Small business dreams with steelyard roots: Downtown Lorain restaurant and nightlife scene revives itself
LORAIN, Ohio – This former steel town at the mouth of the Black River on Lake Erie would seem like an unlikely location for one of the hottest food-and-drink scenes in Ohio. But that’s just what has emerged in downtown Lorain over the past five years, with an explosion of independent bars and restaurants opening on the main street of the historic manufacturing town 30 miles west of Cleveland.
Full of entrepreneurial spirit, hardworking roots and a little quirky charm, the city of Lorain has birthed a whole new hospitality scene, rocking renovated design elements alongside elevated relatable menus. Once bustling during the industrial era, a less-than-a-mile stretch on Broadway Avenue now attracts dream-fueled local entrepreneurs. In short, Lorain is having a moment.
Strike that. Lorain is cool again.
How did this almost two-century-old city with a diverse population of 65,000 become a food-and-drink destination?
Cue Speak of the Devil. In 2017, longtime Lorain residents and empty-nesters Kurt Hernon, a retired air traffic controller of 25 years, and his wife Page Kieffer Hernon, an active community volunteer, took the plunge: sold their house, bought a vacant downtown storefront, moved up upstairs and renovated the downstairs to become their new bar, kicking off their bold second act.
Heron says friends told the couple they were “insane” when they broke the news about bringing a neighborhood cocktail bar (with an elevated priced point) to Lorain, in an area that had 50% vacancy as recently as May 2018. (https://www.lorainharborawp.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Lorain-AWP-Final-Report-1_8_19.pdf)
Little did the Hernons know their risk would become the spark that ignited the Lorain downtown renaissance. Today, Speak of the Devil has quantifiably made it.
The iconic neon sign above Speak of the Devil welcomes thirsty visitors ready for its century-old craft cocktails recipes, cute patio, live music and events, and friendly vibe.
The bar’s contribution to the revival worked perfectly in conjunction with the popularity of Rockin’ on the River, weekly concerts that draw up to 10,000 people on summer weekends to Black River Landing, after transitioning to Lorain from Cuyahoga Falls in 2015, according to Max Schaefer, executive director of Main Street Lorain, a non-profit organization aimed to help make downtown Lorain vibrant and accessible to residents and visitors.
The Hernons started out in the cocktail game when they got into homebrewing around 2009 and branched into doing events and catering, including a weekly summer pop-up at a (former) Lorain dance club, Copa. It was during that time that they gauged the audience’s thirst for a higher-end cocktail bar, and the local crowd continued to show their loyalty, while helping the couple build a name and brand.
Speak of the Devil was happy to spur an influx of new business. “Others saw us doing well and figured the city could do other things here, too.” Hernon said. “Lorain’s not fully formed; come along for the ride.”
Today people come from near and far to visit Speak of the Devil. The owners regularly invite friends and fellow bar owners from Porco Lounge and Tiki Room, Lakewood’s LBM and Tiki Underground to run bar takeovers on select nights, helping reinforce the bar’s spot in the cocktail community.
“Lorain has shown small business if you have a great idea and put a lot of work into making it excel, it will thrive and be successful in downtown Lorain,” said Schaefer, who has seen firsthand how much businesses have grown.
A nicer streetscape and trendy new signage also aided Lorain’s transformation. Three new lighted Broadway signs were completed in 2019 as part of a $4 million Lorain Broadway streetscape downtown revitalization project. The glow-up also featured wider sidewalks, better lighting and smoother traffic flow.
A new Lorain script 3D-steel installation (like the famed Cleveland signs) have also been installed on the northeast corner of Erie and Broadway avenues, across from City Hall.
“The whole area has been recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic preservation district, which is not only evokes a sense of nostalgia, but offers businesses an attractive incentive to renovate and build in downtown Lorain, as an economic development tool,” Schaefer said.
“Similar to Cleveland, Lorain is made of grit and integrity,” Schaefer said. Once home to many vacant storefronts in the ‘90s, today Lorain is the ninth-largest city in Ohio, and alongside Columbus and Cincinnati, was the only large industrial city in the state to see population growth over the last ten years, Schaefer said.
Union Town Provisions was the next restaurant to add itself to the corridor transformation in 2019. Tim Scholl and Shawn Grieves serve up a locally sourced menu that changes with local growers and farms’ in-season foods. Additionally, the shop purveys local and imported artisan products like olive oils, wine, cheeses, meats and chocolates.
The owners chose a spot in the heart of downtown Lorain, a 135-year-old building they’ve since renovated, around the corner from Speak of the Devil; the bar’s owners are longtime friends of theirs who encouraged them to considering starting their business in Lorain when another locale fell through, Grieves said.
Grieves was inspired by fresh food adventures (where he completed a week-long charcuterie class) during travels to Italy, Greece and Sweden and wanted to bring the high-quality flavor home. Grieves had moved back to Ohio two decades ago after working as a chef at a restaurant inside a World Trade Center during a nine-year stint in Manhattan right before 9/11.
Whimsical lemur wallpaper, a retro chandelier and a wood storefront welcome customers to the historic building, once slated for demolition. Today it’s a hotspot for spa treatment salads, Danish blue cheese and bacon burgers, frittatas and other fresh eats for lunch, dinner and brunch. Union Town Provisions regularly hosts music, comedy, jazz brunch and LGBTQ events.
“I love what we can do for the city. We’re happy to promote people moving here and to not to be afraid of investing in this area,” Grieves said, who also recently purchased a house on Washington Street, one block away, for a new project, a food-driven Airbnb, with plans for an herb garden and partnerships with local wineries.
“Lorain’s rebirth happened because people want it,” Grieves said. “Through the whole downtown, people are able to park their cars and walk down Broadway and see beautiful architecture on the water. It’s just magical. Lorain is about the people; it really is.”
Brew & Stew quietly arrived onto the new downtown scene in 2018 as a boutique coffee shop with homemade syrups. Owner Mary Fields took another bold leap and opened Broadway Mary’s in 2020, now a bustling breakfast and lunch retro foodie haven fit for an Instagram queen.
After returning to her hometown from Dallas, Fields, a Lorain High School graduate, knew she wanted to start her new venture in Lorain featuring sandwiches, soups, wraps, waffles, burgers and fries, craft cocktails and baked goods, with decor straight out of 1970. Showcasing from-scratch food, the restaurant channels nostalgia with eclectic décor including a vintage Salem Spirit machine, a pay phone, old records and even a shiny disco ball hanging from the ceiling.
Like its neighbor businesses, Broadway Mary’s is big on the community-empowering vibe. The free-spirited Fields can be found on TikTok on roller skates or hosting a belly dancing performance in her restaurant. Just like so many of its peers, the shop supports local. Broadway Mary’s serves up java from Cleveland’s Rising Star Coffee, breads from Blackbird Bakery in Lakewood, and other goods from Old Brooklyn Cheese Company. Due to the pandemic, the owner temporarily merged Broadway Mary’s with the original coffee house, locating both businesses inside Broadway Mary’s.
“The Lorain revitalization stemmed from a perfect storm of timing, people, passion and government support,” said Joan Perch, executive director for FireFish Arts, a Lorain arts non-profit focused on community art access, programming and outreach that hosts a yearly festival.
“So much makes Lorain unique. It doesn’t get more beautiful than a lakefront and a waterfront, full of beautiful historic buildings. There’s a real fire in the heart of people who live and work in Lorain. People love their city. It’s so diverse. It’s a community that’s inclusive of everyone.”
During the first Friday of every month in the summer, the city’s small businesses come together for a Broadway Block Party, spearheaded by Main Street Lorain, Schaefer said. “Vendors line up on the extended sidewalks.” Guests can also enjoy sipping, shopping and strolling, because the area is part of a DORA district, that allows patrons 21 and up to purchase alcoholic beverages in a designated cup from permitted establishments and carry the beverages within a defined downtown area. A popular craft beer festival at the Waterfront District, BrewFest, is held yearly in the summer, as well.
Although many are starting to flock to the resurgence, Lorain has experienced its share of strife. When the streetscape project hurt some foot traffic to local businesses, and the COVID-19 pandemic hurt the restaurant businesses, Lorain’s hopeful entrepreneurs kept going. The city has famously persevered through economic challenges through the years when the American Ship Building Company Lorain Yard, Ford Motor Company Lorain Assembly Plant and United States Steel Corporation’s steel mill closed.
In 2020, Brass and Bronze Foundry Bar, JuiceMe Juice Bar, Fresco Bistro, Marta’s N More bakery and the Ariel on Broadway Hotel (a recently purchased and renovated 1923 building that houses Dodie’s Dockside, Italian-influenced coastal fare, and Game On Lorain sports bar) all popped on the scene, near the newer Shipyards event center, housing the Boiler Room restaurant.
Lorain is home to the first theater in Ohio to show a speaking motion picture, the Lorain Palace Theatre. Recognized as the International City, the town hosts a lively yearly Lorain International Festival.
Brothers Dennis and Will Castro have owned Scorchers, a mainstay casual restaurant focused on jumbo chicken wings, sandwiches and draft beers, on Main Street for more than 21 years. They are pleased to see new businesses thrive, Dennis said.
Castro cited that the new restaurants, hotel and shops bring in more foot traffic to the downtown area. “It started with construction, and people jumped renting and buying available real estate. People begun checking us out from father away,” he said. “We’ve noticed a lot of new faces and people are loving it.”
What’s next for this city with a vision? The downtown transformation continues to attract other small businesses, like a second Papasito’s Mexican Cantina location downtown, which is slated to open soon. Locally famous (Oberlin) Lorenzo’s is also set to open a second location downtown, rounding out the burgeoning food and drink scene.