By Katie Byard
Beacon Journal/ Ohio.com
Posted Feb 12, 2020 at 6:05 PM
Updated Feb 12, 2020 at 10:00 PM
A whole lot of effort went into getting the 25-seat Lil’ Bit Cafe off the ground in Akron’s Kenmore area.
“This is real, and when it’s real it gives you a lot of hope for the neighborhood,” said Tina Boyes, who is working to revitalize the Kenmore Boulevard Historic District, a roughly five-block commercial area where about a quarter of the storefronts are vacant.
Boyes, executive director of the nonprofit Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, talked about the effort at Wednesday’s grand opening ceremony for the eatery at 992 Kenmore Blvd.
The restaurant, which opened late last month and serves sandwiches and made-from-scratch soups and salads, is in a redeveloped former office building.
It is the first sit-down lunch and dinner restaurant to open in years in the area. It’s near the boulevard’s Rialto Theatre, and plans to stay open later during Rialto events.
The restaurant opened thanks to financial incentives and a vision shared by the café’s owner, Akron developer Todd Ederer, Boyes and others.
Wednesday’s ceremony — which included Ederer, café employees and various city officials — moved outside as Akron Mayor Don Horrigan cut red ribbon with oversize scissors.
Among those holding the ribbon was the head of Lil’ Bit’s kitchen and the creator of its menu, Micah Townsend, a resident of Kenmore. Townsend, a 20-plus-year veteran of commercial kitchens, previously worked at Mr. Zub’s Deli in Akron’s Highland Square, where he invented various customer favorites.
At Lil’ Bit, his menu includes Whole Hog (pulled pork, ham, bacon, cheddar cheese and house slaw on a Kaiser bun) and Mac Daddy (panko-crusted fried mac and cheese). There’s also more traditional fare, such as a Pub Burger (with a kaiser bun), egg salad on a croissant and turkey club.
The space has an industrial feel, with its buffed cement floor and unpainted, heavy-duty corrugated steel ceiling. Edison bulbs hang over the tables.
Sure, Lil Bit is an unassuming place, but Boyes, Ederer and others say it’s a big, eagerly awaited step forward in efforts to revitalize the boulevard.
The café is a training ground for mothers involved with a culinary training program run by JOBS (Jump on Board for Success), a nonprofit that operates out of space in Kenmore’s Park United Methodist Church.
CareSource Foundation of Dayton awarded a $150,000 grant to Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, part of which will go toward paying wages of JOBS workers at the café. The wage subsidy is available to other food-related businesses in the neighborhood that hire JOBS graduates, Boyes said.
Ederer, the owner of the Lil’ Bit business and building, said the idea for the café was hatched more than two years ago at a weekend-long Better Block event on the boulevard organized by the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance.
The Better Block happenings — part of a national program — bring temporary, pop-up businesses and activities to help underused business districts envision a better future.
At the Kenmore Better Block in May 2017, Ederer got to talking with Townsend, the kitchen veteran, about their boulevard dreams.
By that time, Ederer had bought a few storefronts on the boulevard, inspired by work that the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance was doing.
Ederer noted Wednesday in an interview that Akron Councilman Mike Freeman, who was at the grand opening and represents Kenmore in Ward 9, helped persuade him to invest in the area.
Ederer also recalled that as a child he went with his father, developer Alan Ederer, to the now-closed Kenmore Tailors on the boulevard.
“It made me appreciate local neighborhood business districts ... over the years, I’ve really become a new urbanist,” Ederer said, referring to those who find inspiration from the way cities developed years ago.
Ederer then found out about Jennifer Herrick, a friend of Townsend, who runs the culinary training program for the JOBS initiative for young mothers.
Herrick said three graduates from the JOBS program are working at Lil’ Bit. Herrick, who ran a cupcake shop on Romig Road in Akron a few years back, runs the front of the house, while Townsend runs the back of the house.
In addition to the CareSource grant, the project received a $100,000 loan from the nonprofit Western Reserve Community Fund, which finances ventures in economically distressed neighborhoods.
The project also received a $30,000 facade grant from the city. Ederer used some of the money to install large storefront windows, replacing a single small window. The brick facade has been painted a cream color. A Lil’ Bit Café sign will soon go up outside.
A Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance-commissioned study focusing on retail revitalization was key, Ederer said, in helping convince him to go forward with the restaurant plan.
The study found Kenmore “was leaking restaurant traffic,” with residents going to the Montrose area and other spots to eat out, Boyes said.
She said the study showed demand for up to five additional food-related businesses on the boulevard, roughly five blocks of which were named to the National Register of Historic Places last year. The café is in a 1968 structure, which means it is too young to be included in properties that could land historic tax credits to help developers finance redevelopment projects.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. A walk-up window is available. Phone is 234-718-2233.
Contact reporter Katie Byard at 330-996-3781 or firstname.lastname@example.org.