The future (of Van Aken District) is female with 15+ women-owned businesses on board

As retailers start opening their doors in Shaker Heights’ new Van Aken District, the emphasis is on local and regional makers. But there is also a strong female influence at the District, with more than 15 women-owned small businesses anchoring the 80,000 square feet of retail in the first phase of the $97 million mixed-use development project.

Van Aken District
20065 Chagrin Blvd.
Shaker Heights, OH 44122

The businesses range from a shop with locally-made artisanal gifts, to a social enterprise selling quality spices, to a salon that serves cocktails to customers getting their nails done.

“Our vision of supporting originals—those launching or expanding retail, food, and beverage concepts—really spoke to women in our community,” said Jon Ratner, principal with RMS Development, in a statement. “We remain so inspired by these female entrepreneurs who have clearly done their research on what the market was missing and planned—then brought to life—the type of downtown they wanted for themselves and our community.”

FreshWater talked to some of the women who are hanging their shingles at Van Aken District.


Robin McCann grew up in Beachwood, within walking distance of what was once Van Aken Shopping Center. When she and her business partner, Tamar Brecher, heard about the plans for the Van Aken District, they knew that was the place to locate their gift boutique, Luster.

Luster officially opened at 3441 Tuttle Road on Saturday, December 1, during the Van Aken District’s holiday kickoff, Chill and Toast.

Robin McCann and Tamar BrecherThe pair spent the past two years planning and creating the gift shop, designed to be one-stop gift shopping for working women and mothers. “We do our homework—we’re told we’re overthinkers, and we love it,” says Brecher. “We started with Bad Girl Ventures (now Aviatra Accelerators), went on to the [ECDI’s] Women’s Business Center, and talked to anyone and everyone who we thought would be helpful to us or serve as a mentor.”

The shop carries everything from handbags to quirky gifts, along with being the only store in Cleveland to sell Jonathan Adler products—like throw pillows bearing phrases such as “Honest Lawyer,” “Corporate Hippie,” or “Boss Lady.” Brecher and McCann also carry a stainless steel wine travel cup that looks like a toddler’s sippy cup, and bar glassware labeled with different types of liquor.

“We really try to hit fun gift categories,” says McCann. “But we did want to try to bring in unique handbags—things you can’t find at Nordstrom.”

Now established in their new home, McCann and Brecher say they now know that Shaker’s new downtown is the perfect location for Luster. “I think the Van Aken District appealed to us particularly because of what they are trying to build here,” says Brecher. “There are locally-owned stores instead of big-box chains, and the vision of building a new downtown Shaker Heights seemed like something we wanted to be a part of.

Luster is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m.

Spice For Life

An attorney, a college professor, and an entrepreneur walk into a storefront in the Van Aken District, and what do you get? Spice For Life, a spice shop and social enterprise that not only sells quality spices and teaches healthy eating habits, but also provide opportunities to women touched by human trafficking.

Owners Penny Harris (retired chair of John Carroll University’s sociology department), GiGi Benjamin (partner at the law firm Calfee, Halter, and Griswold), and Debbie Fitzgerald (entrepreneur and businessperson) are the friends and foodies behind the idea. They dedicate all profits to nonprofit organizations that support human trafficking victims. Throughout 2019, Spice For Life proceeds will go to the Renee Jones Empowerment Center.

“We want to give women who have not had the opportunities we have had the chance for more life opportunities," explains Harris. “We are particularly concerned about women who have been victims of human trafficking.”

Spice For Life gets its selection of spices from Pennsylvania-based Spices Inc., also a socially-minded business. The store sells a variety of spices and housemade blends, as well as exotic salts, peppercorns, and chili peppers that run the heat scale gamut—from sweet and smoky guajillo to super-hot habanero. Spice for Life also sells high-end chocolate bars that are handcrafted, bean-to-bar, and fair trade.

According to Benjamin, their mission has gotten a lot of support from the community, including SBA loans and loans from both the City of Shaker Heights and Cuyahoga County.

Spice For Life opened Sunday, December 9, and Harris believes it will fit right in with the other businesses at Van Aken District. “We’re looking forward to meeting everyone,” adds Harris. “It looks like a really community-minded group of people here."

Spice For Life is in the Market Hall and is open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, 12 to 4 p.m.

Two years ago, Jamie Spaid and Nicole Joeright launched a new concept in beauty services when they opened Manifest inside the Residences at 668 (668 Prospect Ave, Cleveland). The combination beauty salon and cocktail lounge offers hair cutting and styling, facials, manicures and pedicures, and other services to both men and women—while also serving up craft cocktails.

Spaid says she and Joeright came up with the idea after visiting New York salons. While Spaid often was offered a glass of wine during her treatments, Spaid is not a wine drinker. Eventually the pair came up with the concept of having a full bar, a clean shop, and professional staff.

“Women spend so long in salons [that] we really wanted to make it an experience,” she says. “About a year into our business, we had so many people saying, 'This is so awesome, it’s so unique,’ and we knew we wanted to open multiple locations.”

So when the opportunity arose to open a Manifest at the Van Aken District, Spaid and Joeright took it. Their second location will open in early spring of 2019—or, as Spaid says, “right in time for pedicure season." The Van Aken District will have the signature bar and offer all the services they offer downtown (except for hair). 

When customers walk into Manifest, they will take a seat at the bar, order a drink, and answer a series of questions about what type of services they want—things like the type of sugar scrub they want, or whether they want a “silent pedicure” where they don’t have to make small talk while getting their nails done.

Specialty cocktails will include the "668" (Hendrick’s gin, fresh lemon juice, and St. Germain, topped with champagne), and the "Van Aken Van Gogh" martini (Van Gogh double espresso vodka, Tito’s vodka, espresso, and organic cinnamon garnished with a Luxardo cherry in a chocolate-rimmed glass).

“We couldn’t think of a better place to go because of the community aspect,” says Spaid. “At the end of the day, we’re all about bringing people together. Shaker is an awesome community, and they’re so hungry for this concept to open.”

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.