The New Starting Point for Retail

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Sam Mouzon inside his Dinner Bell Barbecue food cart in Portland, Oregon, moments after opening for the first time

Dinner Bell Barbecue on opening day

   Burdening most new Main Streets with building the “climax condition” of 3-5 story buildings in the beginning is a poor choice in all but the most robust places, but going back to 1-story masonry buildings isn’t enough; the new starting point for retail should be the food cart. I recently returned from the NTBA Spring Roundtable, where there was great discussion on many things, including the future of retail. The single-crew workplace is the new high standard.

neighborhood grocery in Beaufort, South Carolina with flag unfurled in soft morning light, with proprietor's home tucked just behind

single-crew grocery in Beaufort, South Carolina serves a

neighborhood that would otherwise have been a food desert

   For a grocery, it’s one grocer in 500-800 square feet selling just the basic commodities like tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, one type of hot sauce, one brand of mustard, etc. For a restaurant, it’s one cook and one server. For the smallest possible B&B, it’s one person who’s clerk, cook, and housekeeper for four rooms. For the next size up, it’s one housekeeper for eight rooms and one clerk/cook. For a bar, it’s one bartender. For a coffee shop, it’s one barista. For a barber shop, it’s one barber.

American flag waving in the sea breeze of Seaside, Florida just in front of white clapboard post office

Seaside’s iconic post office at the heart of

Central Square

   We’ve seen great examples for years, like at Seaside, Florida, but keep getting charmed by the retail experts who base their projections on standard sprawl paradigms. Their arguments are compelling: “If you want to compete, these are things the market expects.” And they’re exactly right if you’re hoping to attract national retailers like Applebee's, Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, TGI Fridays, Walgreen, Best Buy, McDonald's, Publix, and the like. The problem is that if you want to compete in that arena, you’re committed to sinking millions into your infrastructure before seeing a dollar of return. Since 2008, that hasn’t been a very good approach for most of us. New retail centers would do well to compete in a very different arena.

   Here’s another side of the problem with sprawl expectations: if you listen to the retail experts, you can’t even build a corner store until you have 600 rooftops. Seaside would never have achieved that because there will never be that many houses there, yet Seaside has become a thriving regional center. There are two secrets: Appeal to customers beyond your own rooftops, and start impossibly small with your shops, like Seaside did. A single-crew workplace makes many things possible today which are impossible until decades later using the retail experts’ standards.

night lights glisten on the corrugated canopy roofing of Dinner Bell Barbecue food cart in Portland, Oregon, with window shutters glowing red just below

Dinner Bell Barbecue the night before opening for the first time

   Our son Sam started Dinner Bell Barbecue recently in Portland, Oregon for amazingly less than you could ever start a bricks-and-mortar store. A conventional restaurant is at least an order of magnitude higher; usually much more. I’ve seen $100K vent hoods in my previous life as a small-town architect, so it’s really easy to spend a million dollars (in 1990s money) to start a restaurant.

   In Sam's food cart pod, all of the food carts share a single toilet facility, and all utilities except electrical (which is overhead) gets piped around underneath the food carts. No, it’s not the most convenient, but yes, it’s highly frugal. This model is the future of inaugural retail in most places. If you’re going to CNU in Seattle, consider a side-trip to Portland to see this. It’s amazingly Lean. And food carts contribute substantially to Walk Appeal because your view changes every 10 feet or less, and often in very interesting and colorful ways.

   Andrés Duany has been saying for several years that we need to scale back the inaugural condition of town centers, and Seaside’s Perspicasity and the Airstream shops courtesy of Daryl Davis have painted the picture of the future of retail for years. Why are we so slow to catch up?

   ~Steve Mouzon

Walk Appeal book front cover

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© Stephen A. Mouzon 2018