Kent community builders talk local business

Acorn Alley before the hustle and bustle of the daily rush on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017.

Cameron Gorman

On most days, the streets of downtown Kent are a hub for the community. Students mill about the entrances to bars and coffee shops, chatting with their friends. The occasional skateboarder or cyclist whizzes by, while families duck in and out of the small businesses that line the light-strung corridors of Acorn Alley.

It’s a place buzzing with life and though it may all look like the product of unconnected business owners on the surface, some of the community’s favorite bars, eateries and areas may be the work of a few people looking to invest in Kent’s future and cement the city’s foundation.  

Mike Beder

Part of: Tree City Coffee and Pastry, Franklin Hotel Bar, Taproot Catering

Owns: Water Street Tavern, Venice Cafe

When he was attending Kent State for a general studies degree, Mike Beder was working at the now-defunct Robin Hood, where he’d been from 1999 to 2000. Successful at promoting the bar, and always the self-described “kid with the lemonade stand,” Beder felt he could try the business for himself.

After graduating from Kent, Beder felt that he knew the market downtown, and opened his first Kent business — Water Street Tavern — in 2001. After this, Beder would go on to open a string of other businesses, including one which was lost in a fire.

“I’d say a year or two into it, I started getting more involved in the community. I’m on the board of directors for the Chamber of Commerce and Main Street Kent too,” Beder said. “I think when I started I was pretty solely student-focused, and then as I changed from a student who is an employee to someone who is making their living in the downtown, I got to understand the community a little more, and what needs were there.”

As his entrepreneurial life took off, Beder saw the community changing with the types of businesses it welcomed, like the local Tree City Coffee and Pastry.

“I think there’s the opportunity for more destination-type places for the city, I think that would benefit the community as a whole to see more destination places,” Beder said.

Beder, who is now one of the entrepreneurs in residence for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation program, is also a part of the new Franklin Hotel Bar.

“The city itself is very supportive of small business, and I also think the small business owners for the most part are pretty friendly with each other and helpful. I think there’s probably more a sense of community than competition for the most part.”

Through his time as an owner, Beder also picked up on some important lessons in the business — namely that though ownership allows for freedom, it is still a job, with a goal of serving others.  

Still, elements of Kent have helped him stay around the area to build his influence, including that his businesses are all in a convenient “two-block radius,” something he may not have imagined when first starting to expand his enterprises.

“I didn’t have a long-term plan,” Beder said. “I think I just got, I don’t know, I think I just saw other opportunities, and the part of doing all this stuff that excites me is always the creating of the new idea or the new place or concept or whatever, so I always like opportunities like that.”

Ronald Burbick

Part of: Treno, Franklin Hotel Bar

Owner: The Burbick Companies, Acorn Alley I, Acorn Alley II, Acorn Corner, master lease on shops under PARTA

President: The Burbick Foundation

When Ronald Burbick was living and working in Kent, he was “overseas probably 70 percent of the time.”

“I really wasn’t here that much. I did get involved a little bit with the Chamber of Commerce, but other than that I was pretty uninvolved,” Burbick said. “It wasn’t until I got involved in the leadership of Portage County and then ultimately Main Street Kent that the interest really grew in doing something. And it also helped that I just sold my major interest in my former company, so I had a lot of capital to work with.”

Burbick began to envision a new identity for downtown Kent when he became interested in Main Street Kent, planning to turn a one-story building into a two-story “as an example of what could be done,” as part of the concept was to keep the ground level of buildings retail-only.

“The idea was I was going to do one building and show what could be done,” Burbick said. “Well before I even had, before that one building even got off the drawing boards, there was so much interest that I ended up buying the three buildings next to it, and made it a larger involvement that became Acorn Alley I.”

Before the changes, Kent was a place where you could get a beer or a tattoo, but not much else, Burbick said. This led to the main concept behind Main Street Kent turning the city into a destination.

“Yeah, the vision grew as I got more involved in it, but yeah, it started out that way, and then I ended up with a lot of vacant land behind the buildings on Main Street, so I built those new buildings there and that became Acorn Alley II,” Burbick said. “And then the corner of the old hotel became available. That’s where the Franklin Hotel Bar and the Buffalo Wild Wings is. Plus there’s apartments in the top two floors, and there’s also businesses on the third floor.”

Burbick estimates the development of Kent has brought about 500 jobs and a lot of revenue to the city.

These changes are echoed on campus by the improvement of Kent’s Esplanade and other areas such as the Wick Poetry Center, which Burbick contributed to through his foundation.

“I see Kent developing even further. I see a lot more — there’s still a lot more development (that) can go on downtown. But to do that, we’ve got to get more industry into Kent, and there’s an effort ongoing to do that,” Burbick said. “So I see Kent as becoming kind of like the Ann Arbor of Ohio.”

Burbick, who tries to “nurture” new business owners in Kent, added that computer-based industries like programming could be the next step for the city.

“I see it as just continuing to grow, as long as the university continues to support the downtown, and the city continues to … provide the help that they have, and there are developers around like me that are crazy enough to do this stuff, I think … we can be successful long-term,” Burbick said.

Michael Awad

Part of: Franklin Hotel Bar, Treno, Rise and Shine Cafe

Owner: Main Street Continental Grill, Laziza, Jabbour’s Apparel, Overlook Grill

Michael Awad moved from the D.C. area to the city of Kent looking to retire. Instead, around 2005, he opened his first business — the Main Street Continental Grill — when he was drawn to Kent’s air of community. 

“Well, the university had a lot to do with it, … but really, honestly, it was just the people,” Awad said. “They just opened up their arms to us. It was just — I don’t know, you know. I lived in the D.C.-Virginia area for about 30 years, but this was definitely home when we met our Kent neighbors.”  

Awad did face challenges in opening his restaurant — getting to know the people of Kent, namely — but he was confident in their offerings.

“You know, a lot of these people in Kent were health-conscious, and we offered a fresh, healthy food that we’re making from scratch here,” Awad said. “So it took us a little while to take off, but once we took off, my God, we haven’t looked back.”

The progress Awad has made in Kent was not his original plan. After selling businesses in the D.C. area, he was looking to open “one little place to run.” Then came Ron Burbick, who approached him about a spot downtown.

Awad opened Laziza, along with owning and becoming involved in several other businesses in Burbick’s complex.

“You know what, with me and Ron you never know. We could be opening something tomorrow, I’ll leave it at that. I love Kent, and whatever I can do in Kent, I would do it,” Awad said. “I mean, I’ve been approached by many mayors, by many people in the surrounding area to expand into their area. This is home for me. This is home, I mean Kent is home. I love the people, the people love us and we’re staying here. We have no plans to go anywhere else.”

Now, Awad is working with Burbick to open Treno in the building of the old Pufferbelly restaurant.

“I’m very proud to be part of Kent. I strive for that. I wake up every day, you know, enjoying coming into work, because I know the reward. At the end, these people really appreciate what we’re doing for them, and we appreciate them. We have brought a community together, and … basically we’ve become a destination,” Awad said.

 Cameron Gorman is the features writer. Contact her at [email protected].