One business at a time: the remarkable renaissance of downtown Sandusky

The decline of downtown Sandusky coincided with the city’s loss of manufacturing jobs and population, along with a corresponding rise in development on U.S. 250 in Perkins Township. And it happened despite the city’s picturesque waterfront.

It slowly began to change in 2007 when restauranteurs Cesare Avallone and Andrea Crawford took a chance and opened Zinc Brasserie on Columbus Avenue, near the Sandusky State Theatre.

“Where we came from in New York, there were small river towns that were having these resurgences,” Crawford says. “These small cities that were industrial in their day and had gone through this huge depression, but were being renovated.

CRUSH Wine Bar is located at 145 Columbus Ave.“Money was being put into them by people who believed and offered a multitude of things, not just culinary. We’d seen that, so when we came here we wondered how could this not be happening here yet.”

Zinc went from a lunch-only place to an eclectic dinner destination and was followed by the two opening CRUSH across the street in 2010. The couple then opened Dockside Cafe two years later, expanded CRUSH winebar the following year, and moved Zinc to Water Street in 2014.

“Our 57-page business plan did not have an exit strategy,” Crawford says. “There was no other choice but to succeed. Given his culinary background and my front-of-house background, both of us coming up in the industry and our passion for it, we had a lot of drive.”

About the time Zinc was working on its move to Water Street, Nikki Lloyd and Ryan Whaley came up with a project of their own, opening the Volstead Bar in 2014. The two, who are both from the area, lived in Colorado for about 12 years.

The Volstead Bar is located at 316 E. Water St.“(The Volstead) just kind of happened,” Whaley says. “We came back and thought there was the start of a restaurant scene and thought we could contribute to that. There was no master plan or anything like that; it was just being back here and comparing it to other places I’ve been.”

“I think a lot of it was as you live in other places and travel and see all these beautiful things and places, you get the feeling that I’m proud of where I’m from because where I’m from is beautiful,” Lloyd adds. “You think, ‘My hometown is pretty cool too.’ It was a time for a change for us and we thought why not go home and try to help out.”

Zinc added Boom Town Coffee as part of its Water Street location, but both ultimately were closed after Avallone’s death in a 2021 car accident. Crawford, who was divorced from Avallone, continued to own CRUSH and Dockside Cafe, and is currently planning another expansion of the CRUSH footprint on Columbus Avenue.

“It took more than us,” Crawford says. “It took landlords to believe in us. It took vendors to work with us. It took staff to make that jump when we had no history to show them of what we knew we could do to make that jump to leave their jobs and come work for us. It took the city to believe in us.”

The city did show its support by approving revolving loan funds for both Zinc Brasserie and CRUSH projects.

“We took advantage of that both times and paid it back both times in full,” Crawford says. “It took a lot of people to believe in us and not just those people, but it took every single guest who walked in to give us a chance. We had to be good enough for them to not just enjoy it, but for them to want to come back.”

Hotel Kilbourne is located at 223 W. Water St.Volstead business partners Lloyd and Whaley have continued to develop places in downtown Sandusky. Lloyd now owns Hotel Kilbourne, a boutique hotel, that features Moseley’s Rooftop Bar, and the Mexican restaurant OH Taco. She is also the owner of Dandelion, a boutique gift store, and is getting ready to open The Bonnie Gallery with wife Robin, the owner of 546 Tattoo Studio. The Lloyds' current project is renovating a 10-unit apartment building, The Montgomery, on East Market Street.

“I think we were young and determined and we didn’t care what anyone said about it not working because we had been elsewhere and it did work,” Lloyd says. “You just had to know what scale to build it on. Any business I’ve been part of bringing here, it’s really been focused on complementing what was already working for the community. It wasn’t about trying to create more competition; it was about making things better and giving people the opportunity to do more.”

Whaley started with Green Door Media, which was located in the same building as Volstead Bar. He also worked with Lloyd and his brother Chad to open Paddle & Climb and the Paddle Bar across the street from Volstead. In addition, Ryan Whaley owns The Cedar Motel in Bayview.

“With my experiences in Breckenridge and Steamboat, Colorado, I wondered why we couldn’t do the same things here,” Whaley says. “Instead of slopes, we have roller coasters and islands and water. Now, do I think Sandusky can be the next Chicago? No, but I think Sandusky has much more potential than most think. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think there’s a lot more to do, but I do think it can be a major, major destination spot in the Midwest.”

dandelion is located at 223 W. Water St.Since the trio started opening spots in Sandusky, the area has seen an explosion of activity. Restaurants such as Tony’s, Barra, Small City Taphouse, J Bistro, Landmark Kitchen and Bar, and Vita have opened, to name a few.

Developers have restored and renamed the Cooke Building to the Hogrefe Building, Bowling Green State University's Resort and Attraction Management program is housed in a new building and the corner of Market and Hancock streets, and the distillery Everwild Spirits opened across the street from the campus. The City of Sandusky even moved its offices to downtown, in between Small City and Vita, in 2019.

The Sandusky State Theatre has been involved in a renovation project that started when it was nearly destroyed by a 2020 summer storm. The theater is nearly completed, with a new hotel slated to go into the parking lot behind the State and across the street from Hotel Kilbourne.

“If you look back at what’s happened over the last eight to 10 years, the entrepreneurs who came in and some of the stakeholders who came in, I think we’ve all worked very well together to create a base to build on,” Lloyd says. “We knew Sandusky had potential so we kind of laid the groundwork with some of the essentials for others, who are welcome to come in too.”

With a restaurant and bar scene fairly well developed, and more accommodations in the works, the next logical step for downtown is a rebirth in retail spaces. The Marketplace at the Cooke has brought a mix of eateries and retail, along with entertainment options to its Market Street location.

“It’s always good when everyone is doing something different,” Crawford says. “It gives a lot of options and I think it’s great to have options. Variety is really important to make sure our visitors have a variety, and that helps everyone succeed.”

“I think there is opportunity for retail, but it’s retail that goes beyond Amazon,” Whaley adds. “People are craving that local touch. Look at some of the places downtown that are doing well with retail, such as Lakelynn Design Boutique or MW Design Studio. You are starting to see these little pockets of retail that do work.”