LACONIA — "We're not playing it safe," remarked Bree Henderson, 26, who owns and operates Polished & Proper, the barbershop and shave parlor on Main Street,. "We're taking risks."
She is one of a growing circle of young entrepreneurs who are enlivening commerce in downtown Laconia.
Thursday several of these business owners gathered around the fireplace at Wayfarers Coffee Roasters, which within two weeks of opening is already a popular meeting place, to share their experience and vision of downtown.
Reuben and Aaron Bassett, 29 and 35 respectively, grew up in Ohio but summered in New Hampshire, their original home, where they wanted to return. Reuben wanted to open a business and Aaron wanted "burritos and beer." With no experience in the restaurant trade they opened Burrito Me in the Railroad Station at Veterans Square in 2010 and two years later a second taqueria in Plymouth.
"When we opened in Laconia it was really exciting," said Aaron Bassett, "but in Plymouth it was like what are you going to do for me."
Aaron Bassett, who handled the food has since returned to information technology, but remains a partner in his cousin's ventures, of which Wayfarers Coffee Roasters is the latest. Reuben Bassett said his wife Karen always wanted to run a cafe. They partnered with Ben Bullerwell, the son of the owners of All My Life Jeweler, who roasts the coffee while Karen prepares Liege waffles, a specialty on the streets of Belgium, fashioned of overnight yeasted dough laced with pearl sugar.
Remodeling the space vacated by the Vintage Cafe Reuben Bassett said "took a lot of sweat equity," common to these young business owners with multiple skills. Bullerwell, a licensed electrician, did the electrical work and the three Bassetts did much of the rest. "We're not sitting on a lot of capital," Aaron Bassett remarked.
Henderson said that she too, with help from friends, remodeled her barbershop, the decor, furnishings and fixture of which evoke the Edwardian era of the late 19th and early 20th century. She estimated she invested $3,000 to achieve what with contractors would have cost more than three times that.
Likewise, Miles Chase, 29, of MC Cycles & Sport said that he and his employees designed, shaped and outfitted the space they occupy, which wraps around Greenlaw's Music Store with access to both Main Street and Canal Street. "Every winter we take on a new project," he said, explaining that with a small business "you get friends, pizza and a 30-pack and do it yourself." Chase, who is from Northfield, purchased the cycle component of what was Paquette's Sporting Goods on Union Avenue a decade ago and has developed a business with a complete cycling inventory that features high quality bicycles for "avid riders and athletes."
The lone Laconia native of the group, Jared Champagne, a 30-something licensed plumber, worked with Kevin Halligan, who started with the Vintage Bakery and now operates critically acclaimed Local Eatery at the Railroad Station. Last October, Champagne took ownership of the Vintage Bakery, continuing the tradition of offering a wide range of fresh baked goods and luncheon choices. "There is a lot more foot traffic downtown since the bakery first opened," he said.
All these entrepreneurs have brought something new and unique to downtown, which they acknowledged has contributed to attracting a younger demographic. The Bassetts first introduced burritos then fresh roasted coffee and Belgian waffles. Henderson shaves with a warm lather, hot towel and aftershave "like your grandfather had" in a vintage setting. Alongside a child's first two-wheeler, Chase offers bicycles ranging in price as high as $15,000, drawing discriminating, affluent customers from around the state. Champagne's Vintage Bakery continues to draw a steady stream of loyal customers.
They are also engaged. Henderson serves on the Downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) Advisory Committee. The Bassetts and Chase are active in the Main Street Initiative and have contributed to planning improvements in downtown.
"We're looking for some vision and direction for the community," said Henderson, who added that city councilors are seldom seen downtown save for David Bownes (Ward 2), whose office is on Canal Street.
They all look forward to the renovation and reopening of the Colonial Theater, but Reuben Bassett cautioned "it's not going to be a silver bullet." He said that to sustain the growing momentum downtown the city needs an economic development director, not only to encourage the hospitality and retail businesses downtown but also to strengthen the larger commercial and industrial enterprises in the city.
And, when they are not working they share time together. "Our breaks are going to see each other," Henderson said.