COEBURN — James and Scott Lawson used to eat at the Bus Stop as kids. Now they hope to have others eat and cook there to help boost downtown Coeburn.
James, a financial planner, and Scott, a college bookstore manager and entrepreneur, joined their first two culinary partners and Wise County and Norton Chamber of Commerce members Friday for an early ribbon cutting of their Launch Enterprises at the Main Street landmark.
James said the idea to buy and renovate the building came after he and Scott thought about small business incubators to boost economic development in Wise County.
“There’s lots of incubators for small businesses but none for starting up restaurants,” James said.
Although several restaurants have opened in the county within the past five years, he said, most have had to raise loan and grant funding, buy kitchen equipment, and renovate buildings before serving their first customer.
The Bus Stop concept will help restaurant entrepreneurs build public followings without the initial expense of finding and renovating a building, James said. With a kitchen equipped with basic appliances, entrepreneurs can focus on hiring help, buying utensils and food, and building their business.
As entrepreneurial tenants develop their own followings, James said, they also develop a proven business plan that will help them secure financing when they move on to stand-alone enterprises.
The Lawson brothers picked the Bus Stop as the center of that idea because of childhood memories and the classic requirement for a business: location, location, location.
“I remembered our mother bringing us here all the time to eat when we were growing up, and it was great,” James said. “And now, it’s one of the best downtown opportunities in the area.”
The Bus Stop, which over the course of 70 years has served as a bank, bus service station, diner, and mine supply business office, stands on the same block as another major downtown renovation project, the former Lay’s Hardware building.
The Lawsons’ business plan includes a shared kitchen space allowing for different entrepreneurs to provide a variety of food and drink throughout the business day and night. The first two partners in that concept — baker Kristin Rutherford and James’ daughter, Mackenzie Waller — will be serving up baked goods and coffee beverages when the Bus Stop opens for business sometime in May or June.
Rutherford, a teacher who got into baking in 2020 when local schools closed for in-person classes last spring, said she had built a following of more than 1,000 people for her Blue Jean Bakery with her breads and pastries.
Waller said the location of a fitness center in the Lay’s building means her Vine Coffee House has an opportunity to sell protein drinks and smoothies in addition to coffee drinks.
Scott said the Bus Stop will allow Rutherford, Waller and other culinary partners to pair their respective offerings for customers while providing a downtown dining establishment.
Scott said the Bus Stop will not be just about food. Entrepreneurs with a variety of retail-oriented products will share a mercantile gift space in the front of the building without having to go through the same sort of startup costs that restaurateurs might face.
Local artists will be able to display their work for sale too, Scott said. He said his own experience setting up a T-shirt and graphics business has been based on partnerships with other local entrepreneurs, and that experience has helped shape the brothers’ vision for the project.
“My business model is working with other small businesses,” Scott said. “If they succeed, I succeed.”
James said he plans to use that same philosophy with other local restaurants, local farmers and other producers. Developing partnerships with Sugar Hill Brewery in St. Paul, sourcing locally raised meats and produce, and even a family connection with local winery Mountain Rose Vineyard fall in line with mutual success among local businesses.
The Lawsons said they also hope to make the Bus Stop a destination for students at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, with plans for a shuttle bus and exploring ways that students might use their college meal plans at the restaurant.
The Lay’s Hardware building also serves as a local music venue, James said, helping make the Bus Stop part of an evening experience. As Spearhead Trails expands its hiking and ATV trail systems in the Coeburn area, that means another customer opportunity, he added.
“If we have a full house here for dinner, we can call other area restaurants to see if they have openings,” James said. “If we are being successful, we can help other businesses be successful.”