance, the city was able to support Blank Canvas CLE and Cleveland Tea Revival with SBA Performance Grants—which, in conjunction with Cuyahoga County, provide a 15% forgivable loan, up to $50,000. Business owners work with the Heights Libraries SBA Small Business Development Center on these grant programs.

“With us helping them with the 15% portion, it helps [the businesses] qualify for SBA loans,” Anderson says.

The city's Storefront Renovation Program was instrumental in the facade improvements for Kensington Pub.

Other small businesses take advantage of the Microloan Program, where they can get up to $10,000 to start their businesses. “It’s definitely targeted to very small businesses and startups,” Anderson says. “More than likely, they don’t have the big numbers yet in revenue for financing. This covers startup costs and initial improvements, so in two to three years, they can go to a bank and get a loan.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.