Dynamic changes in Clayton as new businesses

Dynamic changes in Clayton as new businesses and Flora Square revamp come to Town Center

Dynamic changes in Clayton as new businesses
Flora Square, renamed Rhine House for one of Clayton’s founders, Jacob Rhine, is heading for a new life as the upstairs offices are slated to become apartments and the corner unit which has never been occupied will become a new restaurant. Skipolini owner Kent Ipsen is in the process of buying and renovating the 20 year old building at the corner of Oak and Center in Clayton. (Tamara Steiner photo)

CLAYTON, CA (Jan. 22, 2024) — Clayton has struggled for years looking for different ways to create a vibrant, “Sonoma-like” Town Center in this out-of-the way suburb. While the business landscape has evolved over its 150 year history, during the last two years, it’s gotten a bit of an overhaul and may be closer to realizing the dream.

Several new businesses came to town, and a few establishments went through some changes. Restaurants have gone and new ones have come.

Cup O’ Jo coffee shop got some competition, with Sip ’N Sweet offering both coffee and ice cream since last spring.

Newly opened Odyssey VRLounge adds a sorely needed entertainment option while Clayton Yoga’s move downtown from Clayton Station fills the physical fitness hole left by Snap Fitness’ move to the corner of Kirker Pass and Clayton Rd. two years ago.

Odyssey VR Lounge opened in November in Village Oaks Building in space vacated by retiring realtor Lynne French. The virtual reality arcade, sandwiched between Ed’s Mudville Grill and Sip ’N Sweet – is reimagining that building as a destination for Clayton’s younger crowd.

Odyssey offers virtual escape rooms, family bundles and events, and more than 70 VR gaming experiences.

Changes at Flora Square

In May, JOR Fine Art Gallery celebrated its first year in Flora Square. The two-story building across from the bocce courts at Oak and Center Streets is expected to be revamped under new ownership, potentially renamed Rhine House, which harkens back to one of Clayton’s founders, Jacob Rhine.

Skipolini’s owner Kent Ipsen is in the process of purchasing the building and intends to open a restaurant with outdoor seating downstairs and convert the second floor into apartments.

Planning commissioner Dan Richardson has high hopes for the Flora Square overhaul. He believes Ipsen will realize the vision the town developed for Flora Square over the last 20 years – creating a building full of life and local businesses.

“I’m hopeful that it comes to fruition,” Richardson said. “And knowing the Ipsen family, I think it will. They’ve done a lot of things around here.”

Richardson says the Town Center needs something to draw shoppers and diners.

“Sometimes you just need that spark, and I’m very hopeful that this is going to do exactly that.”
Ipsen’s restaurant, Enye, would open in the ground floor corner unit, which has never been rented. The top floor’s conversion to six high-end apartments would bring new residents into the Town Center.

Ipsen brought his proposal before the Planning Commission in late 2023 and said: “It’s a beautiful building, but it’s gone through a series of owners and, sadly, it’s just been under-tenanted and so underfunded.”

Ipsen has Planning Commission approval, and his next step is to obtain the entitlements.

Loss of nail salon, Subway

The inconsistency at Flora Square led to the closure of Nails Naturally By Lisa, which had rented space there for several years while it sat largely empty until JOR Fine Art Gallery came along.

Owner Lisa Kerr says working in Clayton allowed her to return to her roots. “I was able to build into a small community and give back and volunteer.”

However, when the building was sold to the current owner, who precedes Ipsen, Kerr said communication fizzled out. “I tried everything to stay,” said Kerr. She kept her business alive and is now located at 5356 Clayton Road in Concord.

Meanwhile, Clayton’s Subway closed along with 13 others Subway sites in the Bay Area. The franchisees, John and Jessica Meza, have been ordered to pay $1 million in backpay and damages to employees.

A federal investigation found that they directed children as young as 14 to use dangerous equipment, had minors work hours not legally permitted and regularly failed to pay employee wages.

Knowing the local market

JOR Fine Art Gallery owner Julia O’ Reilly, who owns another gallery in Blackhawk, has come to understand why running a business in Clayton is different.

“Clayton is, of course, unique – a small town. And basically, it’s pure. It’s not commercialized too much.”

Down the way in the Royal Rooster’s old building at 1030 Diablo St., Pat Pannell expanded Chickboss by selling gifts in 2023. She was getting feedback that people missed the Royal Rooster, which closed during the pandemic. However, she says, “The reality was the sales were not sufficient to warrant having an employee.”

She is focused on her fair-trade jewelry business, which hails from Guatemala, and doesn’t want to be in the shop full-time, so the gift shop will only be open a couple days each month. Look for the balloons out front and head inside if you see them.

Flourishing Learners, a tutoring and homeschooling center that focuses on enrichment and one-on-one instruction, opened its doors at 6160 Center St. when owner Stephanie Jones left teaching following the COVID-19 ­pandemic.

She and her staff are able to provide one-on-one attention. They are also instrumental with homeschooling kids who made that change during COVID.

Expanding dining options

Chef Judi Green closed the Groveside Bistro this year and has already returned to private catering, serving events around Clayton. She says that owning the restaurant was a wonderful experience, but business was inconsistent.

“It used to be a destination place to eat,” she said, adding that not much is drawing people to the Town Center now. “We need to maybe develop some historical attractions.”

Green said that some days the restaurant would be packed, but if there was a ball game in town, it would be empty. “There’s a lot of ­competing behavior because it’s a small, small town.”

It was a full house on opening day as the CBCA holiday decorations committee joined other Claytonians for brunch at Sylar Bistro after striking and storing this year’s decorations. Owner Nicki Buyer is standing at left. (Tamara Steiner photo)

The Bistro changed hands and is now open as Skylar Bistro at 6101 Center St., with a combination of American and Thai food on the menu. Owner Nicki Buyer says she chose Clayton because of its location near Walnut Creek and its idyllic setting.

Skylar Bistro is her first restaurant. Her unannounced “soft opening” pulled in a full house for brunch and a solid crowd for dinner.

Sip ’N Sweet, at 6200 Center St., had a good first year, though it’s a challenge selling ice cream in the winter. Owner Danielle Grimsey suspects the reality is that most downtown Clayton business struggle.

“The reason I built it is because I really felt like the city needed it. I felt like the kids needed it,” Grimsey said.

Where everybody knows your name

While the landscape of Clayton has shifted from lodging to dining and now a wider variety of businesses, certain establishments have remained staples. Ed’s Mudville Grill is celebrating 30 years, and owner Ed Moresi’s second restaurant, Moresi’s Chophouse, opened in 2006 and achieved success despite the recession. La Veranda continues to offer its Italian specialties, and despite the 2004 fire which nearly destroyed the building, the Village Market steadfastly chugs along with a large liquor and wine section and quick food items.

Now, Nichole Simpson has opened Roadside22, a wine and beer bar down Clayton Road in the Clayton Station shopping center that borders Concord. They host events and happy hours for teachers, first responders and their entire clientele.

She wants to unite Concord and Clayton where they meet, echoing a sentiment from nearly every business owner interviewed: “It’s important to have a place where people can come together and talk, know what’s going on in their community, help each other out and make new friends.”

Vince Martellacci
Vince Martellacci

Vince Martellacci is a somewhat new resident of Clayton who loves to spend time in the town center and in Concord. He represents musicians across the Bay Area in the media when he’s not writing. Contact him at vince@4amindiepublicity.com.