Downtown Visalia has managed to fill vacant storefronts during the pandemic as local businesses relocate to downtown and others outside the community are opening new locations
VISALIA – There are no guarantees in business, especially for owner operators who dare to take the financial leap from household to storefront. For Alana Pearson, that time was in the middle of a pandemic.
Pearson, along with her husband Robert and parents Pam and Alan Steele, opened Bee Hive Bake Shop at 110 W. Main St. on Nov. 7, 2020. Between a summer surge and heavy toll of the holiday season, Pearson’s candy-inspired cupcakes represented a sweet spot in an otherwise dreary fall as retailers, restaurants, fitness centers and personal care studios were unsure what the rules were from week to week and who would be following them while movie theaters and event venues remained closed altogether. Despite the uncertainty, people seemed ready to get out and try her cupcakes which include a Nutter Butter cookie, Animal Cracker, Reese’s Peanut Butter cupcake, and Oreo cookies and cream.
“We seemed to get busier each day and more and more people were finding us,” Alana said.
Alana had been baking cupcakes most of her life. And while her profession is nursing, baking remained a passion she has always pursued. It started as a home business but soon the orders were too great for a residential kitchen. When she heard the spot at 110 W. Main was available, Alana said she knew it was the right place, even if it may not have been the right time.
“It was a now-or-never feeling I had,” Alana said. “I didn’t want to look back in five years and say I wish I would have done that.”
The bakery closed just before Christmas and reopened on Jan. 12. Since then the Pearsons hired their first three employees, all of whom started working last week.
“We appreciate everyone who walks through the door and are grateful for the support of the other businesses in downtown,” Alana said.
Bee Hive opening in the former Candy Cottage location is part of a greater trend in downtown. The commercial district has been buzzing with activity where storefronts haven’t remained vacant very long with businesses relocating from within and outside the city, most of them trying to get onto Main Street or find a new space in redeveloped areas of downtown.
Steve Nelsen, executive director of Downtown Visalians and Visalia’s mayor, said there is always a lot of activity in the downtown area which has remained vibrant despite the Governor shutting down sectors of the economy and people fearing public spaces during the pandemic.
“There is a vibrancy, an atmosphere and economic activity in downtown and people want to be here to be a part of it,” Nelsen said. “I can only think of about five spaces in downtown that are available. The rest are full or getting ready for businesses to open.”
When Max’s Cookies elected to relocate to 5127 W. Goshen Ave. last year, local sandwich shop Corby’s Rock and Roll Heroes took center stage at 221 E. Main St., Suite B. The ’80s rock-themed bar and grill offers cold sandwiches named after memorable ballads including Kickstart My Heart, Round and Round and Livin On A Prayer and hot sandwiches named after songs with hot licks including Here I Go Again, Who Made Who and Holy Diver.
Maximo’s Taqueria opened in the old Baskin Robbins space at 423 W. Main St. The fast, fresh Mexican food eatery originally opened as a small grocery market in Porterville in 1984. Most of the menu is under $10 and offers mouth watering burritos, tacos, tortas and nachos.
Poké House opened in November 2018 at 125 E. Main St. as part of the poké bowl craze that included other local restaurants like Lemon Shark and Pokerito. But many poke places, including Poke House were forced to close during the pandemic. Shortly after, TPK’s Tacos filled the downtown location just as restaurants were beginning outdoor dining.
“We have a vibrant downtown and were one of the first places to embrace outdoor dining in a downtown,” Nelsen said. “Despite the cold weather, there has still been a ton of activity.”
A Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab may soon be going into the former Tachibana space at 120 W. Main St next to Sequoia Brewing Co. Doc Burnstein’s Ice Cream Lab is described on its web site as “an old-fashioned ice cream parlor concept committed to serving premium quality products while having memorable experiences in a comfortable and nostalgic atmosphere.” The California-based company started in the Central Coast with locations in Arroyo Grande in 2003, then San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria before expanding to Sacramento and now Visalia. It’s named after a combination of Chuck Burn, the original owner of the Arroyo Grande ice cream shop, and Greg Steinberger, who was mentored by Burn to take over the company and carry on his recipes, thus Burn-Stein’s. The company is unique because it is structured as a benefit corporation, meaning it is owned by its shareholders in each community. In true downtown fashion, Doc Burnstein’s donates a percentage of its proceeds during fundraisers for local groups and donates its products and time to community events, such as blood drives, raffles and auctions.
“That one has kind of been quiet,” Nelsen said. “There was some news and then not much else has happened.”
Corcoran based Lake Bottom Brewery and Distillery is going to be located at 105 E. Main St. and will be accessible from both Main and Court, wrapping around the existing Pacific Western Bank location on the corner. The brewery has been preparing to open for several months and was partly delayed by its permit to operate as a craft distillery as well as craft brewery. On Dec. 14, the Visalia Planning Commission approved their request to add a 60 gallon still to the location.
Brothers Fred, Jr. and Jacob Figueroa hope to replicate the success they found in Corcoran when they opened the brewery and distillery in 2019. The place offers their own beers including IPAs, pale ales wheat and lagers as well as a line of home-made distilled spirits from moonshine to bourbon. All will be available at the Visalia location including 25 draft beer selections. Visalia entrepreneur JR Shannon says the 3,700-square foot restaurant and lounge will feature Main Street’s largest open-air patio for outdoor dining.
“I think they will be opening within a month,” Nelsen said.
After 46 years in business, Brides and Maiden closed down its location at 205 W. Main St. on July 1. The pandemic pushed 85-year-old owner Alvin Saude reluctantly into retirement. The bridal store was stalwart storefront in downtown and will be missed but the location won’t become a vacancy. CleVR Escape, a Virtual Reality arcade and escape room concept, will be opening at the site sometime this year. Tulare natives David and Katie McAllister received permits for their virtual and real games in November.
“Anytime you have a business that will bring foot traffic into downtown is a good thing for the entire area,” Nelsen said.
The space at 220 N. Locust St. has been vacant for several years following the closure of Turning Point Youth Services but in the middle of longest lockdown of restaurants and retail in American history, Hanford-based Tiger Tea House sees opportunity. The tea room opened in downtown Hanford in March 2019 and has created quite a following with seasonal-inspired tea concoctions like green apple with green tea for summer sipping, pumpkin pie for fall and red dragonfruit with hibiscus for Christmas.
“There are many other spaces currently vacant along Main but more projects are coming down the pipeline in the year to come,” Jones said in his January economic update.
Sierra Bicycle Werks has left its iconic almost mock address of 123 E. Main St. for the new energy of the microbrewery district east of Santa Fe at 603 E. Main St. The bike shop is located next to BarrelHouse and Stacked and around the corner of Long Shot Brewery, which could open as early as this month at 706 E. Acequia. Long Shot had delayed its opening as its plans for an outdoor beer garden worked their way through the permitting process. The space was formerly housed by People’s Appliance, which relocated to Houston Avenue. In addition to their own beers, Long Shot will carry on the Rocky Hill Brewing brand and recipes. The two breweries came to an agreement in December after Rocky Hill announced it would permanently close its doors in Exeter and Fresno in October.
Also in that block is Sushi Kuu, which relocated last year to 509 E Main, formerly a Chad Clark Hair Studio. Brothers Albert and Andre Utomo opened the original location at 3109 W. Noble Ave. across the parking lot from the old Kmart in February 2015. They describe their sushi as traditional with a twist and they pride themselves are presenting creative dishes that balance fresh fish with complimentary sauces.
Several other businesses are in the process of relocating in downtown. A mixed-use creative space is being proposed at 400 N. Johnson St. While no name was given, Jones said the space plans to include a design studio/shop, documentary film production studio, a commercial kitchen, an open creative space, a ‘farm stand’ retail space, additional office space and restaurant. The proposal includes space for existing businesses but also focuses on providing incubator space for startups.
Nelsen said construction crews are also working “feverishly” to renovate the old Midtown Sports building at 117 E. Main St. The building has been vacant since 2018 when the independent sports equipment and apparel shop relocated down the street to 917 E. Main. The sports shop announced its closure in August 2020. The owners had originally proposed a mixed-use residential project consisting of a new restaurant space on the ground floor and two apartments on the second floor in 2018. The project showed apartment units at around 1,535 square feet each, with the remaining 5,000 square feet for the restaurant.
“Now that there is a vaccine, the general feeling is that 2021 will be better,” Nelsen said.