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Downtown Tony Mixes an Entrepreneurial Alchemy

(Commentary by O.K. Carter for the Fort Worth Business Press, October 12, 2019)  Urban Alchemy Coffee + Wine Bar owner Tony Rutigliano – around Arlington he’s often referred to as “Downtown Tony” – resisted his considerable entrepreneurial tendencies for a couple of decades, but clearly seems to be on a roll now.

Ignoring a substantial nay-saying, don’t-do-it, it’ll-never-work chorus, he put together an investor group and opened Urban Alchemy 18 months ago as a kind of blended coffee-in-the-morning, wine-in-the-evening, light dining, Wi-Fi and laptop-addicted communal hangout in what was once an auto repair garage called Lester’s.

Nor did he accept considerable advice not to locale Urban Alchemy on East Main Street, which – though downtown – is a sparsely developed double-dead-ended, two-lane, three-block street with zero drive-by traffic. It’s the kind of limited access street one has to go to on purpose.

How’s it going? It’s difficult to find a morning or afternoon when the Urban Alchemy parking lot isn’t full, traffic spilling up and down Main and nearby side streets as patrons show up. Long story cut short: it’s working. Much to a lot of people’s surprise. Maybe even to Downtown Tony himself.

Rutigliano, 44, mostly figured himself to be a nonprofit kind of guy after graduating from UT Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s in public affairs. His first real work gig was as former Arlington Mayor Bob Cluck's right hand man/chief of staff, followed by a much longer stint as president of Downtown Arlington Management, an organization overseeing redevelopment of the city’s redeveloping core, first surveyed in 1876.

It took a while for Rutigliano to launch himself into the business world, the idea percolating until Christmas morning of 2016, at which point he said to his wife Nicole, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we opened a wine bar?”

To which she said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”

“I took that as permission to proceed, though in retrospect I suspect she was just trying to be supportive,” Rutigliano said with a laugh. “I saw a lawyer and, in a few months, came back to her with the initial plans, to which she said, ‘Hey, I thought we were talking about five years from now.’”

Rutigliano himself began going through a mindset evolution.

“Initially I was thinking more along the lines of traditional commercial development,” he said. “Pick a project, develop it, sell it. Do it again. Then I became more vested in the alchemy idea – take normal things and blend them into something new that would bring people and community together.”

Not that Urban Alchemy is the culmination of Rutigliano’s entrepreneurial ambitions. More like a launch point. One growing component of the business now, for instance, is the growing Urban Alchemy Concierge, which provides event consulting on wine and food, even to the point of providing catering and staffing.

And if there’s a lesson that stuck in his mind during this process, it’s how partnerships and synergy create copacetic opportunities. Examples?

• Rutigliano and landlord Bob Johnson are collaboratively developing the Main Street building next to Urban Alchemy (a former hot rod parts shop) as Sociability, a 5,500-square-feet events center with capacity for up to 200 people.

• One component of the 1,000-unit Arlington Commons apartment complex under construction on Lamar Boulevard will be the free-standing but connected Nehemiah Coffee Company – which Rutigliano and his management group will run. The free-standing location will also make for easy access to other north Arlington residents.

• A campy open-air restaurant built of shipping containers – the Off Grid Taphouse – at the Viridian complex in north Arlington will open in the first quarter next year at a location epi-center to a community lake, trails system and dog park. Its manager? Rutigliano’s group, of course.

• And finally, there’s Rutigliano’s slightly longer-range vision for the boutique-style Hotel Mary (intersection of Main and Mary streets a couple of blocks east of Urban Alchemy), yet another collaborative on Main Street and again probably with multiple investors.

“That Hotel Mary concept is slugging along slowly but surely,” he says. “But I’m now convinced it’s going to happen.”

That’s a lot of ambition, particularly for East Main Street, which – after being mostly ignored for half a century – suddenly seems to be taking off, particularly with Rutigliano’s focus as a new sort of human catalyst.

“I can’t explain it, but there’s something about Main Street that I just love,” he says.

Urban Alchemy Coffee + Wine Bar

403 E. Main Street

Arlington, TX 76010

Click here to read the original commentary by O.K. Carter, which was published in the Fort Worth Business Press on October 12, 2019. Image by Amy J. Schultz.