FLORISSANT — A few new businesses cropping up in Old Town Florissant are defying the often-bleak picture painted of north St. Louis County, and they’re doing it amid a pandemic that’s keeping people home.
A craft bakery is set to open for to-go orders in the coming weeks. A wood-fired pizza place began carryout in June. And a brewery making its beer in the basement of a mainstay Italian restaurant is readying to open its own tap room sometime next year.
Florissant has struggled to keep some of its larger retailers. While the population of the county’s biggest city has stabilized, it was hit by a wave of brick-and-mortar closings in recent years, including Lowe’s, Pier 1, Kmart and Shop ‘n Save. And in scenes reminiscent of its neighbor Ferguson, Florissant has been a major target of protests this summer after one of its officers was caught on camera striking a Black man with a police vehicle. The officer has been fired.
But the owners of these three Old Town businesses all live in Florissant. Some grew up here. And they are investing in the town they love even as the coronavirus decimates shops and restaurants here and everywhere.
Interviews with the owners of small neighborhood restaurants, recently thriving local chains and paragons of contemporary dining reveal a range of experiences. No one knows what a return to “normal” will look like.
The virus certainly set back Lia Weber’s plans.
She bought the building at 610 Rue St. Francois in May 2019, then gutted it and built it into a bakery with small, cozy tables and gleaming white tiles.
Her shop, which she named “Made. By Lia,” was ready for a big launch on April 24.
But, as with most events caught in the pandemic, it didn’t happen.
“We were planning a grand opening,” she said. “And the world shut down.”
She had looked for a few years for a place. Weber, the winner of TLC’s “Next Great Baker” show in 2014 with baking partner Al Watson, scouted buildings downtown, in the Central West End, in Webster Groves and in Kirkwood.
When she found the right spot, it was a block from her house where she lives with her husband and kids, ages 3 and 11 months. She drives a golf cart to and from work.
“I would love for this to turn into a mini Webster or a mini Kirkwood,” Weber said of Old Town Florissant. “I think it has the potential to be a hip main street, and it just takes people following their dreams and investing their time and talents.”
And these days, it means doing so while facing the unrelenting uncertainty the coronavirus brings.
Weber got help from a Kickstarter campaign she launched a few weeks ago in hopes of raising $15,000 — it met that goal in 24 hours and has since exceeded $23,000.
A line backed up down the street for a recent pop-up event, opening the bakery for a day, and she’s busy with specialty orders — even a few wedding cakes, a source of revenue she has mostly lost, but hopes to recoup when rescheduled weddings happen next year.
“I’m sure this isn’t going away,” Weber said of the coronavirus. “So either way, I’ll be welcoming people with a smile on my face behind my mask.”
She’s hoping to start limited hours in August, probably Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays until she sells out.
Those are the evenings that Red Oven Wood Fired Pizza, a few blocks away at 315 St. Francois Street, is open.
Steve Purgahn, an accountant for more than three decades with a practice in Florissant since 2004, and his wife, Elizabeth, began their business with carryout on June 18.
He grew up two blocks from the restaurant and now lives a block away. His accounting firm is on Rue St. Francois.
“For us, it’s the uncertainty of what’s going to happen with our county,” Purgahn said Monday, shortly after St. Louis County said it was rolling back business occupancy limits to 25%, down from the previous limit of 50% set June 29. “Frankly, it’s a little frustrating because St. Charles County is a 10-minute ride away and doesn’t really have any restrictions.”
North County isn’t as wealthy as other parts of the St. Louis region, he said, but its residents also don’t have the debt load of those living in more expensive areas. And they’re willing to spend money locally.
The Purgahns didn’t want to open their pizzeria during tax season — then a pushback of the tax-filing deadline in addition to clients who needed help navigating the Paycheck Protection Program shifted his focus, again delaying the opening.
So they’re still decorating the restaurant’s interior and hoping to do dine-in service in August.
“If we can survive this, we’re on the road to being able to survive pretty much everything,” Purgahn said.
A few blocks away, the Narrow Gauge Brewing Company, named for the West End Narrow Gauge Railroad that reached from the city to Florissant in the 1800s, is working to add to that list of choices with a tap room.
For now, the brewery runs out of the basement of Cugino’s, an Italian restaurant on Lindbergh, in a space that used to be a small banquet room.
The brewery’s owners bought the building that formerly housed Pool King at 1545 North Highway 67, which is Lindbergh Boulevard, at the beginning of this year, said Heather Hardesty, who owns it with her husband, Jeff, as well as with Cugino’s owners Ben Goldkamp and David Beckham.
The coronavirus pushed back the timetable for opening, she said.
”We hit pause when this all hit in March,” she said.
Their plan for the space includes a beer production area, offices and a tasting room with between 50 and 75 seats — but no food.
Finding a building big enough for their needs was difficult, she said. They got close to securing a building in the Botanical Heights neighborhood in south St. Louis, but the deal fell through.
Then they got lucky that Pool King was selling its building, she said — they were glad to stay in Florissant and hope the tasting room can open early next year.
”But with everything that’s going on, it’s hard to say,” Hardesty said. “It could be delayed further.”