With the announced closures of two popular getaways on Chapel St., students looking for alternatives to dining hall tea and self-serve salad will have to change their plans.
Rainbow Café, which closed last week, and Oolongs Tea Bar, which announced it will close at the end of the month, are the latest stores to join a growing list of businesses that have left the Chapel District this past year. But despite the rash of closures — including a pair of fashion stores and a novelty sweet shop — University Properties and city officials said the two recent casualties are part of the normal business cycle and do not reflect a downward retail trend in the district.
University Properties Director David Newton said he is sad to see Oolongs and Rainbow Café close. But retail space in the Chapel area continues to be widely sought after, he said, indicating that the area’s future is in safe hands. He said UP receives several calls each day from potential entrepreneurs looking for space to rent in the downtown area.
“You have a Maxine’s that goes out, but then right behind it you have Merwin’s Art Shop that fills the space,” he said. “We can rent any of those streets at a heartbeat if we take everyone who calls our office.”
No plans have been made to decide what will replace Oolongs, but UP is considering finding another tea shop to take its place, Newton said. The concept of having a fine tea cafe in the heart of downtown is appealing to both students and New Haven residents, he said.
But Oolongs owner Tammy Hackett said the shop, which opened in November 2004, was unable to become financially self-sufficient and suffered a 33 percent drop in sales this fall. Though she said UP was very supportive of her, even offering a larger space for her business, she and her family could not afford a further rise in the business’s debt.
“I hate to see [Oolongs] go, because this is my dream and to see it go kills me, [but] the ends just aren’t meeting,” she said. “Most businesses survive the summer, but this fall it didn’t happen [for us] whereas it did in the past. I have heard from a lot of business owners that business is not the same this fall.”
Until last year, Oolongs had been a co-proprietorship shared by Hackett and Koffee Too? owner Tracy Jackson.
Karen Conlin, the owner of Urban Objects, said her business experienced difficulties when it was located next to Oolongs in Sherman’s Alley, but saw a significant rise in sales when it moved to its new location at 1022 Chapel Street four years ago. This year, she estimated that sales are up by about 28 percent. Hackett said she did not consider moving Oolongs to a different location because of all the time and energy she had put into the decor and infrastructure of the building.
While his New Haven store has experienced stable growth this year, Peter Indorf, owner of Peter Indorf Jewelers and President of the Chapel Historic District merchant association, said he is weary about the numerous closures of businesses in the Chapel District this year.
“Our sales have always been pretty consistent, [but] it concerns me that we are losing stores,” he said. “I am wanting to address some of these issues at our next [merchant association] meeting.”
Executive Director of Town Green Special Services District Scott Healy said there are no wider implications to closures of the two Chapel Street restaurants because the restaurant industry is thriving in New Haven as whole. Restaurants in the city have a much higher success rate than the national and state averages, he said.
But Healy said he is concerned about the closures of the fashion stores earlier this year, which he thinks might be a sign of difficult times ahead for fashion retail in the district.
Alex Bartik ’08 said he enjoyed Rainbow Cafe, but he thinks the Chapel District and city offer plenty of other dining options for students.
“It was a place that I liked when I did go,” he said. “There have been a fair number of good restaurants opening up. As far as I can tell [University Properties] does a pretty good job of getting tenants.”
But Frederick Mocatta ’10, an Englishman with a penchant for tea, said the loss of Oolongs will create a hole in the city’s restaurant offerings that he hopes UP will address.
“The paucity of shops serving good tea in New Haven is a serious problem for those of us who need it for cultural reasons,” he said.