WEST END — Ollie’s Trolley owner Marvin Smith knows most of his customers by name, even though many of them are new and he serves between 100 and 200 people a day. As he first explained to us last June, his food establishment has experienced a remarkable surge in business because of COVID and gentrification over the past year.
Since that last report, his business has only gotten better.
“[I]t just won't stop,” Smith said.
The intense demand for his food keeps Smith on his feet from sunup to sundown. He has no time to go out and enjoy other restaurants because he’s so busy tending to his own.
“I'm not complaining," he said. "But you know, 12 hours a day is a lot of work, a lot of time. So, I'm looking forward to retirement.”
Due to all of the customers, Smith is hiring new employees to manage the long lines that appear at lunchtime. Construction workers from the FC Cincinnati Stadium across the street and the Samuel Adams Brewery next door regularly stream in to get their fix of burgers and soul food plates. Affluent residents of Over-the-Rhine’s newly renovated luxury apartments nearby make up the other significant part of his new clientele. Smith said they appreciate the healthy, hearty takeout option that still lets them socially distance.
“I couldn't ask for any better customers – loyal customers,” Smith said. “They come every day, rain and shine. Even when it was cold and snowy and wet in zero weather, they still came and stood in line to get something to eat. And that's remarkable. That's a testament to their faith in me and our good food and good service.”
Smith anticipates having continued business from the construction workers and their families, customers who ate at his establishment before the pandemic who will eventually return, as well as the new crowds from the FC Cincinnati games. He is also expecting a hefty profit from his plot of land if he decides to sell, because developers keep making handsome bids to buy.
What makes Smith's prosperity at this time so remarkable is that many of his fellow Black business owners have been forced to close their doors because of COVID-19 – the very factor that has bolstered Ollie's Trolley's success. The Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce reports that about 300 Black-owned businesses have folded in Cincinnati during the pandemic.
"We have seen a number of our members who have gone out of business due to the pandemic," said Eric Kearney, president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce. "We're not sure if they'll come back or not, but we did PUSH grants to try and help them succeed. But some people were able to make it through; but I'd say about 25% to 30% were not."
Smith plans on buying more stock, putting his tables and canopies back up and adjusting a few things for the soccer crowd to prepare for the big upcoming games.
But Smith might move on from Ollie’s Trolley in a few years' time, since his business and plot of land have become so valuable due to all of the development in the West End and Over-the-Rhine. He continues to get competitive offers at around $1 million to give up his space at the junction of Liberty Street and Central Avenue. For now, Smith is refraining from entering a contract. He says he has gotten the property appraised and is holding out for a better deal.
Smith thinks it is best to wait another year to gauge what his business is like once FC Cincinnati Stadium opens. That way, he can then decide if it’s best to stay in business or if he should sell and make a huge profit off of the lot where he’s been serving his acclaimed comfort food for almost 30 years. Outside of running Ollie’s Trolley, he has a host of creative interests like writing a book, getting into film and television, and transitioning into teaching at Chatfield College full time.
But the pushback Smith has received from fans about him potentially leaving his post has further complicated his ability to make a decision. The West End and Over-the-Rhine have changed dramatically in recent years with various development projects that have brought the stadium, luxury apartments and other recreational spaces like Washington Park and Findlay Market. Yet the gentrification has also wiped out crucial housing developments and cultural establishments for low-income and Black residents. Those who have already been impacted by the gentrification dread the idea of losing one of their favorite food spots, too.
“It puts me in a position to not really know whether I should accept some of the offers that people have offered me – mass amounts of money, you know, for this corner, the site," Smith said. "So I have to make that decision. Do I stay and expand? Or do I take the money and move on and do some other things?”
In addition to offering pickup orders, Ollie's now takes orders through DoorDash, Uber and Grubhub. Smith said he looks forward to the stadium's grand opening, as well as to the early sneak peek that will be specially offered to people in the neighborhood. When that big day comes, Smith says his tall stacks of burgers and buns will be ready.
Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.
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