Downtown boutique to close in favor of hot dog and sandwich shop


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While the trend of more restaurants opting to land a downtown Iowa City address doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon, the culinary influx may be producing adversarial and unintended effects.

In a matter of a few weeks, a 20-year retail staple on the Pedestrian Mall will close its doors for the final time, before reopening as a new-to-the-area restaurant concept.

But for longtime Iowa City resident Mary Beth Guillaume, the owner of Bella Joli boutique, 125 S. Dubuque St., doesn’t seem too concerned.

That’s because days after she locks up the jewelry and gifts retailer, Guillaume will begin work on an entirely new venture.

When the store opened, she said, it filled a unique gap in the market selling handcrafted designer jewelry and gifts created by artisans all over the United States and even internationally.

And although the designers featured changed on yearly basis, she said the quality and customer service remained consistent.

In 2000, Guillaume left daily store operations to launch Lionne Designs, an Iowa City based direct-to-market and online national jewelry business, where she continues to serve as president and CEO. 
But over the years, as chain stores moved into the area, she began losing quality managerial help because of a lack of strong benefits and salary packages.

“I literally couldn’t compete,” she said. “I lost our third manager in two years about three weeks ago. When you don’t have that transition and continuity, it’s bound to happen.”

The solution, she said, came after continuously peering out the store’s windows on the Pedestrian Mall, Iowa City Public Library, and to the dozens of young children and families that frequent the area each day.

“The natural progression, we knew, was going to be something food-oriented,” she said. “There was something glaringly missing downtown: the All-American hot-dog.”

So sometime in early to mid-September, Guillaume aims to open Swankie Frankie, a “Rat Pack” and Frank Sinatra-inspired hot dog, hamburger, and meat sandwich late-night venue.

To her, the growing downtown housing stock for young professionals and families, evident in new developments like the Park@201 high-rise and FilmScene’s Scene 1 cinema, coupled with the continued year-to-year influx of energetic college students brings together an ideal demographic.

And the steady stream of new dining spots? It’s all about the options.

“You’re never going to eat a hot dog every day, and you’re never going to eat, say, pasta every day. It’s the variety that makes it unique,” she said.

Maintaining that pricing is key, Guillaume said, and the average price for a hot dog, side, and a soda will run around $7. Complete menu options that will also include gluten-free and vegetarian options will run an average of $6.

Limited indoor seating for about a dozen people will be offered to encourage people to migrate outside, Guillaume said.

Betsey Potter, the operations director for the Downtown District, called Guillaume’s decision to remain a downtown business owner signals strong communal interest in reinvesting in the city center.

“She has deep roots [here] and it sounds like a cool concept,” she said.

Unsure whether she thought the downtown restaurant market has or will reach a point of saturation in the near future, Potter pointed to the simple fact that when conducting marketing strategies for the district, officials strive to capture Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities, specifically Davenport residents.

“People come here to eat,” she said. “And places like this make us know as a destination.”

In the past year or less, more than a dozen new restaurants — from frozen yogurt shops, to bubble tea karaoke bars and coffee shops — have opened in the downtown, south of Burlington, and North Side Marketplace areas.

That accounts for nearly one-quarter of all the 280 businesses in the downtown and North Side Marketplace.

During that same period, at least six others shuttered locations because of several reasons, including threatening fires and the need for smaller spaces.

In the coming weeks and months, at least 10, including Swankie Frankie, will greet customers for the first time in new spots all together.

Jeff Davidson, the city director of planning and development said from a municipality perspective, he is pleased to see a space remain filled, indicative of the a healthy downtown property market.

“In terms of a restaurant replacing a retail space, I'm not inclined to make too big of a deal about that,” he said in an email. “As an arts and entertainment center, downtown is going to have lots of restaurants.  Some will even be anchor-type businesses that are specific destinations. There is still a market for downtown retail, and the city and Downtown District hope to focus even more on marketing that in the future.”

UI economics lecturer Patrick Barron said that nationally, the restaurant industry has some of the highest turnover or closure rates, because consumer’s taste buds change every few years.

However, he believes Guillaume’s new venture has found a unique food niche and should fare well given its broad demographic base.

But Teresa Copel, a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics employee who chooses to rarely dine out, questions the true vibrancy of the current downtown restaurant market, citing the recent closure of several restaurants including Old Capitol Town Center’s Sam’s Caboose Burger. The changing restaurant makeup, she said, only solidifies her claims.

“What that says is there’s a big failure rate [among downtown restaurants],” she said.

Nonetheless, she said because downtown lacks the definition as a “real shopping mecca,” and the mainstay UI community, the area will continue to see a dominance of food choices over other outlets.

“You’ve got a real captive audience and a steady market,” she said. “There’s just not a lot else going on downtown.”

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