This week: Neil Keen, co-owner of The Black Box, the new coffee shop/theatre in downtown Ruston.
When’s your opening date?
Well, we’re shooting for this Friday. Don’t know if we’ll make that or not, but that’s what we’re shooting for.
What’s your hours of operation going to be?
Monday through Friday, 7 in the morning to 11 at night, and Sunday noon to 10.
What sort of theme or idea were you going for with the design of the place?
Well it’s a little more laid back, kind of warehouse chic look. We want it to be different from most places in Ruston, which it is. It’s a little more contemporary. But it’s still cozy. It’s very cavey and dark. Real homey. It’s pretty secluded. We’ve got that nice, solid wall between us and the street. So it blocks out all the sound and a lot of the light. We’ve got this unbelievable patio back here, which is perfect. So we’re just kind of going with that. We wanted to focus on the coffee shop, with the theatre productions, the foreign films and independent films, concerts, things like that.
Do you have any events lined up yet?
We’ve got a few. We don’t have anything in stone. We’re trying to get open, get situated. In fact, we’ll bring the food in two weeks after we open, after we get settled in. Then we’ll start looking at our really big opening weekend, have a nice concert.
Could you give me like a rundown of what you’re planning for the menu?
Truthfully, John Shirley at Campatori Catering is handling all that. He’s catering it everyday, so that’s completely up to him. So I don’t have an idea just yet. It will be sandwich type food. But it will be more lunches.
What sets the Black Box apart from other businesses of its kind in Ruston?
Well, I think in the years past with the other things that we’ve done, we’ve really focused hard on customer service. Providing a very different atmosphere from what you get anywhere else. And a better quality product. Our products are very high end, and very well made and dispersed. We’re just a customer-driven business. We focus on them, and they take care of us.
Could you give me an overview of the other businesses and things that you’ve created over the years?
Well, I had a partner of course that he and I started Frothy Monkey years ago. And I bought him out, and actually passed it back to him. So I’ve had that for six or seven years. I started Turbo Goat, the bicycle shop. Chris Bartlett took that from me, and he’s recently sold it. We had the Bell Jar clothing store, and this will be the next deal. In the meantime, or throughout that time period, I’ve bought a lot of buildings and refurbished the buildings, either sold them or rented them out.
And of course, we should mention your partner in this, the Black Box is . . .
Jackie Cochran of art innovations.
Is this your first time to work with Jackie?
I’ve known Jackie for quite a while, but it is my first time to work with Jackie, yes. I actually bought the building from her. This is the old Art Innovations building.
What motivates you to do this sort of entrepeneurial work that you do? What do you get out of it?
I like working for myself. So that’s the first and foremost. Myself and my family and my friends have a very strong desire to improve downtown Ruston. There’s a lot lacking here. And we’ve focused really hard, and pumped a lot of money and time and effort, and blood sweat and tears into downtown. It’s a constant battle for us. We see things that need to be changed and are really focusing hard on that, and trying to show other people that there are other options out there. Other than the status quo. We’re working hard to just try to get people downtime, and improve the atmosphere. Try to keep the students here and keep the money here. It’s really super important to support local businesses. That money gets turned over locally so many more times than a big chain store, or anything on the interstate. And we just want to give people options down here.
How does doing the things that you do in a small town compare you think to trying to do the same sort of things in a larger city?
Well I’ve done some of these things in a larger city, and it’s much easier truthfully. You’ve got a higher population density. You’ve got people that already are familiar with your products that you’re trying to sell. They know the benefits of supporting a downtown. Truthfully, it’s harder to me to do anything here. We’re looking at doing some work in New Orleans. There’s a lot of grants. There’s a lot of incentives. There’s a lot of help to do something. Here, you’re pretty much on your own. I lived in Wakeforest North Carolina. The second you walk in and say ‘hey, I’d like to open a business here, what do you have?’, they present you with a huge packet, hold your hand through the whole process, just really take care of you. We’d like to see improvements here, definitely. We’d like it to be easier to open something that could help turn that local dollar over.
Can you tell me about what you’ve learned through your experience in the business world and what advice you might have?
Well, I’ve learned a lot. Probably more things not to do than to do. But just to do it is the main thing. Everybody’s scared to take that first step. But until you do, you’ll never start down that road. If you’re interested in it, you’ve just got to put your head down and keep to it. When problems pop up, you just push through them and hold on tight and hope for the best, and generally things seem to turn out okay. Keep your overhead low. And, like I said, we’ve picked a genre, we work downtown. And that’s what we do. I think you’ve gotta specialize a little bit. It’s a niche market world these days.
How would someone get started if they wanted to open, say, a shop or any sort of business?
Research. A business plan. And get your financing. That’s the hard part, is getting someone to give you money. I’ve had some great local banks that have really helped me out by taking a big risk on me. And I’ve had great relationships with them. But getting that first loan was the biggie. Do your homework. Lay it out in a really organized format, and chase some fincancing.
I think you’re an artist yourself, is that right?
Could you tell me about your art?
I do a little bit of everything. I haven’t done it in a while, but I also just spent about a half a year in New Orleans learning how to blow glass. Which is something that I’m really passionate about. I love it. And I’d like to do that full-time in the near future. So hopefully this is kind of a stepping stone. This will give me a little place to sit and start that and try to grow into a larger scale business.
Will we see any of your work in the Black Box?
Eventually, yes. Hopefully by Spring.
I think it’s probably a moot question, since you say you haven’t done any art work in a while, but still I’m always curious to know how people incorporate an artist lifestyle into the real world requirements of doing work, and running your business and things like that.
Well, I really like architecture, and the art world. And we do try to incorporate that into the buildings that I do. Just in the design layout. It’s different. We don’t just do the standard box deal. We like to incorporate friends and students’ work, and local artists into everything we do. We’ve always had artwork up in the coffee shops. Chris, with the bike shop, has art shows there inside the bike shop. So you can incorporate it into whatever you’re doing. The glass-blowing is something hopefully the coffee shop can help offset the costs of the material and labor to do that. So we can do anything from wall sconces to chandeliers to anything else we’d like to do. Ornaments, decorations, sculpture type work. And if you notice in there, there’s a lot of artwork, sculptural artwork. So I guess that’s how we incorporate it.
Given all the difficulties in opening a business in Ruston, and finding customers and things like that, what are the redeeming qualities of Ruston that make it a worthwhile place to live and do these things?
There are a group of very interesting. And it’s nice to see those people on a daily basis or weekly basis and maintain contact with that group of people. There’s a lot of good people here. They’re well-travelled. They’re diverse. I think Ruston is a very diverse place. For a small town in North Louisiana. So I think that’s the best part, is getting to see everybody. And just having those relationships.
Did you go to college?
I’m still going to college. I’ve been going for a very, very, very long time. I’m going this quarter. I’ve gone to several colleges.
Tell me about your experience, what you’ve studied and what you’ve learned.
Goodness. Art, geology, mainly art. Architecture. I’ve had years and years and years of art school. I enjoy it, but I don’t plan on working for anybody else. It’s just something I do because I enjoy it.
As a working professional, what value do you see in going to college rather than teaching yourself or going to workshops or associating with other artists in real life situations?
As someone that doesn’t have to support myself with my artwork, I kind of have a different view I think. If I were having to support myself with my artwork, I would definitely be more concerned with the academic route. The degree, the learning plan, and the steps to go through that, to get a job and be able to support myself. As someone that does the art on the side as a hobby mainly. Or even if it were to make money, my main source of income comes from building improvements, property sales, and business ventures like this. So I think I’m a little bit of an odd duck, truthfully. But if I were going to support myself with my art, I would definitely be more concerned with the art program.
I think that’s about all the questions I have. Is there anything else you’d like to say about the Black Box?
It’s just going to be a very different, great place. We’re going to have a lot to offer that you cannot get anywhere around. Different music. Theatre venues. The films. It’s just going to be completely different. Everybody needs to come check it out.
And to clarify, you’re going to have live theatrical performances, and you’re also going to be showing what sort of films?
Just independent and foreign films. Things you can’t run down to blockbuster and pick up.
What sort of talent are you looking at for the theatrical performances?
Jackie’s heading that up. There are a lot of local guys that like to put on small plays. Jackie probably could answer that better than I could. But it’s going to be local. She’s coordinating with Tech also to let them do some small productions here. It will generally be local guys and students.
Okay. Thank you very much for talking with me.