Home Campus This is what it’s like to own a business in Athens

This is what it’s like to own a business in Athens

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Court Street in Athens, Ohio in August 2017. File Photo by Connor Perrett.

Local businesses are a defining characteristic of Athens, but they also face some of their own challenges.

Athens is a college town at its core; it thrives off of Ohio University’s student population. Small businesses — many tailored to the interests of college-aged customers — line the streets of the Uptown area, their doors donning “Shop Local” stickers even as larger franchises have begun to move in.

But in an area where the majority of the population lives in town for only nine of 12 months a year, and for only a few years at a time, local business owners face challenges somewhat unique to Athens.

Jessica and Josh Thomas, Ohio U alumni, own Brenen’s Coffee Cafe on Court Street. The couple stayed in Athens after college and purchased Brenen’s in 2000.

While Jessica Thomas said the work is fun and keeps them younger, Josh Thomas described owning Brenen’s as a little bit of a rollercoaster, citing challenges with staffing and slow summers.

“Any small business owner is going to tell that you staffing is always a challenge,” he said. “A lot of times you might have a staff of people that work for you for eight to 10 years, but most of our staff turns over every two to three years … you’re constantly bringing in new people and training new people.”

The couple also mentioned how business fluctuates depending on the time of year. As students head home for winter and summer breaks, the population size of Athens shrinks markedly.

Pamela Rollins has owned Mountain Laurel Gifts — a gift shop on Court Street — since 2005. She has seen a similar trend in the ups and downs of business based on the time of year.

“This is very much a seasonal economic climate,” Rollins said. “We don’t have steady shoppers.”

While Rollins works to tailor Mountain Laurel Gifts toward college students, she also tries to sell merchandise that appeals to all age groups.

“Our clientele is really diverse because we have the university input, we have lots of international students, we have young people at the university, we have older people in the community,” Rollins said. “It’s a real challenge, but it’s really fun.”

In recent years, however, one of the biggest challenges many local business owners face is the onset of corporate chains moving into Athens. Large franchises like Wendy’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and most recently, Starbucks, directly compete with the locally owned businesses Uptown.

“If you look at the history of Athens, we’ve got more and more chains that are closing in on us, so the challenge is there every year,” Josh Thomas said. “Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, somebody else rolls in and you gotta kinda re-figure it out.”

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