The city of New Haven prides itself on being large enough to find everything you need but small enough maintain a tight community fabric. Although it plays host to a few national retailers like J. Crew and Urban Outfitters, New Haven is better known for its small, specialized, locally-run businesses such as Peter Indorf Jewelers, Claire’s Corner Copia, and Ashley’s Ice Cream.
But in recent years, these and many other New Haven retailers have expanded the meaning of local business. Restaurant and shop owners alike have increasingly found that New Haven is a stable starting point, or an attractive point of expansion, in establishing a small business chain.
In the past year, Yale University Properties leased out 13 formerly vacant spaces, while only one merchant closed during this time. The two most recent University Properties openings, Katahdin Furniture and Yarn LLC, opened on Audobon Street as their second locations.
New Haven economist Don Klepper-Smith said retailers are looking to New Haven because it has become a cluster for certain businesses — such as furniture stores with the opening of IKEA last year. On the other hand, the migration of wealth to the suburbs in the past few decades has caused New Haven retailers to look outside the city for a second location that will attract weekend shoppers who do not want to come downtown, Klepper-Smith said.
“Retail is very much about economies of scale, so small, individual retailers are often at a disadvantage,” he said. “Secondary stores that are strategically located make a lot of economic sense.”
Two examples of long-time New Haven retailers that have recently expanded down the Connecticut coastline are Seychelles, which opened a second store in Westport, and Peter Indorf Jewelers, which expanded to Madison.
Indorf, who is president of the College-Chapel Merchant’s Association, said local retailers such as himself are attracted to the idea of opening second stores in the suburbs because of the rising prices of rent and limited space in New Haven. Indorf said because of the proximity of his stores, he is able to invest enough hands-on time and energy in both.
University Properties director David Newton said these stores should not really be considered chains because they are owned and operated by independent entrepreneurs.
“While they have more than one store, the owner is ultimately involved in the day-to-day business, and their stores are geographically proximate to one another,” Newton said.
Other businesses with multiple East Coast locations, such as Thom Brown of Boston and Ashley’s Ice Cream, are run more by the managers than store owners. While Thom Brown’s New Haven manager Don Byrd said his owner only comes in to the New Haven store once every three months, Ashley’s manager Mike Kochis said his owner tries to spread his time evenly between the shop’s four Connecticut locations.
“Our stores are all so close to each other that it doesn’t even seem like a chain,” Kochis said. “Our business still feels very local and friendly.”
Claire’s Corner Copia owners and long-time New Haven activists Claire and Frank Criscuolo found a way to expand without ever having to leave their New Haven location. The couple opened a second restaurant, Basta, directly next door to its first. Gourmet Heaven owners, who already run two New Haven locations, are following suit with the opening of a new upscale grocery store called Le Bon Marche on Church Street.
Claire Criscuolo said although she understands why businesses would want to expand down the shoreline, she feels like she is too much a part of the New Haven community to separate from it.
“I think it’s a good idea for new businesses to look down the shoreline because rents are lower and the competition has gotten so stiff in New Haven,” Criscuolo said. “But it has been so wonderful just running next door for whatever I need, not to mention I can go there for dinner and not have to wait on myself.”
But as some businesses look to expand beyond the Elm City, some already established businesses are looking in. New Haven newcomers such as Labyrinth Books and Pacifico, who have already established their names elsewhere, have invested in New Haven as a second location. Moe Gad, co-owner of Pacifico, which has two restaurants in Westchester, N.Y., said New Haven was the perfect fit for the concept of his restaurant.
“We have gotten a lot of support and energy from New Haven because we are doing so well here,” Gad said. “And my restaurants are all close enough to the 95 and to each other that it has not been a problem.”
Based on its successful competition with Columbia University’s Barnes and Noble bookstore, Labyrinth Books opened in New Haven last summer. Store manager Chris Evans said the owners’ current efforts are directed at making the New Haven location a success, but in the future they may look to expand elsewhere.
Some store owners have voiced concern that the increase in national chains in New Haven will put pressure on individual retailers to compete with longer hours and lower prices. Connecticut economist Jeff Blodget said the fact that small chains are expanding in New Haven could mean the market for national retail is growing.
“Large national retailers are driven more by the market and size than by small chains expanding,” Blodget said. “But if a chain has one or more locations elsewhere in Connecticut, it means you can afford to take a little more risk. This can lead to a steady stream of investment coming in to expand your markets.”
But Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce president Tony Rescigno said the city is still a long way from having to worry about too much competition between national and local retail.
“National retailers have been very slow over the past few years about expanding to New Haven,” Rescigno said. “The mix we’re seeing right now is good for the times, and it is apparent that lots of people want to invest right now, which is a very good thing.”