Broad Avenue power couple expand reach with new bar venture

Lisa and Luis Toro are individually quite personable, but together they’re dynamic. Sitting in their flagship Broad Avenue venture, City & State, their chemistry as a couple and business partners is clear. They often finish sentences in unison as they reflect on their last four years as entrepreneurs on Broad and their next big steps — which include a new City & State location and a new Broad Avenue-area bar opening early next year.

They leased the building at 2625 Broad and opened City & State in 2015. It offers crafted coffee and retail finds from makers around the country. Their second business, the Liquor Store, is a funky diner and bar that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Expected by spring 2019, the Toros will launch Hold Steady, a bar concept still in the planning stages, at 509 North Hollywood Street at the corner of Hollywood and Broad. Formerly occupied by bike repair shop Bikesmith, the 2,700 square-foot indoor space and large yard will transform into a bar with a limited menu, space for food trucks and availability for private events.

Between the three locations, the Toros will have Broad Avenue patrons covered for coffee, shopping, parties, three meals a day and a nightcap all in a four-block span. Not bad for two people who had zero experience in retail or the service industry prior to City & State.

“We left [our] corporate gigs to come in and own a restaurant where we had no idea,” said Luis. “So in many cases, we’re very open to the idea we’re going to fail every single day and that’s OK … We look at it with a very open mind and very open heart.”

Each business is unique, but for the Toros, they bear common threads. Each venture has been a bit of a risky, unique-to-Memphis business that has focused on the customer experience. Each contributes to the unique character of Broad Avenue. Most importantly, all three are a chance to foster community and face-to-face connection, something the Toros craved after years in cubicles and climbing corporate ladders.

“We’re absolutely creating what we believe to be experiences,” said Lisa. “So I’m not just selling you a cup of coffee, I’m not just giving you a burger. I’m creating an experience and I’m doing it in a way that is very physical and very real as compared to what we were [doing] … It’s so far removed from the actual person walking in the door.”

Lisa and Luis Toro look out into the backyard of their future bar. They image space for socializing and parking food trucks. (Cole Bradley)

Hold Steady

The Toros say they plan to keep the checkerboard facade of the Hollywood building but will take down the yellow bicycles bolted along its front and update the entrances.

“When [Bikesmith] made the decision to vacate, we were first in line,” said Lisa. “It’s just too good to let it go to waste and we want to keep the momentum of Broad and keep bringing more 
that people can enjoy and that will drive them to keep visiting often.”

The Toros, who leased the building in September, said the inside will seat around 50 people and feature a large bar. The outside space will have room for food trucks.

“What we’re doing is still evolving, so it’s not yet a final concept. As we did with the Liquor [Store], we really got the building first and then came up with the idea after,” said Lisa. “For now we’re just focused on the interior, we’ll get to the exterior as the weather improves.”

“I think what I enjoy about these things … is the idea of figuring that problem out. I think that’s kind of where we get the kick,” said Luis.

The name, said Lisa, is an invitation to linger in the space and, by extension, the neighborhood.

“It’s trying to invoke this idea of just being in a place. Just holding there and being present in it. Relaxing. Hold steady. Just be. Just hang,” she said.

“We like this building on Hollywood because it starts to turn the corner and better connect these offshoots into the neighborhood,” she said of the street, which connects Broad to both Poplar and Summer avenues.

“Broad’s been great, we’ve had a lot of growth and new business coming in … now it’s a matter of we have to branch out and tie back into the neighborhoods that sit on either side of us.”

A New Dream

Luis moved to Memphis from Venezuela at 17 and is a graphic designer and web developer by trade. Lisa moved to Memphis from California during middle school then headed to Knoxville for college before returning to Memphis. Her background includes both finance and co-founding Memphis-based web design and marketing firm, Rocket Fuel. The Toros were working for Hilton Hotels — he as senior manager of digital design and she as senior director of digital brand marketing — when they left to open City & State.

“I had big budgets and had a fabulous salary and great benefits, and I was absolutely miserable,” she said. He agreed.

They both said they loved Hilton and what it taught them about user experience and how to run a company, but they craved more meaningful interactions with customers and a community.

“I think a lot of the reason why we’re here and why we’re looking to expand into other things is because we enjoy what we do very much,” said Luis. “There’s something appealing about not being right all the time. Not being expected to have all the answers. Kind of learning by getting your hand burnt. It’s experience that you’re getting.”

City & State combines the metropolitan feel of a New York coffee shop with friendly staff. (Cole Bradley)

City & State

City & State opened in March 2015 and pulled inspiration from third-wave coffee shops in Seattle, Nashville, Chicago, New York and Portland. At the time, practices that were common there, like manual brewing, weren’t well-known in Memphis.

“It was a risk and we knew it was a risk, and I think we took that in a way as a challenge to say how do we get Memphis’ buy-in on this and help them appreciate the reasons that we love it so much and are so drawn to it,” said Lisa.

City & State now has four full-time employees and four part-time employees. Sam Cruze is their lead barista and said it’s a space for aficionados and people who just want a no-fuss cup of quality coffee.

“Part of what I enjoy about it is the craftsmanship,” said Cruze. “I think a lot of times, coffee especially is seen like a quick get-in-get-out type of commodity. Everyone who works here is coming in every day and really putting a lot of themselves into what they do. And it’s not just the baristas that are putting so much into it, it’s the farmers, people picking the coffee and roasting the coffee.”

Regular customer Jim Cornfoot said the quality and care of selection shows.

“They source the best coffees from the best roasters,” he said. “They stock their barista bar with people who know what they’re doing and make very informed recommendations. They’re friendly, they’re personable, they know my name, they know my quirks … They care about their neighborhood and they care about their clients.”

Retail accounts for 40 percent of City & State’s sales. With several other shops on Broad already featuring Memphis-made goods, the Toros’ selection is carefully curated with makers from across the U.S. who are looking to grow beyond their cities. Some of the makers have gone on to secure contracts with Sephora, Nordstroms and Anthropologie.

“It really was to say, ‘Look, they’re doing awesome things in their cities, and I want to bring them here and show Memphis that there’s this larger maker movement happening,'” said Lisa.

The Toros are in the early stages of opening a second City & State location in Memphis but have yet to settle on a site. 

City & State's lead barista, Sam Cruze, says his favorite part of the job is the people - his coworkers, the Toros and interacting with customers. (Cole Bradley)

The Liquor Store

The Liquor Store opened at 2655 Broad in November 2017. It’s a small place, only seating around 45 people. The concept is an upscale, funky diner and bar at affordable prices.

Related: "Diner backed by owners of City & State coffee shop headed to Broad Avenue"

“We needed lunch options, we needed more breakfast options on the street,” said Lisa. “We wanted something that was more affordable for anyone and everyone, we didn’t want it to be fine dining … You can have affordable food in a beautiful, funky space. Go high design with it but still make it fun and approachable for everybody.”

The Toros said business is good and growing. Breakfast is popular and people are starting to learn they can also get a burger and drink on a Friday night.

Funding the Vision

“We are a product of our community,” the Toros said when asked about funding their endeavors.  
City & State was 75 percent self-funded. They were turned down for the remaining funding several times before being approved for an SBA loan. An ICED loan from the Memphis-Shelby County Economic Growth Engine helped fund the most recent patio expansion. 

“It just proves the point of the challenges of so many others that have it even harder than we did,” said Lisa. “We still had a beautiful corporate job when we were applying [for City & State], we had perfect credit, capital infusing in, our own capital. Still, banks would not work with us.”

Despite their success and reputation, they were again turned down by every financial institution they approached when launching the Liquor Store. In frustration and with the help of personal mentors and Epicenter, they organized a meeting of women in Memphis interested in supporting local, woman and minority-owned, brick-and-mortar startups.

Related: "Residents to help allocate $26 million in Binghampton investment"

“It was a packed house and the whos-who of just amazing women who have succeeded in their own right and who are interested in continuing to support others in those efforts, whether it be through mentorship, investment, kind of all sorts of aspects,” said Lisa.

In addition to funding from Community LIFT and an SBA loan, the Liquor Store is funded by nine of those women. The group, known as the Broad Angels Network, is now managed through Epicenter. The Liquor Store was its first big backing.

“We say we’re female and immigrant-owned, and we’re really proud of that. I think it’s really unique for the city, especially,” she continued.

Lisa and Luis Toro pose outside of their newest business, 509 North Hollywood, which will soon be a unique indoor-outdoor bar. (Cole Bradley)

Crafting Community

Building communal spaces and bridging gaps with the larger Binghampton community is something the Toros think about often. Early on, City & State received some criticism for the high price points of retail items and not accepting cash, both of which make the space less accessible to lower-income residents. The Toros said the decision to not accept cash was due mostly to their inexperience with registers, but the feedback was a learning opportunity for how to be better neighbors and business owners.

They now employ several Binghampton residents and offer basic, low-cost healthcare coverage through Church Health’s Memphis Plan. They’re working towards raising their hourly rates to a living wage and are happy to train people who are passionate but may lack experience. The Liquor Store’s prices are also more affordable.

The Toros were also part of the team of residents, business owners and other community leaders who developed the new Binghampton TIF district requirements. The TIF, or Tax Increment Financing district, will allocate revenue from property taxes towards infrastructure improvements and ensuring affordable housing remains available to help protect against gentrification. Growth on Broad Avenue will be a major source of funding for the TIF.

Related: "Binghampton, Frayser Gateway Centers and proposed TIF plan models on how to revitalize communities"

Going forward, the Toros would like to see a Binghampton-based job center where area businesses, from Broad Avenue retail to Collins street industrial tenants, could advertise open jobs. Skills gaps could be identified and residents could be connected with training to get them the job they want most within walking distance of their home.  

“We care a lot about the city. We want to continue to allow Memphians to be proud of who we are, what we have, and how we grow,” said Lisa.

“I think there’s a great way to blend that very genuine spirit with very forward thinking concepts and spaces. It doesn’t have to be an either-or, we don’t have to become something completely sterile, we can still be who we are while still growing and developing.”
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Read more articles by Cole Bradley.

Cole Bradley is a native Memphian and graduate of the University of Memphis. Cole's worked locally as a researcher and community engagement strategist and began contributing to High Ground in Jan 2017.