Pierce County’s economic recovery from the recession has been accelerating in pace over the past 14 quarters, according to the latest county Economic Index report. That study also forecast a 2.8 percent rise in economic growth rate for this year.
Positive factors in this growth include rising international trade activities, growing aerospace and health care sectors, and the jobs and ripple-effect spending related to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Overall employment in the county is also expected grow at a steady 1.8 percent this year as well.
Amid the fabric of all this, though, is Pierce County’s multifarious small business community, a sector that took one of the largest blows to its base during the recession. Yet, for every small business owner who couldn’t hold on during the dark times, there was another long-standing local company that managed to tweak tis operations to survive, and even many new niche startups that found an untapped well of product and service demand.
Here are some of the Pierce County small business success stories that are models for hanging tough, or being innovative, in rugged economic times.
Bringing frozen yogurt to the Northwest
It was New Year’s Eve 2009 when Jesse Roberge and his wife were celebrating her birthday, and discussing different ideas for a start-up business with friends.
Then they hit upon something unique that was missing from the Northwest: Frozen yogurt.
The only problem was the question of whether it would work in a setting where it rains nine months out of the year.
“But then we thought about Starbucks, and how that has been so successful because of its ‘hosting” (customer service) model and café setting,” Said Roberge. “It matched with our market—moms and dads, who control the discretionary income in the family—and what would make them comfortable enough to choose us as a place to take their kids, and to keep coming back.”
Just four months later, Roberge opened Black Bear Frozen Yurt in Lakewood, the first frozen yogurt shop in all of Pierce County. Today there are six Black Baer shops in hand-picked, high-traffic sites from Steilacoom to Payallup to Tacoma, and three more in construction in Lakewood Towne Center, Federal Way and South King County’s Westfield Mall area. And, including competitors that have sprung up since Roberge opened his doors, there are now roughly 20 frozen yogurt shops in the area.
“We blazed the trail so we had to smooth out a lot of the trouble spots like sourcing products and creating distribution systems,” he said. “Bu we were the first. Now it’s a lot easier, and less expensive, to run this type of business.”
Besides being a local, homegrown company, Black Bear’s advantage over competitors remains in its focus on top-quality customer service. The first step is targeted training, and Roberge isn’t hesitant to employ high school students. Where other businesses decline to hire youth, black Bear fully welcomes confident, responsible teenagers who walk in well-dressed and with a resume, even if they’ve never worked before.
“When you get 16-year-old kids who are at their first job and getting paid the highest minimum wage in the country, I’d rather train them my way and the have them be a blessing on their next employer,” Roberge said.
Capitalizing on the housing market
The recession actually sparked business for one of Pierce County’s longstanding companies, the Fife-based Closets by Design, which has been in business for more than two decades. That, and a partnership in 2012 with the national franchise to build on their marketing.
The result: a 64 percent year-to-date uptick in business, including 53 percent Q1 and 59 percent Q2 growth over last year.
“Closet design has always been a national leader in the home restoration industry,” explained owner Kevin Jepson. “People want extra space, but they don’t want to move.”
Originally, Jepson’s brother started the business in 1992; then his father came onboard to help. Jepson himself joined up, too; then, his brother left to pursue a different career. So, he said, “Dad and I just took it from there and ran with it.”
Now, it’s not just closets that the company tackles. Jobs also include renovating garages, patios, home offices, and any space that clients would like to refresh. In one day, installers head out to anywhere from one to four sites, and return with an average of $5,000 to $6,000 worth of work.
With its on-site warehouse, Closets by Design keeps much of its inventory on hand, and focuses on sourcing locally. That also streamlines the turnaround time for project completion, as well as drops the overall price. The average job takes just one to three weeks; the average cost is $3,000.
However, “There’s no average closet,” cautioned Jepson. Some spaces take as much as five weeks, and the price can range anywhere from $500 to $50,000.
“The biggest advantage to the local customer is that we can give them a lot of storage space for just the cost of an upgrade,” he said.
Roadwork rise opens another new niche
With road construction on the rise throughout Pierce County, another company found a different type of business service to be in demand.
Scott Stephens, an asphalt-paving industry professional since the mid-1990s, saw that no one in the South Sound was competing with the high-priced dealers for certain machine parts. With partner Brandon Bishop, in 2011, he embarked on business training through the Employment Security Department’s Self Employment Assistance Program, which they found out about through a friend in a similar program in Spokane. Late that year, the two received their business license, and opened their new Surefit American Made Wear Parts near Frederickson that December.
“Our business plan was to offer similar or better quality than the original equipment manufacturer, but at a lower price and with better service,“ Stephens explained.
Specifically, Surefit designs, fabricates, installs and repairs “wear parts,” such as screed plates and hydraulics, for asphalt paving machines, creating a service that’s far less expensive and more customer-attentive than dealer options. They also source locally, both for parts and outsource services.
Now, year-to-date against 2012, Surefit’s business is indeed up, by an astounding 76 percent. Little wonder, as their clientele—including Tucci, Miles and Lakeside construction companies—can be seen all over the highways these days.
To gain clients, Stephens put his nationwide contact list to work, and the customer base began to grow. The company has also been able to gain business from former clients of similar companies that failed during the recession. And, locally, the homegrown source base and appeal of Surefit’s South Sound site has won customers, dealers and other similar companies.
However, winning customers wasn’t all that easy, particularly given the distrust of those who had done business with failed companies and lost money. Those potential clientele, Stephens said, were hesitant to commit to a contract again. However, slowly but surely, Surefit is winning them over.
“It’s not about sales and numbers; it’s about relationships,” he said. “One of the most rewarding things is getting those repeat customers because we’re giving them better service and earning their business.”
Rebranding can be business revitalization
The recession was tough enough on small business, but the food and beverage industry was one particularly hard-hit.
However, Three Chicks Catering in Tacoma, with its spunky “From Boxed Lunch to Black Tie” theme and nimble business model, has more than just survived the hard times; it’s been a standout that’s thrived amid the competition. Since its start 13 years ago, with a move in 2005 and the hiring of two expert chefs a year later, the business has both stayed fresh and kept clientele returning.
The latest adjustment for the local company, though, was when the owner announced plans for retirement last year.
In January, new owner Don Brenner, who had been with the catering company for years, took over. Then the team rebranded the company as Picasso Catering.
“We wanted to step it up a notch, or three,” said Brenner. “We wanted to make our own mark.”
That goal has paid off, with a roughly 20 percent rise in the customer base, as well as clientele in new market sectors. Besides the former Three Chicks customers that use the rebranded Picasso, the company also now has a swathe of fresh sites and events to cater.
“We’ve definitely seen a jump,” Brenner said. “With the economy, you’re going to lose some, such as with companies that are cutting costs; and some are one-time customer, like for weddings. But we have the same chefs, and we have a good reputation, so there’s been an increase in business in general.”
Expansion plans are on the horizon, too. Not on site, as the 200-person venue on South Union Avenue is fine for now, Brenner said, but in clientele. And on the menu.
“We’re making inroads in new markets, and new niche markets, and we have more items to choose from,” he said. “It’s not ‘Three Chicks’ any more. Actually, it’s more like ‘Three Guys and a Couple of Ladies.’”
by Holly Smith Peterson
Originally printed in the Business Examiner – Tacoma WA | October 3, 2013