Operating Small Businesses Against the Odds

Written by Joanna Fantozzi on . Posted in News West Side Spirit.


Mom and pop shops can still survive despite competition from chains

In a neighborhood saturated with Duane Reades and high-end stores like Club Monaco, opening up a mom and pop shop on the Upper West Side seems like it would be a challenge. Because of astronomical rents or expired leases, and competition with big name stores, independently-owned stores have started to disappear from the Upper West Side.

But businesses like the 79th Street Pharmacy, which opened six months ago at Broadway, and Treat House, the gourmet Rice Krispies treat shop (and first of its kind), which will be opening Aug. 6 at 82nd and Amsterdam, have managed to find a home on the Upper West Side.

Cardeology moves to 526 Amsterdam

Cardeology moves to 526 Amsterdam

For the 79th Street Pharmacy, a small old-fashioned storefront off Broadway that offers lollipops and health classes to its customers, the difference is in making sure they are different than corporations. There are nine Duane Reades on the Upper West Side from Columbus Circle to 90th Street, one of which is around the corner from Keith Lewis at the 79th Street Pharmacy. He makes sure to be friendly and helpful to customers, and to remember them, as well as get their feedback. He said that one of the big misconceptions about small businesses is higher prices than corporate stores.

“I had a customer actually say ‘your prices are too low,’” said owner and pharmacist Lewis. “It’s really listening to your customers, and just because you are a single store, it doesn’t mean you’re more expensive than a franchise or chain store.”

Lewis said that he has tried everything to spread the word about his pharmacy- from putting up a neon sign and balloons to attract passersby, to participating in local street fairs.

For Jennifer and Chris Russell, the couple who owns Treat House, their pre-opening success has been largely due to social media, and the media catching on to their idea. Plus the unique story behind their shop, probably doesn’t hurt either. Treat House was born out of a school bake sale two years ago, when their sons Daniel and Eli were trying to scrounge up some unique goodies. Chris Russell, who spent 25 years in the restaurant business came up with the ingredients for out-there Rice Krispies treats like bubblegum and peanut butter and chocolate (two kids’ favorites).

“People are excited that we are a mom and pop shop since so much of the Upper West Side has been taken over by chains,” said Chris Russell. “But first and foremost our product is unique. Nobody has taken Rice Krispies treats to the level we have in terms of creativity.”

Keith Lewis at the 79th Street Pharmacy

Keith Lewis at the 79th Street Pharmacy

And despite the fact that they haven’t even opened their doors yet, Treat House’s Facebook page is, as they put it, “littered with likes” from community members and friends who have already sampled the kid-friendly flavors or more adult concoctions like salted caramel and dark chocolate raspberry.

Finding a prime location, in the midst of what Upper West Side business experts hope to be a prime shopping/boutique section on Columbus and 79th Street, near the Museum of Natural History, is part of designer Boyoung Kim’s strategy to opening up her high-fashion boutique, BOC, which will be opening on Aug. 17th and will carry her line of clothing. Kim said that although other high-end fashion stores already have a brand and following, she believes that her unique character will set her apart.

For Richard Barbosa, who just opened up a new location (526 Amsterdam between 85th and 86th streets) of his Upper West Side card store, Cardeology, after his old location closed, success has been carrying unique products that pharmacies and Hallmark would not carry such as 25 different brands of cards other than the usual Papyrus, and unique holidays/celebrations like a great-grandmother’s birthday, or a co-worker’s retirement that chain stores would not carry.

“This store is my way of being creative. People can go to CVS and Duane Reade, so you have to give good customer service,” said Barbosa. “We are creating an atmosphere where people feel good.”

Yet, it’s not all smiles and great reviews.

The Lincoln Square BID for instance, despite President Monica Blum saying that it is the perfect time and neighborhood to open a small business, and that the BID welcomes businesses of all sizes, no retail small businesses have opened in the Lincoln Square area in the past six months.

Financially, owning and operating a small business can be draining, said Barbosa. At his old location at Columbus and 81st Street, when the lease was up the landlords wanted to increase rent by 75 percent. The only businesses that can afford that, said Barbosa, are the big box stores. In addition, said Barbosa, for small-scale retail like a card store, you put in much more than you get back.

Keith Lewis at the 79th Street Pharmacy said do not negotiate less than a 10-year lease. At that point, he said, even if rents increase astronomically, you can pick up your business, move it elsewhere and your customer base will follow.

The Russells, for instance, picked Amsterdam Avenue as their location because it has the largest number of small businesses and has a real “avenue feel.” Other challenges that the new businesses have mentioned, has been more responsibility because of smaller staffs, as well as creating a reputation from scratch.

“We are responsible for doing everything. We are running around, ragged with bloodshot eyes,” said Jennifer Russell of Treat House. “We want to make sure this comes out perfectly, but it’s worth it.”

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