By BRENNA GRITEMAN
For the past three years or so, just about every new restaurant or retail store coming to Tiffin has settled in the downtown area. And that’s no accident.
“It really tickles me to death when I walk through downtown Tiffin … and point side to side at all the new businesses,” says Mayor Aaron Montz, ticking off newcomers like Simply Susan’s, The Empire at 138 and Put-N-Pita as prime examples. “It’s just business after business locating down here.”
The new businesses join a host of downtown staples like Deckers Furniture and Burns Electric in an area of town that clearly has its eye as much on historic preservation as it does modern expansion. And amid the boom in new businesses, long-established joints like Reino’s Pizza and Clover Club are looking better than ever thanks to a facade program that empowers shop owners to embrace the beauty of a historic structure that may need some sprucing up.
Six years ago, during his first run for mayor, Montz campaigned with a focus on bringing life back to a stagnant downtown. Now 31, he remains steadfast in his belief that a community’s success is measured by its downtown activity — and that government doesn’t create jobs, necessarily, but rather an energy and an environment which encourages others to do so.
During his first few years in office, Montz led the city in beautifying the downtown with flowers and planters, the removal of overgrown trees and the leveling of upheaved sidewalks. Then he turned his attention to the buildings themselves.
In September 2014, the city launched the Tiffin Facade Enhancement Grant Program which fed $100,000 of city funds into a pot. Downtown business owners could apply to the program with the promise of matching funds dollar for dollar. So far, the city has put $350,000 into the program, which has generated over $1.4 million in private investment. The fund has brought about 54 projects including the reintroduction of balconies and awnings to buildings that had removed them over time, new roofs, windows and paint jobs and tuckpointing.
In turn, the mass makeover tacitly invited other new businesses looking to establish themselves in a vibrant part of town into their midst. Downtown Tiffin welcomed 11 new businesses in both 2015 and 2016, and so far this year has seen four new businesses with three more confirmed.
“It’s night and day difference in downtown Tiffin,” Montz says.
One of the area’s greatest success stories is the fantastically popular Empire at 138 restaurant. Featuring white tablecloths, live piano three nights a week and a restored 19th-century bar, the restaurant is a hotspot for business lunches, date nights and cocktails over thoughtfully prepared dishes.
General manager Mike Pinkston says the restaurant opened last September and its reception has been decidedly positive. The Empire won diners’ choice awards in February and March, and was named the best new restaurant in its market in January.
“We really wanted to do really delicious food in a wonderful environment that people could find in lots of metropolitan areas,” he says. “People like us a lot and come again and again and again.”
On the menu are classically American options like burgers and salads, along with some options you won’t find just anywhere, including a Cuban rice bowl served with poached eggs, lollipop lamb chops and a truffle oil grilled cheese. Pinkston says all the jams, guacamole, hummus and even ketchup are made in-house, and locally sourced produce is used as often as possible.
Aside from the food, a talking point in the restaurant is the bar itself. Built in Cleveland in the 1870s, the bar was housed inside McClain’s Restaurant in Bellevue until its closure 10 years ago. The Empire’s owners bought the bar from a man who had purchased it at auction a decade ago and took it to a local woodworker who made matching pieces to those that were missing and fitted them all together. A local carpenter then fashioned the restaurant’s front doors to match the bar. Pinkston calls the bar “a real standout piece” and says some customers do recognize it, although they can’t always put their finger on from where.
Like so many others downtown, the building housing The Empire went through a miraculous change before becoming the chic space it is today. Built just after the Civil War, the dining room area was a former drugstore, while the bar was a grocery. During its extensive renovations, the restaurant owners kept the original wood floors and tin ceiling intact while also taking advantage of the downtown facade program for things like new windows, decorative trim and steel columns.
As someone who spends most days in downtown Tiffin, Pinkston says it’s been fun to watch the area come to life, with people living in apartments above the buildings, storefronts being cleaned up and more people in general out and about.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm for downtown. … It’s fun to watch that happen,” he says.
Amy Reinhart, downtown Main Street manager with Seneca Industrial and Economic Development Corp., says the facade program was a “fantastic catalyst” to the resurgence of downtown Tiffin, adding Heritage Ohio has called it the best facade program in northwest Ohio. However, she feels the area’s growth can also be attributed to the city joining the Ohio Main Street program in December 2015 and becoming a nationally accredited Main Street city in March of this year. Operating under Heritage Ohio, the program takes a comprehensive approach toward revitalization including design, marketing, business enhancement and operations.
A few other new or nearly new businesses in downtown Tiffin include:
- FroZone Frozen Yogurt: Think Sweet Frog, but without all the neon. This classy-looking self-service frozen yogurt shop is located inside the Laird Arcade and is a favorite among kids of all ages.
- Joanie’s Trash To Treasures: A thrift shop located at 181 S. Washington St., you’ll find a little bit of everything here. Best of all, proceeds are used to help community members in need. Charitable donations can be dropped off during store hours.
- Put-N-Pita: This Greek restaurant is located inside the Laird Arcade and spreads delicious smells throughout the entire three-level building. The gyro meat is packed around a spool and cooked rotisserie-style, as is tradition.
- Simply Susan’s: Located at 70 S. Washington St., this women’s clothing boutique also offers handmade chocolates (think Dietsch’s, minus the ice cream) and Ohio- and Tiffin-themed clothing items, along with crafting and scrapbooking supplies with regular art classes held in the back room.
- Washington Street Outfitters: This impossibly cool boutique sells clothing for men and women at prices the college kids can actually afford. Also on sale in the two-story Laird Arcade shop are jewelry and other accessories, housewares and, of course, vinyl.
Discover Tiffin! this summer
There’s no shortage of summertime fun to be had in downtown Tiffin, as listed by Discover Tiffin!
Here are a few things to look forward to through the end of August:
- Party in the Garden at Grammes-Brown House: 1-4 p.m. Sunday and Monday
- Seneca County Farmers Market, 100 S. Washington St.: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 24; July 8 and 22; Aug. 12 and 26
- Beer Tasting and Tap Takeover at Phat Cakes: 6 p.m. June 24, July 29 and Aug. 26
- Farm to Table Dinner at Empire 138, 138 S. Washington St.: June 28; July 12 and 26; Aug. 16 and 30
- St. Joseph Festival at St. Joseph Church: 3-11 p.m. July 8; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. July 9
- Monty Python’s “Spamalot,” at The Ritz Theatre: 7:30 p.m. July 14, 15 and 22; 2 p.m. July 22
- Simply Susan’s Painting on the Patio at Clover Club: 7 p.m. July 19
- Pizza Palooza and Family Movie Night: 6 p.m. July 22
- Downtown Garage Sale: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Aug. 12
- Tiffin Music & Art Festival: 6 p.m. to midnight Aug. 25; 9 a.m. to noon Aug. 26.
To stay up to date on all that’s happening, visit TiffinOhio.org or download the Discover Tiffin! app.