Joe Downtown: Mini-mart owners among the few who have said ‘no’ to Tony Hsieh
Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
It’s Thursday morning, and a few customers wander the aisles of the Ogden Mart, a downtown Las Vegas sub shop and convenience store that the Shabo brothers bought 13 years ago.
The brothers, and the store, have struggled. Over the years, they've had to work the margins and scrimp to pay their bills. The store sits on one of the most rugged urban street corners downtown.
The brothers could have sold their store — presumably for millions — but they held their ground. Many of their neighbors haven't. Most have sold their homes and businesses to the Downtown Project for big bucks.
Five months ago, the Shabos got a sales offer from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's outfit, which has bought close to $200 million in downtown property in recent years, according to commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield Commerce.
The brothers turned down the offer because it wasn’t enough.
“Everything is for sale for the right price,” Tony Shabo said. “But we worked 13 years on this. What they offered was a ridiculous offer … We’re making our bills and living. That’s enough for us now.”
Business is growing at the Ogden Mart, in part because redevelopment, much of it headed by the Downtown Project, is creeping their way. In the past year, sales at the mini-mart have increased 25 percent.
“It’s pissing a lot of people off,” Tony Shabo said of the Downtown Project's efforts. “But it’s working. Before, people would stay in these motels for $400, $500, and many of them were addicts or prostitutes or drug dealers. (The Downtown Project) bought those motels and closed some. Those people moved out. They are angry because they can’t afford to stay downtown anymore. But it’s better for people who are good and want to just live here.”
In fact, the Shabos have taken a page from Hsieh and his minions and are using social media to get the word out about their business.
Employee Tevis Eichel created a database for the brothers that has helped them target customers and expand into nearby businesses, including hundreds of law offices downtown. Eichel, who works in the store making subs while she goes to school for a business degree, also created a catering menu so sandwiches can be made for parties. The brothers hope to expand to provide food for school lunches.
In about a month, sandwich orders have tripled, Eichel said.
“Tony has a very entrepreneurial spirit," she said. "They put this all together from the ground up. I was inspired and wanted to help.”
Eichel sees downtown changing.
“People are afraid of the area because they have been for years, but the redevelopment and everything moving outward has really helped,” she said. “All it takes is for someone to come here once, see how clean it is, see the service, and they know it’s different.”
Getting to that point was difficult.
Tony, Billy and Johnny Shabo stand behind their counter, recalling interactions with drug dealers and pimps who hung around the store's front door “doing business.” Billy Shabo would try to talk them into leaving. Many conversations ended in fistfights.
“We let the people know who we are and what we stand for,” Johnny Shabo said.
"They thought they could take advantage of us because it’s a public place, but we don’t take anything from anyone,” Tony Shabo said. “If you want to be nice, we’ll be nice. If you want to be rowdy, I’m going to be rowdy with you.”
Asked if he was ever physically hurt, Johnny Shabo says no.
“Not physically,” Tony Shabo interjects. “But emotionally, yes.”
The brothers have known struggle for much of their lives. Fearing the Iran-Iraq war, their father moved them and eight relatives out of Iraq in the 1980s. The family spent a few years in exile in Turkey, then Italy, until they received visas to come to the United States.
In San Diego, Tony Shabo’s older brothers cleaned carpets until they saved enough money to open a liquor store. When that didn’t work out, they moved to Las Vegas.
In 2000, they bought the Ogden Mart at 823 E. Ogden Ave.
They smile at the progress being made downtown and in their store. While detractors growl that Tony Hsieh and his Downtown Project are gentrifying age-old corners of the city, the Shabos are unapologetic supporters.
Their store is immaculate and stocked with more than 3,000 square feet of hundreds of items, far more than you'd find in a typical convenience store. Next door, an old building is being remodeled and turned into office space. The Shabos said the last they heard, developers were talking about building a residential building across the street.
A man in a muscle shirt walks into the Ogden Mart. Tony Shabo looks up and nods.
“What’s happening, man?” the guy says. He spends about 15 seconds in the store and leaves.
He’s someone the Shabos kicked off their corner a few years ago.
“He’s a street person coming in to see what’s going on, what kind of clientele we have," Tony says. "When he sees there’s no business here, he leaves.”
Then, Tony smiles.
“We probably won’t see him for another three years.”