After word got out that Kuni Sato was closing his Elmwood Avenue sushi bar last month, people waited longer than usual for a table. For an hour, or four, diners roamed the street with cell phones on, ready for the hostess's call.
Even before those last weeks, the waits had become a type of Elmwood Avenue tradition. People passed the time spending money at other bars and shops in the area near Breckenridge Street. Elmwood's popularity grew in the decade that the small restaurant served raw tuna and salmon with Japanese style.
Sato said he finally closed because he was too popular and too tired. "I couldn't handle it any more," he said.
Today, despite the closing of the popular restaurant and some other nearby stores, observers say the district, dressed merrily in tree lights for the holidays, is more dynamic than before. Some 25 new businesses have opened or relocated in the last six months to the Elmwood Village district between Forest Avenue and North Street.
While traffic at other city commercial strips has waned, Elmwood Avenue, like Hertel Avenue in North Buffalo, has emerged as an example of what can go right in the city. "There's clearly an interest in urban life now," said Bob Franke of Forever Elmwood, the neighborhood and business association that counted up the 25 new businesses. "Nobody wants to spend so much time in their car."
Kyle Ezell, an urban planner and author from Columbus, Ohio, said Elmwood's increasing star power was inevitable. "I knew that was going to happen," said Ezell, who surveyed 42 neighborhoods in 30 cities for his book of ratings called "Get Urban."
Unique and alluring "seed" businesses, such as Kuni's, that settle in before high-wattage popularity clicks on, are the keys to attracting attention so that city districts take off, he said.
"It all goes back to the people who showered their money and interest in Elmwood in the last two, three years," said Ezell, who was smitten by Buffalo's retro style after making two trips in the past three years. "Word's getting out to Amherst and places beyond."
Franke of Forever Elmwood is philosophic about Kuni's departure and the district's future promise. The restaurant's long waits persuaded people to make a habit of spending more time on street.
"It's kind of rubbed off a bit and changed the culture," he said. "It's also one of the great things about Elmwood. Places come and go."
The district has also been helped by the relocation of health food landmark, the Lexington Real Foods Community Co-op, which opened its new $3 million grocery this summer. And across the street, stores and galleries opened, attracting shoppers with massages, paintings, diamonds and tea and dumplings.
"They pull up, park and walk," said Lisa Caywood, owner of a children's clothier. In September, she moved her Ruby Slipper shop into a refurbished rooming house at the corner of Elmwood and Auburn avenues.
>Getting a lot of calls
Franke's list of new and relocated businesses includes Abraham's Jeweler, which moved in beside Caywood from a Hertel Avenue plaza. Cone Five Pottery shop relocated from the Allentown district. The Buffalo Museum of Science shares new gallery space in a converted garage with the science gadget purveyor Edmund Scientific. A new modern home furnishings store called "room" opened blocks away.
"There's always change in a vibrant district," said Franke, who has managed Forever Elmwood for the last two years. "I don't remember a time since I've fielded so many calls."
As the street's popularity has risen in the last two years, so have rents. Some retail spaces can cost as little as $500 for a small store or as much as $5,000 a month for a restaurant, said Franke.
The old storefront that had housed the Feel Rite food store at the corner of Breckenridge has been vacant for about a year, while the owner hoped for a tenant to pay close to the nearly $4,000 a month that the national health food chain paid.
>'I want to be here'
In the last month, the rent dropped to $2,500, and a new broker said he has several interested in opening a restaurant, clothing store or a law firm in the building.
Though the high prices turn some away, they have sparked some creative approaches.
When Michelle Peller White was shopping for space months ago, steep rents were a surprise.
"I was totally blown away," she said. Even so, she moved her Chotchkey's shop to Elmwood from the Clarence Hollow shopping district by working out a deal to share store space with the Ruby Slipper.
"I just kept saying, 'I want to be here,' " said Peller White.
She's down the street from a jewelry shop gallery, the Neighborhood Collective, which also shares its space, splitting rent eight ways. Rents range from $200 for a small gallery spot, to $1,200 for more space.
"It makes it good for all of us," said owner Annie Adams, who also divvies up costs for print ads among the group.
Builder Paul Johnson said he has made a business of finding overlooked opportunities on the busy street. After refurbishing the dilapidated rooming house that now holds Abraham's Jewelers and the Ruby Slipper, among others, he and two partners started a new project near West Utica Street this month.
They demolished empty stores at 504 and 506 Elmwood. By next fall, Johnson plans to have a finished 3 1/2 -story building with retail space and nine upscale apartments. This, he said, should be good for the block, which has several empty storefronts.
"We're hoping to help stabilize it," said Johnson, who expects the investment to approach $1 million dollars.
"This is kind of my niche," said Johnson, "to find parcels that are underutilized."
>The rent was lower
Erin Habes discovered and developed her own underappreciated spot when she couldn't find a store she liked on Elmwood. Three months ago she moved into an empty place she spied around a corner at 585 Potomac Ave. Its mosaic tile and wrought iron stairway charmed, reminding her of the old-style of Greenwich Village in New York City.
Rent, which can be 20 percent to 30 percent lower on side streets, was so reasonable she could afford to spend $2,000 to fix up the big windows and ceiling before opening her Sweet and Dirty urban fashion and candy shop.
"My overhead is really low, which lets me play a little bit more," said Habes.
She's been pleased by the residents who've welcomed her, thanking her for filling a long vacant space near the Bidwell Parkway intersection. Habes and other new arrivals are coming to the district as other landmarks leave. The changes have been making veterans nostalgic.
"Having a presence on Elmwood is something I'll never forget," said Newell Nussbaumer, who intends to close his Thunder Bay gift shop by January. "I look at all these new businesses and I see in their eyes how I used to feel when I first opened."
For 12 years he has sold Buffalo art and novelties like bottle cap belts and purses made out of old license plates at 734 Elmwood. Like Kuni Sato, who was on the same block, he is leaving because of success.
Nussbaumer, who launched a free weekly newspaper called "Buffalo Rising" two years ago to promote the district, has seen that pastime grow into a full-time devotion that includes a Web site, with paid advertising, that claims 9,000 daily visits. As that work grew, he said he lost interest in managing the shop and restocking the shelves.
"My store was slowly, but surely becoming Buffalo Rising," said Nussbaumer, who has since relocated some publishing to his home on Norwood Avenue.
His neighbors at the Urban Clothing Company at 736 Elmwood give Nussbaumer and Sato credit for making business better. Kuni's attracted suburbanites along with a woman who once spent $400 while waiting for takeout. And Buffalo Rising's promotions worked to remind people to shop the city.
"It's the end of an era with Thunder Bay closing," said Maureen Pinkel, who owns the urban clothing shop with her husband. As she talked, she considered how the new vacancies could be opportunities. Perhaps, she said, her new neighbors will be even better.
Her husband agreed. "I'm not worried," said Edward Pinkel. "This is the hottest property on Elmwood."