Dawahare family members starting new store

Two members of the Dawahare family will soon open a collegiate merchandise store at Tates Creek Centre, re-entering the Lexington market that the family's iconic apparel chain exited last year after filing for bankruptcy.

Stephen Dawahare and Joe Kawaja are starting Fan Outfitters, which they describe as a store that will sell "everything from a decal to an office chair emblazoned with the UK logo," Kawaja said. "It outfits the fan."

Of the two, only Kawaja was involved in the family business. Kawaja, a fourth-generation family member whose grandmother was a Dawahare, once was lead merchant for the retail chain. Dawahare founded and serves as CEO of iVisionary, a firm that invests in businesses.

The two are the only Dawahare family members involved, though they have a strong UK connection in former quarterback Tim Couch, who also is a partner.

Dawahare and Kawaja, both 37, described Fan Outfitters, which will open Sept. 1, as a larger version of other collegiate merchandise stores such as the CatBird Seat locations in Lexington and Louisville that were once owned and operated by Dawahare's.

Dawahare and his iVisionary company attempted to buy the three CatBird Seat locations last year as part of the bankruptcy auction of Dawahare's assets. But he was outbid by Alumni Hall Stores, which paid $296,000.

Dawahare and Kawaja said their Fan Outfitters, at 7,000 square feet, will be larger than those locations and will offer a much greater variety of merchandise.

"We're just really excited about it," Kawaja said.

Dawahare said Wednesday that the company plans to open 10 more stores next year around Kentucky and in other collegiate markets. He said iVisionary, through its other businesses, has gained insight into a number of markets, though he declined for competitive reasons to identify the ones that might be alluring to Fan Outfitters. At least one of those 10 locations will be an additional store in Lexington, he said.

The company's first store fills a major void — the old Blockbuster Video space — at Tates Creek Centre that has been vacant since 2007. Justin Latone of property owner Weingarten Realty said he had nearly negotiated a couple of deals in the past with both locally and nationally owned companies, but they fell through for various reasons.

Though that property is a bricks-and-mortar location, Dawahare said, Fan Outfitters also will have a significant online presence after it opens.

"We see a real good viable opportunity here," he said, noting the strong interest in collegiate merchandise and what is generally a fragmented industry without a major national player.

Besides the opportunity, Dawahare said, the venture also has a great deal of personal meaning. His father, Oscar, is one of the 11 children who oversaw Dawahare's expansion throughout the region. Now 86, his father was greatly disappointed with the bankruptcy last year and "said, 'I can't believe my life would end this way,'" the younger Dawahare recounted.

The chain filed for bankruptcy reorganization in May of last year. It originally planned to close nine stores and continue with the three CatBird Seats and 19 Dawahare's clothing outlets, but it was unable to get financing to continue operations and eventually was auctioned off.

In filing for bankruptcy, the company noted the worsening economy and cited a sales slide of $46.4 million in 2005 to $42.45 million in 2007.

Dawahare said that writing a new chapter for his father and the family's legacy was "an inspiration."

"It's finding one small way of keeping our family heritage alive," he said.