Strip Of Success
Larson was never destined to make his mark on business in a steel skyscraper. Instead, he has created his own historic paradise, Olde Avon Village, in the corners and shadows of Lorain County’s fastest-growing city. Strangers who aren’t searching for Strip Steakhouse or Sassy’s or Jax or Carriage House might not know about the stores — and history — tucked off Detroit Road in Avon. But Larson says he likes it that way.
“I like the idea that we are secluded because it keeps us off the main commercial establishment,” he says. “You have to come down into it. I really think that, in the end, it will be a large benefit to us. If you give something good for a decent amount of money in a nice environment, people will come.”
The last two decades are proof of that philosophy. What began as the restoration of one historic building has turned into a passion of preservation and profit. In those years, Larson has moved six historic buildings onto four acres and added one new-construction strip. Combined, they equal the most eclectic dining and shopping experience in Lorain County.
“You have to have a vision,” Larson says. “I have this strange way of thinking. I can see things operating in my mind before they’re done. I can see a restaurant and what type of people come in. I can see how it will operate and how it all blends together. It’s just getting it there.”
Larson started getting there more than 15 years ago, after his first career ended in a buyout. After earning his bachelor’s in business administration — a “garbage degree” as he calls it, due to what he describes as a broad nature and lack of focus — he was an operations manager for a paper industry. Larson, now 52, was faced with choosing between a buyout, taking a new position or moving to Virginia. He took the money and ran to Lorain County, where he bought a house in Avon Lake and plotted his next move.
During that time, Larson explored his interests. Intrigued by the quaint buildings and country roads of Avon, he immersed himself in the town’s history. He learned of the area’s deep English roots dating back to the early 19th century. He discovered that was followed by a mass influx of German Catholics — whose impact is still visible in churches such as Holy Trinity and St. Mary and street names such as Nagel and Schwartz.
Armed with research and ideas, Larson purchased four acres of undeveloped land and an old historic farmhouse from a doctor who was using the front of the building for an office. Prior to the doctor, the farmhouse belonged to Matthias Alten, one of the founding fathers of Avon. That building is now home to the Tree House Gallery and Tea Room. It’s a cozy little place where patrons enjoy lunch surrounded by an eclectic mix of antiques and folk art — a statement that has become standard in Larson’s village.
The first venture was such a financial success that it allowed Larson the flexibility to save and transport five more 19th-century buildings to his land. One of them, an 1840s sandstone that has been converted to Details, an upscale gift shop, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Larson’s latest project is among his biggest. Last summer, during one of the worst economic crunches in history, Larson converted an 1850s barn into Strip Steakhouse, one of Lorain County’s few true steakhouses. The two-level restaurant with seating for 100 opened in November. The first floor has a curved bar, open kitchen and seating for 40. The upstairs can seat about 60.
“I got involved in the fact that I could move some of these structures that were landmarks,” Larson says. “In my eyes, they were beautiful. In other people’s eyes, they were considered junk because of the way they were left abandoned.”
This vision has seemingly stoked a successful business model. Larson beat the commercial boom that has boosted Avon by a few years. He has seen the corner gas stations and country roads replaced with Avon Crossings, housing developments, a baseball stadium and, soon, the Cleveland Clinic. The population and popularity explosion that have helped his businesses were just beginning to rumble when Larson began building Olde Avon Village.
“You could see things rapidly changing,” Larson says. “You’d hear things like shopping centers coming, roadways coming and sewers changing. … My mom would always say that life is 99 percent luck and the other 1 percent is being smart. I guess it was just luck.”
Still, Larson’s level of success and work ethic contradict that diagnosis. He makes all of his projects personal, doing as much of the physical work as he can to help save on costs and to “live the project.” He helped lift the sandstone house that today is Details off its original foundation and slid beams beneath for transporting it. He found an 1828 Liberty Head Cent copper penny in excellent condition buried in the corner of the building. Though he spent hours looking for more, that one historic souvenir remains a keepsake of the move.
He is an ardent supporter of local businesses, using local contractors and nurseries for any construction or renovation. He does his best to keep the money within Lorain County and hopes patrons feel the same way. Now he is a chef at Strip, but refuses to call himself the head chef because of the power such a title holds.
“I do everything that I would ask anyone else to do,” he says. “From cleaning the grease trap to putting down mulch in the landscape to planting a tree to cleaning out the gutters, I’ve done it all.”
Larson has enough land left for one more building and would like to finish his village, but the cost of moving old buildings is increasing. He must install phone lines and data cables and obtain permits while tying up roadways to make moves possible. He is unsure he wants to keep handling such immense projects. So the plot remains vacant while Larson, once again, measures his next move.
He doesn’t have a nonprofit foundation or any backing by big businesses. Banks stopped lending after the economic crash. That leaves just his wife and him, his two grown children and his love of history.
“My wife tells me my perseverance outweighs my intelligence,” he says. “It’s gotta work, or I have to figure out how to make it work. I’ve got everything invested in here. I can’t let it fail. There’s no looking back.”