This year we found the coolest small businesses in
D.C., but small businesses in many other American cities are continuing to innovate like never before.
These up-and-comers — like a floating island restaurant, a vegan strip club, and a pirate supply shop — are shaking up the food and retail industries.
Here’s our year-end roundup of the 50 hottest small businesses around the U.S.
What it is: A new brand of mustache wax.
What makes it cool: The man known as Jeremiah Newton, who also sports an impressive face full of hair, started Bearded Bastard to help soften the burliest of beards and tame the unruliest of mustaches.
Products include the Woodsman mustache wax, Woodsman beard oil, and a natural shave oil, but the new Austin-based company is developing many new man-inspired oils and tonics, which will be available soon.
What it is: A gay ice cream parlor.
What makes it cool: Big Gay Ice Cream started in 2009 as the Big Gay Ice Cream truck -- a concept that became so popular that the founders put down permanent roots in both the East and West Village.
BGIC, which is known for its soft-serve and shakes, whips up cool flavour combos with ingredients like crushed Nilla wafers, pumpkin butter, and key lime curd, but even cooler are the names they give their concoctions. Nothing's more fun than ordering a 'Mexican Affo'gay'to' with extra whip.
What it is: A renegade coffeehouse.
What makes it cool: Blacksmith is a coffeehouse with a rock star attitude. It pays homage to Queen, and has a photo of lead singer Freddie Mercury on the wall. Any time a Queen song plays in the shop, the first customer in line gets their drink for free. As they say, 'When Queen plays, Freddie pays!'
What it is: A drive-in movie theatre right in the middle of a city.
What makes it cool: Blue Starlite isn't located in a giant field with 300 car spots. It's right in the middle of Miami, with just 18 car slots available per showing. Despite the lack of space, it still delivers an intimate, traditional drive-in experience, even converting an old 1950s Ford pick-up truck into the movie projector.
It also serves some really cool movie snacks, like Gummi Bear 'flights' and cotton candy dotted with Pop Rocks.
What it is: An international street food restaurant with a hidden art gallery.
What makes it cool: Co-owners Nick Vivion and Kevin Farrell bring the concept of eating your way around the world to life. Inspired by their travels around the world, Vivion and Farrell designed a menu that features classic street cart dishes like frites from Belgium, banh mi from Vietnam, and empanadas from Venezuela.
And if that weren't enough, Booty's is also home to a secret art gallery (spoiler alert: it's in the bathroom!).
What it is: A fashion boutique and tattoo parlor.
What makes it cool: Passersby recognise Brightside by its sunny, good-morning-Baltimore yellow shopfront. Named Baltimore's best boutique by Baltimore Magazine, Brightside sells edgy, fashion-forward clothing, shoes, and accessories. Partners Christie Griffiths and Kike (pronounced 'Kee-Kay') Castillo run the operation together, with Griffiths focusing on the fashion and Castillo on the tats.
What it is: America's first vegan strip club.
What makes it cool: At Casa Diablo, all the food served is vegan, and all the outfits worn -- and then taken off -- by the strippers are made with absolutely no animal products (though the strippers themselves are not required to be vegan).
The strip was featured on the IFC TV show 'Portlandia,' and is popular among vegans, celebrities, and even politicians.
What it is: A crafts store dedicated to Detroit.
What makes it cool: This isn't your average crafts store. Two siblings who are proud to be 'seventh-generation Detroiters' found a way to combine their love for the arts and Detroit by creating a store that simultaneously functions as a studio and gallery all in one.
All of the products they sell -- including housewares, accessories and paper goods -- celebrate Detroit and feature artwork by hundreds of American artists.
What it is: A food truck that serves customisable slow-cooked meals.
What makes it cool: Started by a couple who wanted to share their 'slow-cooked perfection,' Crock Spot offers custom-made slow-cooked meals from multiple locations in Denver.
Start by picking a slow-cooked meat (or curried lentils, for vegetarians) and then pick your add-ins like couscous, pearl barley, and a variety of veggies and sauces. These are hearty, satisfying one-pot dishes that Denver residents rave about.
What it is: A time travel supply store.
What makes it cool: The Echo Park Time Travel Mart is fully stocked with anything you'll need to survive the past or future. That means canned mammoth chunks, barbarian repellent, and enough anti-cloning fluid to last you a lifetime.
These seem like things no one would ever need, but it's all in fun, and quite popular -- there's even a second location, the Mar Vista Time Travel Mart.
The store is a fundraising front for writer Dave Eggers' nonprofit organisation 826 National, a writing and tutoring center for kids.
What it is: A breakfast-centric food truck.
What makes it cool: The provocative name is one part of what makes this food truck awesome; the other part is eggs. As the name implies, everything on the menu at Egg Slut is deliciously made with eggs.
From the simple bacon-wrapped eggs to the Egg Slut mac and cheese to the pancake tacos, Egg Slut proves that everything is better with eggs -- and that it's ok to go a little nuts about it.
What it is: A social vacation-planning website.
What makes it cool: Gatherball keeps track of what you want to do, where you want to go, and what you want to see. It also shares this information with everyone in your network, who can make suggestions for your itinerary.
It also has a feature that keeps track of individual spending, so if you go on a trip with other people you will easily know who owes money at the end of the trip.
What it is: An app that pays you for sticking to your workout schedule.
What makes it cool: GymPact encourages people to go to the gym through positive reinforcement (getting paid when you go) and negative reinforcement (getting fined when you don't).
Users set the schedules they want to stick to, and log workout hours by checking in at their gyms on the GymPact app (locations are confirmed by smartphone GPS tracking).
Those who don't meet their goals pay $US5 for every missed workout. Then the money is pooled by GymPact and paid out to those who meet or exceed their goals. You'll never skip the gym again if you use this app.
What it is: A vintage-inspired sports attire store.
What makes it cool: The inside of Homage looks like a 1950s male dorm room. T-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops, and other athletic apparel proudly bear designs inspired by yesteryear's college sports, politics, music, and pop culture.
Homage is the place where Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Lee, Larry Bird, and the state of Ohio make a stylish comeback.
What it is: A vintage bed and breakfast.
What makes it cool: This unique lodging is designed to evoke an inn from the early 1900s. In keeping with that tradition, the hotel has a vintage vibe with furnishings that fit the era, like handmade quilts, wooden tables, and old suitcases that double as night stands.
The inn also hosts cooking classes by well-known local chefs.
What it is: A green pizzeria.
What makes it cool: Hotlips boasts five pizza parlors in Portland, but its most prized location is in the heart of the Pearl District, in the Leed Gold-certified Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center.
This earthy-crunchy pizzeria purchases locally-grown ingredients, uses waste heat from its pizza ovens to heat water, and makes deliveries in electric cars. The gluten-free crust and vegan pies are their specialties.
What it is: A burger joint that offers themed additions to the menu every week.
What makes it cool: jm Curley, home of Boston Magazine's 2013 Best Burger, serves seven new themed menu items each week.
In October, for example, Executive Chef Samuel Monsour debuted the Goodbye Breaking Bad menu, featuring the Heisenburger, Los Pollos Hermanos fried chicken quesadilla, and a blueberry almond cake doughnut with '96 per cent blue icing.'
What it is: A boutique hotel and events venue in an old elementary school.
What makes it cool: Kennedy has been a beloved Portland fixture since its opening in 1915. And though it's ceased to function as a school for the past 40 years, it hasn't lost its charm. The building now has 57 hotel rooms, six bars and restaurants, a movie theatre, a brewery, and copious event space.
Guests can also enjoy a beautiful, lush pool area where the old teacher's lounge used to sit.
What it is: A speakeasy boba (bubble tea) bar.
What makes it cool: Boba 7, also known as Labobatory, is tucked away in the back of a Thai restaurant called Soi 7, and calls itself 'the world's first speakeasy boba bar.' Their specialty? Alcoholic bubble tea drinks that come mixed with Heineken, Bailey's, tequila, or rum in different combinations. They also make a really mean Sriracha bloody Mary.
What it is: A restaurant with rotating menus and chefs.
What makes it cool: LTO gives chefs an opportunity to showcase their work and patrons the opportunity to try different cuisines. The restaurant's name reflects the pop-up restaurant's rotating chef culture. LTO features celebrity chefs and obscure culinary names who occupy the kitchen for anywhere from a week to a month.
What it is: An online marketplace where you can request anything to be made by people who know how.
What makes it cool: Think of it as 'the eBay for everything that doesn't yet exist.' Makers can log in and list the things they can make for you, while Requesters can request items the Makers promote. Requesters don't have to limit themselves to items listed on the site, either. They can take anything they see on Facebook, Pinterest, or other sites and request that they be made by a Maker on MakeItFor.Us.
What it is: A steampunk-looking food truck.
What makes it cool: One of the coolest things about this truck is the truck itself, which serves up some of the best pulled pork sandwiches in the Northwest from a truck the shape of a giant, metal pig.
Owner Kurt Beecher Dammeier, of Beecher's Handmade Cheese, ensures a commitment to pure food by donating one per cent of sales to the Flagship Foundation, a non-profit that inspires kids to make smart eating choices.
What it is: A denim shop housed in a refurbished gas station.
What makes it cool: Don't let its shabby exterior fool you. Imogene + Willie's vintage-inspired, custom-tailored jeans -- sold on-site -- represent classic American workmanship and beauty.
The husband and wife team repairs normal wear and tear on jeans up to three times at no charge.
What it is: A Hawaiian pop-up gastropub.
What makes it cool: Started by Chis Okuhara, whose family owns the popular Likelike Drive Inn, Miso & Ale is a new pop-up concept eatery that sources fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients to make their tasty creations.
Okuhara combines his Hawaiian upbringing with classical culinary training to make dishes like shrimp boudin blanc, pork belly green eggs and ham, and a sweet dish he calls the 'deconstructed Girl Scout cookie.'
What it is: A baseball-centric boutique hotel in the Ballpark District of San Diego.
What makes it cool: The Ballpark District is home to the San Diego Padres, and what better place to stay in the neighbourhood than a hotel that honours San Diego's celebrated ball team?
The 'flats' in the hotel are fully-furnished apartments with kitchens, living rooms, and private patios. Of course, proximity to the stadium is one amenity of Mudville, as are the on-site barbecues perfect for cooking up hot dogs and burgers for the game.
What it is: A custom suit shop that allows men to choose suits either in person or online.
What makes it cool: Wall Streeters, rejoice! My.Suit custom tailors made-to-measure suits for men in New York.
Once you're measured, you can either choose to go into the store to build the suit from hundreds of fabrics and cut options, or use an innovative online tool to tweak it to your specifications. They take even more measurements than a typical tailor, making sure the suit is perfect and ready to wear in two weeks.
What it is: A bar that donates its profits to charity.
What makes it cool: OKRA (Organised Kollaboration on Restaurant Affairs) Charity Saloon is a bar that donates 100 per cent of its profits -- from food and drink sales -- to a different patron-picked social cause in Houston each month. Each time a guest buys a drink, they get one vote toward which charity is picked as next month's beneficiary. OKRA also has a great food menu, including, you guessed it, fried okra.
What it is: An online service that helps travellers discover the best of a city by connecting them with people who live there.
What makes it cool: On Pangea Pal you have the option of finding a pal, being a pal, or both. Travellers can write to Pals on the site who live in the place they plan to visit and schedule a time to meet up and explore the area like the residents do.
As a traveller, it's a great way to meet people who know a place really well and get off the beaten path, especially if you're not fluent in the language. As a Pal, you get paid to show off the places you know and love, and meet some cool people to boot.
What it is: A mobile photo booth.
What makes it cool: PhotoMoto is a mobile photo booth operated out of a restored 1978 Volkswagen bus.
People can book PhotoMoto for events and parties, and husband and wife duo Austin and Brittany Havican will drive the bus right to the event.
What it is: America's first pizza museum, and pizzeria.
What makes it cool: Pizza Brain was started in September 2012 by Brian Dwyer, a pizza lover with such a large collection of pizza paraphernalia that he was able to fill a whole store -- and it's now America's first pizza museum.
Located in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighbourhood, Pizza Brain officially has the world's largest collection of pizza memorabilia, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Pizza Brain is also a pizzeria, and a really good one at that.
What it is: An elegant, upscale restaurant that personalizes the dining experience with custom meals.
What makes it cool: Wait staff at Restaurant Jezebel will ask you about your dietary preferences and favourites, and create a customised, delicate dinner menu just for you, paired with wine, cigars, or both.
Owner and executive chef Parind Vora originally opened the restaurant in Ruidoso, N.M. in 2001, which now has locations in New York City, Augusta, Ga., and, most recently, Austin.
What it is: An educational caviar shop.
What makes it cool: The Seattle Caviar Company makes caviar accessible to everyone with a desire to learn about this delicacy.
In addition to selling caviar, the company hosts tastings every Thursday evening out of its retail shop where visitors can come and sample caviar with a glass of champagne and learn about the products.
What it is: An online retailer that sends you random items.
What makes it cool: SomethingStore operates under the 'surprise!' business model: Shoppers pay $US10 to receive something in the mail, but they won't know what it is until it arrives. Recent somethings have included a floor piano (like the one from the movie 'Big'), an Amazon Kindle, a fondue pot, and a fedora.
While the concept seems strange and unsustainable, SomethingStore has been selling somethings since 2007 and even has its own Reddit thread dedicated to displaying the somethings people around the world receive.
What it is: A permanent retail shop which completely changes every 4-6 weeks.
What makes it cool: Located in Manhattan's Chelsea neighbourhood, Story is a store that completely reinvents itself every 4 to 6 weeks, completely changing its environment, merchandise, and story. Past store exhibits have focused on 3D printers, unique works by artists, and wellness-themed items.
What it is: A restaurant-turned-community center.
What makes it cool: This restaurant is not just about serving soul food. It also comforts the soul by functioning as a community center that aims to make Detroit a better place.
They employ returning citizens looking to start a new life and host events to raise money for community projects.
What it is: A beer-themed gear and clothing shop.
What makes it cool: The Beer Dabbler Store is the best place for beer lovers to go, outside of a bar. They sell cool, kitschy beer-ware like tumbler glasses, beer-inspired artwork, tap handles, and beer-related apparel branded by a variety of different breweries.
They carry an impressive collection of novelty items too, like beer bottle candles, beer soap, and beer gear for your pets.
What it is: A comedy show/taco stand.
What makes it cool: When the owner of this taco stand named it the Best Fish Taco in Ensenada, he wasn't trying to be arrogant. He was just being honest.
Joseph Cordova's objective was to sell the most fantastic fish taco in Ensenada -- and he does -- but the stand is also the site of frequent comedy nights, which have showcased talented comedians like Patton Oswalt, Demitri Martin, and Chelsea Peretti. The best part is that the show costs only as much as your fish taco.
What it is: SF's only independent pirate supply shop.
What makes it cool: When non-profit 826 Valencia bought a retail space for its writing-tutoring center in the heart of the Mission, a zoning policy demanded that it use the space for a store.
To disguise the learning lab within, it opened a pirate shop, which sells glass eyes, hooks, beard extensions, treasure chests, mermaid bait, and more dastardly products. Sales benefit the center.
What it is: A bar with a unique pricing strategy.
What makes it cool: The Big Board treats beer like a commodity: The price of beer fluctuates depending on the supply and demand, just like in the stock market. Beers are listed on, well, a big board that displays the prices in real time.
They also serve 100 per cent all-natural burgers with their 'liquid assets,' including an upcoming menu of specialty cocktails.
What it is: A store that sells everything you need to be a secret agent.
What makes it cool: 'We are purveyors of all things boring... We are certainly NOT a secret agent supply store,' claims the Boring Store website. Contrary to the name, the Boring Store is anything but. Along with fake mustaches and high-tech surveillance equipment, the Boring Store is actually a front to 826CHI, a non-profit writing and tutoring center for local students.
What it is: A full-service coffee bar on wheels.
What makes it cool: After competing in the United States Barista Championship, Alessandro 'San' Bellino was inspired to open a café, and jumped on the mobile-food bandwagon. But he swapped out a truck for a sleek mahogany brown tricycle, equipped with a full espresso bar and cooler for cold beverages.
The high-quality menu features coffee roasted by the George Howell Coffee Company in Acton and milk from Mapleline Farm in Hadley, Mass.
What it is: An alternative department store that sells clothes by the pound.
What makes it cool: This hip vintage shop processes several million pounds of clothing a year. To lighten the load, every morning when it opens (except on Fridays), it unleashes a 850-pound bale of men's, women's, and children's clothing onto the floor. Customers wade through and pay $US1.50 per pound.
What it is: An online geekery retailer.
What makes it cool: Since 1999, ThinkGeek has served those who are passionate about technology, from programmers, engineers, students, and lovers of open source, to the masses that help create Internet culture.
Their bestselling products include spycam pens, zombie plush toys, replicas of Doctor Who's coat and Star Wars Stormtrooper uniforms, Minecraft memorabilia, and horse head masks.
What it is: A hand-crafted, custom-made perfumery.
What makes it cool: Tijón sells hand-crafted perfumes from its own recipes, but it also provides customers with the option of designing their own unique scents.
For first-time perfumists, Tijón hosts Perfume 101 classes, complete with lab coats, where students learn the breakdown of the different scent elements of perfume and how to mix and isolate them to make unique combinations.
What it is: A store that sells items left in unclaimed airport luggage.
What makes it cool: Of the 0.5 per cent of domestic airlines' checked bags that don't arrive with passengers at their destination, a whopping 95 per cent of those suitcases find their way home in five days.
The rest make their way to Unclaimed Baggage Center, which is under contract with airlines and other transportation companies. This one-of-a-kind retailer cleans and sells clothes, jewelry, products, and other abandoned treasures.
What it is: A store that sells everything you need to survive the zombie apocalypse.
What makes it cool: Like most things in Vegas, the Zombie Apocalypse Store is both kitschy and an attention-grabbing roadside attraction.
Carrying ready-to-eat meals in bulk, gas masks, machetes, and tire checkers, this unique retailer prepares you for natural disasters, government shutdowns, or supernatural attacks.
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