Entrepreneuers take a chance
August 13, 2010
Few people can find much to like about a recession, and the Great Recession has been hard on Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. The Aspen Times has reported extensively on the local effects of this economic downturn, and many have accused us of focusing on the negative. We’ll admit we haven’t found a lot of good economic news to report (Would you prefer “Pitkin County sheds jobs, but awesome weather expected”?).Still, it’s true that recessions create opportunity. As businesses have closed, landlords have adjusted rents in an effort to attract new tenants, and contractors are easier to find. As demand for goods and services has dropped, supplies have expanded and prices have dropped. In some respects, now is the best possible time to start a new venture.In this week’s edition of the Times Weekly, we profile a handful of locals who have launched new businesses at a risky, uncertain time. Some had thought carefully about their plans, but at least one received an opportune phone call and just went for it. In each case, however, the stars somehow aligned for these new business ventures against a backdrop of tough economic times.We wish them all well, and we hope you enjoy their stories.
By Jeanne McGovernASPEN – Kimberly Wilson is no stranger to Aspen’s fickle retail scene. During her 12 years as a manager at Boogie’s, she saw business boom and survived offseason slumps; she watched as other clothing stores opened and closed, and moved from space to space in the annual retail shuffle.”I saw it all; I know all about Aspen’s retail scene first-hand,” she said. “It can be a difficult business, that’s for sure.”Difficult enough to make Wilson weary of a future in retail, especially in a recession? Think again.A year ago, Wilson, with the help of her boyfriend Christopher Stebbins, opened Kali’s Denim in the then-new Fat City Plaza. And on July 15 of this year, she relocated Kali’s to a prime space on Cooper Avenue, where Chepita used to be located.”Owning my own store is something I had always wanted to do,” said Wilson. “I have a big clientele in town and people tell me I have good taste, so I felt pretty confident about my decision.”Confident, yes. But still nervous.”Oh, I made a pros and cons list, and they were pretty close. But as a lot of people told us, there are opportunities when the economy is bad,” she said.Among them, according to Wilson, are lower rents and landlords willing to negotiate, lower construction costs and more.”Even as far as the retail end of things goes, it makes sense,” she said. “At the trade shows, they want you to buy. They are willing to make deals that they probably wouldn’t have before.”Of course, opening a clothing store in a recession does call for some adjustments.”We definitely went with a lower price-point, so in that sense we were affected by the economy,” she said. “We knew we weren’t going to be selling $1,000 items in this climate, so we adjusted.”Wilson characterizes Kali’s – the name chosen in part because “Kali” is the Hindu goddess of time and change – as a fashion-focused store. “We’re definitely trendy, but in a way that our clients include college kids and women in their 50s,” she explained, adding that she shares her current location with local jewelry designer Kathryn Penn. “And Kathryn and I are the perfect combo, I think. It’s a great mix and now we’re in a great location.”Still, the jury is out on how Kali’s will do over time; Wilson said the business did not meet its goals in its former downstairs location. So far, summer traffic in the new location has been brisk. Regardless, Wilson says she is happy with her decision; she honestly believes it was the right time to make the move from store manager to business owner.”I think it’s the greatest thing I have ever done. I have no regrets, and I think things are only going to improve for us and for Aspen,” she said.
By Stewart OksenhornASPEN – Rob Seideman doesn’t see himself as an entrepreneur. In most of his past ventures, including the defunct Cooking School of Aspen, Seideman didn’t see a business opportunity; he saw something that looked enjoyable, and pursued it not because of how the numbers added up, but in spite of it.”I just follow my passion. That’s not entrepreneurism – that’s stupid,” said Seideman, who has spent half of his 44 years in Aspen. “But I can’t help myself.”Understandable, then, that the depressed economy wasn’t the first thing on his mind in March, when landlord Andy Hecht called, asking if he’d be interested in the former Steak Pit/Double Dog space. Instead, Seideman was thinking about the 50-year legacy of the Steak Pit, which closed last spring, and his chance to add to his own rsum in the food industry, which has included the Cooking School; the start-up of an Internet-based salt marketplace; consulting on product innovations for Kraft, Wrigley and Nestl; and being a private chef.”Saving an Aspen tradition – that was the biggest,” Seideman said of his reasons for launching the Pitkin County Steakhouse and Pitkin County Tavern, which opened earlier this month. “Steak Pit’s been around 50 years, and the Double Dog, while only around a few years, kind of became an Aspen tradition.”Since jumping in, however, Seideman has given more than passing thought to the reality that he was opening a steakhouse in a time when many families are concerned about simply putting food on the table. He has concluded that steak, while a luxury item, is familiar and dependable, and thus a good one to build a business on.”What I’ve learned from other restaurants is that steak is like this,” Seideman said, making a perfectly level motion with his hand. “When times are good, steak is a way to treat yourself, to celebrate. And when times are tough, every once in a while you’ve got to treat yourself. You’re not going to want to do it at a cutting-edge, molecular gastronomy restaurant. None of us are in a position to spend money where you don’t know what you’re going to get. So where do you go? Where you know what you’re going to get.”Seideman has been similarly conservative about the physical space. The old Double Dog space is basically unchanged, save for the removal of the canine-themed decorations; the Steak Pit underwent a modest renovation, noticeable mostly in the color scheme. “We made it nice, but not over the top,” Seideman said. “Nobody’s coming in paying for the remodel.”The service, too, is designed to put diners at ease. The wait staff, all dressed in jeans, is instructed to be friendly.”In big cities, Chicago and New York, you step into a steakhouse all dressed up, and you almost feel you have to be an old white guy to come in,” Seideman said. “Here, it’s not over-the-top attention; it’s relaxed.”Seideman was careful about the lease. He doesn’t know what the Steak Pit paid in rent, but he says his lease gives him a genuine shot at making it: “The idea was to keep this steakhouse location going. None of us wanted a one- or two-year run.”With his menu and prices, Seideman is playing both sides of the fence. His sirloin steak – the top-seller at the Steak Pit – is priced at essentially what it was at the Steak Pit. Soups, including clam chowder, are a reasonable $6. But Seideman has also added high-end items like prime, dry-aged cuts of ribeye and porterhouse. The salad bar has received an upgrade, with almost all items being sourced locally.Despite continuing signs of a slow economic recovery, Seideman remains upbeat. But some part of him knows he has entered a tricky business.The economy, he said, “is on my mind the way it is on everybody’s mind: Times are different,” he said. “But when Andy called me, the economy wasn’t on my mind. It probably should have been.”
By Scott CondonASPEN – Veteran Aspen retailer Michael Wampler has seen something develop in recent years that made him uneasy – and it had little to do with the recession.Wampler, who is celebrating 25 years in business this summer with his Aspen Velo bicycle shop, believes retailing is facing more cataclysmic changes because of Internet sales. Unless states become more diligent about taxing online purchases, he said, brick-and-mortar shops simply cannot compete.He has cut down on the floor space at his shop, focusing more on the booming bike-rental business and less on sales of bikes and accessories. But he felt he needed to go beyond that step, so he explored expanding into the fast-food restaurant business. Last month, he brought a Papa John’s pizza franchise to the Mill Street Station by Clark’s Market.”It was diversifying,” Wampler said. “This is more of a year-round business.”He was confident about opening the low-cost, carry-out and delivery pizza business even though the Roaring Fork Valley hasn’t come close yet to recovering from the recession. In fact, he said, Papa John’s might get a boost from the tough economic times.”People are always going to eat cheap food,” he said.Karen Carner is Wampler’s business partner and the general manager of the Papa John’s.They considered three pizza chains. One didn’t have enough name recognition. Among the two big-name franchises he considered, he was most impressed with Papa John’s. He visited the company’s headquarters in Louisville, Ky., and was impressed with their business model. Papa John’s is growing aggressively, intending to challenge industry giant Domino’s. As part of the growth strategy, they are accommodating to entrepreneurs willing to open a shop.Wampler said the parent company’s perks included $35,000 worth of ovens, no requirement to pay royalties for a year and $5,000 for advertising. The company helped Wampler and Carner dial in the right temperatures and baking time for pizzas at high altitude. The Papa John’s in Aspen is the first in a resort in the country, according to Wampler, and the first at an elevation above 5,000 feet.Despite the chain’s assistance, opening a franchise still required a sizable investment by Wampler. He signed a 10-year lease for his space at the Mill Street Station and plowed $200,000 into renovations, interior finish and other preparations.It’s a lower profit margin than Wampler is used to in the bike business, so the return on his investment will take time. It’s also heavy on food costs and labor costs. Wampler is patient.”We’re in it for the long haul,” he said.
By Scott CondonBASALT – Ron Purcio and Debbie Harte faced a huge decision in late 2008 on whether to go forward with a major expansion of their business just as the recession started to bite.The husband-and-wife team had a plan in the works to relocate and rebrand their kitchen and bath studio, and build a state-of-the-art showroom in the Midvalley Design Center.While the timing appeared poor on the surface, they decided to make the move while subcontractors were readily available and to ensure they positioned their business to take advantage of pent-up demand once the recession eased.They acquired four units in the business center and essentially gutted the 6,000-square-foot space for structural and aesthetic changes. Once that was completed, they installed an amazing array of interior decor, kitchen appliances and plumbing fixtures. Their displays range from bar rooms to boardrooms, from kitchen counters to high-tech bathrooms, and from high-end Murphy beds to a variety of cabinetry. Even the offices of Purcio, Harte, their daughter Carrie Harte and other employees are fitted with examples of flooring, cabinetry, lighting and other items for customers to consider.All told, the showroom features about $2 million in merchandise that vendors made available at bargain rates. The retail value is significantly higher.Kitchen Style and Bath Studio opened at 20 Sunset Dr. in Basalt on Nov. 4, 2009. Purcio is president of the business. Debbie Harte is chief financial officer and Carrie Harte is vice president.Purcio said they have no regrets about their decision. While the recession has slowed new home construction in the Roaring Fork Valley, remodels are big right now, Purcio said. Even without the tough economic times, they anticipated that trend and its affects in their business model. Aging Baby Boomers are turning their second homes into primary homes. As part of that process, they are making changes to fit their evolving lifestyle. Style Kitchen and Bath works with both builders and with homeowners.Purcio and Harte invested money from their prior business into Style. “We saved and saved and saved,” he said. They also invested some of their retirement savings. Their goal is to build the business and turn it over to Carrie.Word of mouth and intensive advertising have helped spread the word about Style. A key to their business model is to provide a one-stop shopping experience for interiors – not only bathrooms and kitchens but offices, wine rooms, lighting, fireplaces and smart home systems, Debbie Harte said.They target customers with a variety of budgets. Going only for high-end business would doom them, Purcio said. In cabinetry, for example, they are competitive with all suppliers.”We can beat Lowe’s on a daily basis,” Purcio said.And when consumer confidence returns among wealthy clients, they feel their business will soar. Their confidence level is high enough that they opened a satellite shop in Aspen’s Little Nell hotel complex this month.
By Janet UrquhartASPEN – Apple MacIntosh fans in Aspen can thank the recession for one of the new businesses that has taken a chance on the resort’s retail economy.The iPro Center opened June 1 in Fat City Plaza, a subgrade collection of spaces down a flight a stairs off Cooper Avenue. At the center, Dale Shimono, the self-described “Macintosh Doctor,” holds office hours, while anyone hankering for the latest in all things i-related browse the inventory.Shimono, who can occasionally be found clad in his lab coat, and may even sport a stethoscope (he says he uses it to listen to computer hard drives) is the face behind Aspen’s only Mac store, offering sales, service and training on all things Mac.A longtime working Aspenite who prefers to remain silent actually owns the store; Shimono runs the operation.”I’ve been doing nothing but Apple products since Apple has been around,” he says. “There’s nothing I can’t do on a Macintosh.”Shimono, who comes from a corporate computer systems background in Las Vegas, moved to Colorado to take a job in Denver that fizzled before it began. Visiting Aspen on his way to what was to be his new post, he stayed, working at the short-lived Ambient Technology, a Mac store that came and went in downtown Aspen last year.The iPro Center has been a vision for Shimono and the store’s owner for some five years, he said, but it’s only recently they decided the time was right to take the plunge.”During this rough economy, we found an opportunity that fit our business plan,” Shimono said.Namely, he said, it was the rent for the Fat City space that made it feasible, though Shimono said he has been courted to move into ground-level spaces elsewhere in the core since the shop opened.With less than three months of numbers from which to judge, the store’s ledgers suggest an Apple store can make it in Aspen, according to Shimono, who doesn’t doubt the need for the enterprise. When he walks into a coffee shop in downtown Aspen and sees more Macs than PCs on the tables, Shimono figures he’s in iTown.”This town has needed an Apple Mac professional,” he said. “I decided to stay and provide this.”In most places, he said, service dominates such a business. In Aspen, so far, it’s sales, though the shop doesn’t yet have the iPad in stock and it doesn’t sell iPhones (for now). It does brisk business in the “peripherals” – cases for phones, iPods and computers, mouse pads, and the kinds of things the traveling public tends to forget – their phone charger, Mac power cord and such. Of course, it sells computers, as well.And there are those headphones. At first, Shimono resisted stocking a particularly expensive set (retailing at $169 and $189), but broke down and ordered a couple of pairs. They were gone from the shelves in a day.Youths, especially, are into the latest extras.”Any of the do-hickeys – any of the peripherals is what they love,” he said.But with a degree in computer science and a background in information technology and systems, Shimono also helps customers link their phones to their computers, and second-home owners link their computers in different residences, for example.While many of the Mac products can be purchased online, getting them serviced used to mean a trip to Denver until iPro opened its doors.Of course, some customers just want in-person help figuring out how to load their iPod.Though the shop is tucked in the rear of Fat City Plaza, customers seem to find the place.”People seek us out,” Shimono said.