It’s all about locale (and local) for downtown entrepreneur

Jennifer Cornthwaite describes herself as a foodie. That’s because as co-owner of The Beat Coffeehouse and Records she oversees a year-old company in downtown Las Vegas well-known for its unique coffees and teas.

The business is also known for its Slap & Tickle, an organic peanut butter-and-homemade jam sandwich with smoked bacon, along with a variety of other items featuring organic and locally bought ingredients.

Cornthwaite is one of a growing number of business owners who have decided downtown Las Vegas is the place to be. She grew up in Santa Rosa, Calif., before moving to Las Vegas to study psychology and art history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas while working at the Hard Rock Hotel.

The experience, she said, whetted her appetite for opening her own gallery and set the stage for what was to come. Today, Cornthwaite spends a good deal of time working on issues related to the neighborhood.

“We all understand (that) the more new businesses and events we attract to the area the better the neighborhood will be,” she said. “This not only helps us, but it helps everyone in downtown Las Vegas.”

She also oversees the Emergency Arts project, which features 39 artists, photographers, and boutiques in remodeled exam rooms previously occupied by Fremont Medical Centers. For music fans in search of classic vinyl and memorabilia, about a quarter of her space is dedicated to records and concert posters.

The building at the corner of Sixth Street and Fremont Street is a former J.C. Penney department store that’s now owned by the El Cortez. The building stood vacant for more than 10 years after Fremont Medical Centers moved into a new facility at the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Wynn Road in 1997.

When she isn’t managing the coffeehouse, dealing with suppliers or being a landlord, Cornthwaite can be found around the corner at her husband’s bar — Downtown Cocktail Room — on Las Vegas Boulevard.

Don’t be surprised if Cornthwaite also plays a leading role in bringing back the downtown Farmers Market.

Question: Why open a coffeehouse and restaurant in downtown Las Vegas?

Answer: There was a desperate need for a business like ours in downtown Las Vegas. There was a similar coffeehouse called Enigma, which closed in 1998 or 1999. My husband, Michael, has worked downtown pouring drinks at several bars. My idea was to create the Emergency Arts project first. But we needed that project anchored by a place where people can meet and have a cup of coffee or a sandwich. I thought, “This has to be done.”

Question: What is the Emergency Arts project?

Answer: Emergency Arts is a creative collective that we established here at the former Fremont Medical Center. We transformed former exam rooms into shops, galleries and spaces for filmmakers and writers. We have 39 tenants. The El Cortez owns the building that was sitting empty. I approached them with the idea. The response has been overwhelming. It’s meant a little more work and a few more meetings, but I think they are happy overall.

Question: How long did it take you to open?

Answer: We built this place from the floor to the ceiling with our own hands. We started in March (2010), took a three-day break to get married, and opened the place in May.

Question: What are some of the challenges for a new-business owner?

Answer: It’s night and day from working in a bar to owning and running your own business. You don’t realize just how much work it is. I’ve been trying to get used to handling the mundane everyday tasks like handling the inventory system and preparing the prep lists with our chef. I didn’t think choosing a coffee roster would be as difficult as it was.

Question: Have there been any major issues you’ve had to deal with since you opened?

Answer: Not really. I’m still getting used to dealing with vendors. I have one vendor, who will remain nameless, who loses track of my checks and then sends me a slate of invoices telling me I haven’t paid my bills. I spend two hours of the day dealing with my bank records to make sure I have not double-paid them. We still have a need for more parking in downtown. We tell that to every mayoral candidate (who) comes to visit us.

Question: Why downtown Las Vegas and not Summerlin or Henderson?

Answer: My husband’s business (Downtown Cocktail Room) is here. Even before I met my husband I came downtown because it’s where the arts and culture is located in Las Vegas. If I wanted to have a gallery or work in a gallery I had to come downtown. (Jennifer is the former owner of Jennifer Marie Gallery.) Downtown is a community with a lot of history attached to it. I’ve lived in the suburbs. I feel like being part of a community here.

Question: Describe the business climate in downtown Las Vegas.

Answer: It is not just about us, it’s about the whole area. I spend 50 percent of my time working on issues related to the neighborhood. We all understand (that) the more new businesses and events we attract to the area the better the neighborhood will be. This not only helps us, but it helps everyone in downtown Las Vegas.

Question: What has business been like since you opened in May?

Answer: We had our best month ever in February. Our business continues to grow month after month. You have to understand we are not selling anyone a $500 bottle of vodka or a $100-a-plate dinner. It’s not even about the $17 cocktail. It’s about going somewhere where you can support local businesses. We want people to be able to afford to buy local so their dollars stay here. We have the Smith Center and Zappos coming downtown. The Ogden with people living here … if that doesn’t get you excited about downtown, then I’m in the wrong business. I’m very happy here. I’m not willing to open a check- cashing business in Summerlin. That wouldn’t fulfill me as a person.

Question: How do you stand out in a growing area?

Answer: We were the first local coffeehouse to feature Colorado River (Coffee) Roasters. They were in a couple of restaurants, but never (were) the house coffees for a local business. It was very important that we found a local roaster. All of our food is homemade, even our sauces. We do not feature prepackaged foods like the buffets at the hotels nearby. There is nothing wrong with that and the buffets are all right. But it’s absolutely our point to find as many local products as we can to make sure our food tastes good. We just try to do the best job we can. People notice that. The difference is, it’s more expensive to buy good, quality ingredients instead of prepackaged food. Our food costs are pretty high, but we are not going to start slicing the tomatoes thinner. We can figure it out.

Question: Where do you want the business to be in two years?

Answer: One piece of the puzzle is to make the business sustainable and able to pay its bills on its own. If we do that, then we have achieved our main goal. As I said, Zappos is coming we are excited about that. We want to start delivering to all the law offices and have more catering.

Question: Are there any challenges facing business owners on Fremont Street?

Answer: Getting 601 South Fremont occupied will help things. We need more bars to generate more traffic. We also need all the projects that are on the table to continue to move forward. The Ogden building filling up will help the neighborhood. We could really use a grocery store downtown.

Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at
csieroty@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893.

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