By David Skolnick
It was less than a year ago that the Lemon Grove, a downtown bar and restaurant that also serves as a meeting place for artists and community activists, was paying about $1,200 a month in overdraft fees unable to balance its bottom line.
Now it’s preparing to move to the former Rosetta Stone Cafe and Lounge, two doors east of the Lemon Grove’s current location.
The purchase will be finalized next month, said Jacob Harver, Lemon Grove owner since it opened at 122 W. Federal St. in August 2009.
The Lemon Grove, in the city’s downtown, “broke the first rule of business: We had no working capital,” Harver said. “There were some really bad times with no idea what to do.”
Harver spent $130,000 to turn 122 W. Federal St., which once housed a shoe store and a pharmacy, into the Lemon Grove, an artist coffee house/restaurant.
But a greater focus on growing the business “and the maturity to do what we do” has turned around the fortunes of the Lemon Grove, he said.
“It was lawless mayhem,” Harver said.
He credits Amy Lisi, the Grove’s general manager, for the turnaround.
“It’s always a work in progress,” she said. “There’s a little dance that has to be done, and I was willing to tango. That includes bookkeeping, keeping track of overhead, managing labor and keeping control of the cost.”
The improvement is so significant that Harver is in the final stages of purchasing 110 W. Federal St.
For 21/2 years, a five-floor building with 10 times the space of the Lemon Grove, housed the Rosetta Stone, a popular restaurant that closed in August 2010.
Harver said he’s secured a loan from Huntington Bank to buy the building.
Harver declined to say what the purchase cost is, but acknowledged it’s six-figures but well below $1 million. Three months before going out of business, the owners of the Rosetta Stone unsuccessfully tried to sell the business, asking $2.9 million for it.
The Lemon Grove relocation is largely twofold, Harver said.
Harver rents the current Lemon Grove location from Jeff Kurz, owner of the Imbibe, located next door heading west, and Harver would own the former Rosetta Stone property.
“It provides us with long-term security,” Harver said.
He added he’s unsure what will happen to the Lemon Grove’s current location. There’s a chance he may continue to rent it.
The second reason is the increased space will allow Harver to do much more with his business.
Harver said he plans to open the new restaurant, after giving it a “Lemon Grove-ization,” on the ground floor with a target opening date of June 21, his birthday.
“The Rosetta Stone building is a turn-key; we need to give it our character, but not much is needed to transform it into a restaurant,” he said. “To me, atmosphere is the most important aspect of a caf .”
The 110 W. Federal St. location also has a larger kitchen, Harver added.
There will be much more space at the new location for concerts, poetry readings, art exhibits and discussions about social issues and the arts, he said.
Also, Harver plans to operate a catering business at the new location in the fall.
The basement needs work, but Harver said he wants to transform it in to a performance place by Christmas.
To help pay for the “Lemon Grove-ization” of 110 W. Federal St., and for other work to the building, Harver is looking for contributions through a “Kickstarter” online campaign.
To donate, go to http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lemongrove/project-110 online. As of late Friday afternoon, the project had raised $2,555 from 26 donors. The campaign ends May 14.
In the future, Harver wants to use the second floor as a banquet room. The upper two floors would be turned into living space for bands and artists in need of a place to stay with a communal kitchen area and seven to eight rooms.
The Lemon Grove currently employs about 25 people. About 10 to 20 new jobs would be created by the fall, Harver said.