September 1, 2008 | last updated March 28, 2012 8:08 am

Main Street Mass: Downtown Framingham | WBJournal.com exclusive

Photo/Matthew L. Brown
Photo/Matthew L. Brown
Haitian immigrant Marie Aridou, the co-owner of R&M Beauty Connection on Hollis Street in Framingham, says business is good at her supply store in downtown. She's one of four business owners featured at WBJournal.com.
Click here for an interactive Google map.


The bustling downtown, full of people and commerce, has been eulogized in the press repeatedly for the last 20 years. But the Worcester Business Journal isn't buying the hype, and has begun an occasional online series to get the perspective of those in the know - business owners in downtowns throughout Central Massachusetts.

In our inaugural trip, we traveled to downtown Framingham and interviewed four business owners from a cross-section of businesses and backgrounds. Below, you'll find articles, a photo slideshow and video from our trip. But before we get to that, here are some key stats on Framingham:

Form of government: town manager, selectmen, representative town meeting
Population (2006): 64,762
Labor Force (2007): 36,624
Unemployment Rate (2007): 3.6%
Per Capita Income (1999): $27,758
Population Per Square Mile (2006): 2,578.1
Housing Units Per Square Mile (2006): 1,064.3
Number of Registered Vehicles (January 2006): 66,333
Number of Registered Voters (2006): 36,272
Average single-family tax bill (FY 2008): 4,821

Source: Massachusetts Department of Revenue

Below, check out stories on each of the four businesses we visited during our trip, as well as video clips. You can also view a photo slideshow by clicking here and a map of Framingham with locations of the business we spoke to by clicking here.

Panza Shoes

Panza Shoes is doing well despite trying times for the retail trade judging by a visit to the downtown shoe store recently. Several customers checked out the sidewalk merchandise and then moved inside.

"It's not bad. It's a tough economy, but people need good shoes just like they've got to eat," said Richard Panza, whose family has run the store at 48 Union St. for more than 60 years.

The store carries all sizes of shoes, including extra-wide and extra-narrow. Excellent customer service and good merchandise at reasonable prices all attract customers, Panza said. But he believes that the sizes are the true draw. After all, he carries women's sizes from 4 to 14 and men's sizes from 6 to 16. The women's shoes run in width from AAAAA to EE and in men's from AA to EEEEE.

Panza has worked in the store he now owns since he was 14, learning every aspect of the business from his father, Charles.

But when it came to advertising, he had to move with the times, which included getting a web site (www.panzashoes.com). The site describes the store's merchandise, directions to the downtown location and a little about the store's history. There's also a place to sign up for coupons and unadvertised specials.

And while downtown Framingham has changed, Panza said if it weren't for new ethnic groups, like Brazilians, moving into the area, the city would likely have a lot of vacant storefronts. Of his 15 or so employees, about seven or eight are full-time, and one employee speaks Portuguese, the language of Brazil.

Even those who no longer live in the area find a way to stop in.

"When they come home to visit at Thanksgiving and Christmas, they come to the store," Panza said with a big grin.

In the video clip below, Panza discusses how downtown has changed over the years:

Brazilian Fashion

Lindamar Martins moved her clothing store, Brazilian Fashion, to Framingham from Leominster last fall. She said the new location on Concord Street is working well for her because of the concentration of Brazilian immigrants in town.

Brazilian Fashion is just one of many stores in the downtown area devoted specifically to marketing clothes to people from Brazil, and Martins said that's a good thing for her. She said Brazilians from all over the place see Framingham as a destination for shopping, and that means she gets customers from as far away as Plymouth and Hartford, Conn. Besides, she said, many people stop by the small downtown stores on the way to the nearby Natick Mall.

Despite her appreciation of the downtown environment, Martins is willing to look elsewhere as well for business opportunities. She has a franchise for a line of Brazilian perfumes and she recently began selling them at the Square One mall in Saugus as well as at her Framingham location.

In the video below, Martins explains why Framingham is a good location for her business:

R&M Beauty Connection

The importance of connections among downtown merchants is evident at R&M Beauty Connection on Hollis Street. The store opened just last October, but co-owner Marie Aridou said she's already developed a friendly relationship with the owners of several nearby salons, who often pick up extra supplies there when they run out of something.

Aridou said one of her favorite things about downtown Framingham is the array of people from all over the world who have ended up there. Originally from Haiti herself, she said she gets customers from Brazil, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.
Aridou said she also likes the fact that downtown stays active at all times of the day.
"It reminds me of New York," she said.

R&M's wares include all sorts of hair care products, wigs and other fashion supplies marketed to women of all ethnicities, but she said she's particularly eager to offer products to black women like herself, who sometimes have trouble finding the items they want.

In the video clip below, Aridou talks about the business activity on her street:

Old Station Steakhouse

In real estate, the saying goes that the three most important factors are location, location and location. The same can also be said for restaurants, which often need to find the perfect spot, with a good supply of parking, in order to survive.

The old train station in downtown Framingham seems to have "location" in spades, as it is located next to the town's commuter rail stop. But the building has had a revolving door of restaurants, the latest of which is Old Station Steakhouse.

The new owner, Earl Barbosa, is no stranger to the restaurant biz. He already has two in Somerville and Everett. He opened Old Station Steakhouse just a few months ago, and says business is good.

Old Station Steakhouse offers Brazilian barbeque, which uses salt not sauces, along with Mexican, Brazilian and American entrees. There is a bar in addition to the restaurant.

"When I got the opportunity and saw the place's potential, I was very happy," Barbosa said. The fact that Route 135 goes directly past the restaurant and there is a parking lot for customers contributes to its popularity, he said. He created the bar and installed the grill and buffet stations.

Barbosa had a great space to work with, complete with cathedral ceilings and large windows, which were legacies of its former life as a train station. In 1895, the building was one of nine stations built for the Boston & Albany Railroad. It was designed by H.H. Richardson, a prominent architect who designed many public buildings and churches, including the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy and Brattle Square Church in Boston.

The space allowed him to create a large, open floor. Starting the third business came easy, he said, because the other two restaurants have led him to develop a process to determine the number of employees and the amount of food needed.

Barbosa offers a variety of entrees so everyone can be comfortable eating there, and it seems to be attracting a pretty good crowd. Lunch on the weekends is more popular than dinner and dinner seems to win out over lunch during the week, he said.

The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. during the week and until 1 a.m. on the weekend.

Many people stop in to give it a try because they used to come to the restaurant in its previous incarnations. "I had a couple come in and say they got married on the second floor about 10 years ago," he said.

In the video clip below, Barbosa explains how he came to open a restaurant in Framingham:

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