February 2011

Small Business: Did Anybody Try To Talk You Out Of It?

Author: Frank Dunne, Jr.

“Oh, yeah! Almost every single person that we spoke to said it was a bad investment,” said insurance agent-turned-bar owner Rob Hummel. “Although people closest to us said, ‘You guys can make this happen,’ there were those who said, ‘Are you guys crazy?’”

(From Left to Right)
Pat Delello, Rob Hummel and Jake Veldran

Hummel was speaking of his decision to launch Cheap Seats Tavern, a new sports bar that opened for business last September 9 in Morningstar Commons on North Mathews Drive. The bar business is a risky proposition period. But to take the leap in a market with a cyclical population like Hilton Head’s during what is supposed to be a bad economy, it’s no surprise that some would call you crazy.

But Hummel and his partner/brother Brian weren’t interested in all that. “He and I had always talked about wanting to have a bar, and we decided to look around and see what we could get,” he said. “Even though the economy was bad, that meant the opportunity was there to get a good place at a good price.” In fact, Hummel believes that the soft economy is what made launching Cheap Seats affordable. “We saved money on everything from the architecture right down to the beer coolers.”

Hummel describes Cheap Seats as a comfortable, everybody-knows-your-name sports bar with good food and local-friendly prices. Admittedly, it’s too early to make bold predictions about the future, but the brothers Hummel and managing partners Pat Delello and Jake Veldran are encouraged by their first five months in business. “Every day we’re seeing new faces, and we feel that our business is growing,” said Hummel. (They’re already thinking about expanding the kitchen and adding a sit-down dining room.)

Hummel’s story is good news. No, not just because there’s a new bar in town (although that is very good news), but because it’s good to hear about and talk about people getting down to business, taking risks and pursuing dreams—doing the things that drive the economy and the country forward.

That’s right. They’re not sitting around waiting for the president to do this, or the Fed to do that, because you know what that gets us? Bupkis! These people are taking action. They’re your neighbors. They’re your friends. They might be you.
Here are a few of their stories…

Three young ball players get ready for some practice at The Batter’s Box

Just around the corner and a short drive west on 278 from Cheap Seats Tavern, you’ll find another new sports themed venture where you actually step up to the plate and participate rather than spectate. Opening its doors last November in Southwood Park, the Batters Box is Hilton Head’s only indoor baseball/softball practice and training facility.

Although highly impressed by the facilities at The Crossings Park when signing her kids up for baseball, transplanted Philadelphian Lisa Stauffer observed the island’s lack of a place to practice and train year-round. With the seed of an idea planted in the former human resource manager’s head, Stauffer turned entrepreneurial. She hired a consultant, did her due diligence, and the Batters Box was born. “I wasn’t expecting to find a job like the one I had, and I’m not one to sit still,” said Stauffer of her seismic shift in career path. And the result is not your average coin-op batting cage.

The Batters Box features variable-speed baseball and softball pitching machines, portable pitching mounds, L-screens, batting tees, a soft-toss machine, and space to conduct fielding drills. You can work on your game independently, or sign up for professional clinics.

Stauffer stresses, though, that the Batters Box is not exclusively for serious baseball training. “It’s another activity option,” she said, “an alternative to putt-putt golf or bowling.”

Stuart and Brecken Campagna welcome a new four-legged “client” to Southpaw Pet Resort

Another recent local start-up is a different animal entirely. When Stuart and Brecken Campagna sold their successful home-based pet sitting company, Pet Pals, the couple considered their next challenge. “It did way beyond what we expected it to do,” said Stuart, talking about Pet Pals, the sale of which left them in a good position to launch their next venture, Southpaw Pet Resort, a luxury pet boarding facility.

The Campagnas purchased the former Lowcountry Kennels at the corner of Fish Haul and Mitchellville Roads, but the facilities were not up to snuff for what they had in mind for Southpaw. So they took their renovation plans off the table, tore the whole thing down and built anew. “We created more of a resort environment as opposed to a standard kennel experience,” said Stuart. “All of our rooms are VIP style.”

Getting there wasn’t entirely smooth sailing, though. “We had the whole place drawn; we had the whole place approved, then the economy tanked. We were fortunate to be able to open half of what we had drawn out,” said Stuart.

Now the Campagnas are working to complete the project. Although securing the necessary financing “ain’t what it used to be,” they’re not going to sit on their haunches and wait for better days. Stuart looks at it this way: “If you provide the service you say you’re going to provide, and no matter what your day is like, if every single day you do the best that you know you can do, you will do well.”

This brightly covered cottage on Calhoun Street hosts the artwork of over 16 co-owners/artists.

In 2008, a group of Hilton Head and Bluffton artists found themselves in a bit of a quandary. The gallery where they had been exhibiting and selling their work closed, and they needed a place to go. When plans to purchase the closing gallery didn’t pan out, they simply decided to open a new one. “The closing of the Calhoun Street Gallery was the catalyst in opening this gallery,” said Judy McElynn, treasurer and landlord liaison for the Maye River Gallery cooperative in Old Town Bluffton.

The 16 artists who make up the cooperative constructed a viable business model by which the members market their work, participate in the gallery’s operation, and allow non-member artists to sell their work on consignment. This model has driven enough revenue to make Maye River self-sustaining in a relatively short time and has made a recent interior renovation possible.

But the Maye River members take more of a big picture view of what they are accomplishing. “We knew that Bluffton was going to become the art center for the area because Hilton Head doesn’t have a town center where people can walk from place to place,” said McElynn. “The artists who were already here and those of us who had not been here recognized that it’s consolidated,” added Laura Silberman, the gallery’s event manager. “If you go on travels and go to other art towns, things you enjoy doing when you’re on vacation are walking around and getting a flavor for the area, and that’s what you can do here.”

They see the Maye River Gallery, and the other galleries clustered around Calhoun Street as the axis around which a renaissance of sorts for Old Town Bluffton spins. The emergence of retail and food & beverage establishments on the Calhoun Street Promenade and Carson Cottages is evidence that they are right. “Having us all together supports all of us,” said Silberman.

Kim and John Boyce of The Mellow Mushroom area getting ready to expand into Bluffton.

The businesses already mentioned are all relatively new in town, but start-ups aren’t the only ones driving forward, bad economy or not. Corks Wine Co. just celebrated the first anniversary of its second location, and longtime Hilton Head favorite, the Mellow Mushroom, will soon open a second store in Bluffton, while the original Park Plaza Mushroom moves into some new, stand-alone digs.

“It just felt like it was a good time to buy some real estate,” said Kim Boyce who co-owns the Mellow Mushroom with her husband John. According to Boyce, the restaurant has not experienced the drop off in revenues reported by so many businesses these days. “It’s pizza and beer,” she said. “Mellow Mushroom the brand is just going through the roof, and our summers have definitely exploded.”

Owners of Corks, John and Gabby Luman

Usually we hear about a Hilton Head business moving to or expanding into Bluffton. Corks Wine Co. did it the other way around. The original store was among the first tenants to occupy space in Bluffton’s Calhoun Street Promenade three years ago. Last winter, Corks opened its second location in the Island Crossing Center off the Sea Pines Circle. Bucking a trend? Owner Josh Luman doesn’t see it that way. To him it was just a matter of sticking to the plan.

“I think we just fell in love with Old Town Bluffton,” said Luman about locating the first Corks in Bluffton. “We had the idea in mind what we wanted to do. We knew that we wanted to do a handful of Corks. That was a five-year goal, and we knew in our heads what we wanted Corks to be; it was just a matter of we’ll know when the place pops up.” And when the right place popped up on the island…

Ask Luman how a wine bar can thrive to a point where it can afford to expand while so many other food & beverage establishments are struggling and he’ll attribute it to a hands-on approach, and good old fashioned American risk taking. “You can’t sit around and wait for things to improve,” he said. “You can’t wait for this administration or the next administration to do something. If we’re going to do anything, people need to get off their seats.”

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