Business & entrepreneurs 2005
A roundup of local entreprenuers who work out of their homes.
Toys of the trade
Business takes care of the busy work in online auctioning
As you enter the home of Andrea Mox and Cheryl Grant, you’ll notice some rather interesting items lying around.
In the corner of their living room, members of the rock group KISS swarm around a miniature Millennium Falcon while deranged killer Jason Voorhees, from the cult Friday the 13th slasher series, holds a bloody machete above his head.
But it’s all part of the business.
The two have run Contagious Collectibles as an official business from their suburban home for about a year. Mox and Grant are trading assistants for eBay consignments, which Mox said is basically the middle man between people who want to sell their wares and the online auction.
What started out as a hobby of Grant’s has transformed into a formidable business that, Mox said, they would love to see become a full-time endeavor for one of them in the future.
And the prospect looks good. Mox said that over the last six months the business has grown to the point of taking over the house.
“This space is starting to creep,” Mox said, pointing in the direction of a fold-up table in the corner of their living room overflowing with action figures, trading cards and other trinkets.
An entire bedroom has been transformed into a giant storage unit—loaded nearly from floor to ceiling with electronics, clothing and toys—and complete with that familiar musty library scent.
The garage has also been taken over by boxes of second-hand items, most notably a giant rack of elk antlers sitting on a shelf.
“We’re not particularly versed in the ins-and-outs of antlers,” Mox said with a laugh.
But Mox said dealing with some of the odder items is what makes the job interesting and more time-consuming—from how to package them to how to market them for their clients. She said some clients don’t understand why they charge the 38 percent flat fee until she explains exactly what their job entails.
The business handles everything from packing and shipping of items to photographing and researching what makes them valuable.
Mox said she and Grant spent the better part of Super Bowl Sunday looking up the brand names of a group of musical instruments, including an old xylophone, to see what kind of price they could fetch.
“EBay is a crapshoot,” Mox said. “It’s like a yard sale, but if people want it, they’ll pay.”
Grant is the real “toy geek,” having a collection of action figures and old trading cards. She said she started collecting comic books, and everything spiraled from there. She even has a rack of vintage wooden tennis rackets.
“Things just evolved,” Grant said. “If you’re a collector you want everything.”
Grant said she does most of the research and writes the descriptions of the items for their clients. Her love of oddities and old toys also carries over into the care and storage of the client’s treasures.
She said they even go through people’s storage units and tell them which items are worth auctioning on eBay and which items should got to the weekend yard sale. Generally, Mox said, an item should have an expected sale price of $50 in order for them to make a profit.
Mox said that, between her business savvy and Grant’s love of collectibles, they’ve been able to make the business work.
“This business has presented some intriguing challenges, but good challenges.”
Step into the store
Family-run operation has been a home business for seven decades
Dan and Michele Kumangia’s little, white Warner Street Grocery has served the residents of its north Chico neighborhood in one form or another for nearly 70 years. The Kumangias bought the place from Michele’s parents, Frank and Martha White, in September 1994.
When Michele, now 42, was a girl, she lived with her parents in Southern California, until they decided more than 30 years ago to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and raise their family in a small, quiet town like Chico.
Frank bought the store in 1974 and raised his family in the house connected to the back of the place. Frank and Martha, who sold thousands of cans of pop and packages of Top Ramen to thousands of Chico State University students over the years, still live in the area, just this side of Red Bluff.
Dan and Michele, who are the market’s fourth owners, said they decided to buy the place for the same reason her parents did—they, too, wanted to raise their family in Chico.
Michele literally grew up at the little market and is now raising her own children the same way. The store has not changed much over the years, she said recently, and neither has the neighborhood.
“I don’t see that much difference in the overall feel, except that there is a lot more trash on the ground,” Michele noted in an interview last week.
In a previous incarnation the store was a two-pump gas station—a Texaco outlet offering Fire Chief and Star Chief brands of petrol. Today the Texaco Star sign is gone, along with the pumps and the old McColl’s All Star Dairy sign that used to hang on the front of the building.
And the sign that once read Frank & Martha’s has been replaced with “Dan and Michele’s.” But the funky, old-time-market feel remains.
The building is a basic white wooden frame highlighted with red trim. The bright-red front porch calls to passersby. The front door is a little tricky—it sticks a bit, but if you give it a gentle push it gives way and lets you past the threshold.
The aisles and wall shelves are stocked with sodas, milk, eggs, cheese, meat, bread, candy, cooking supplies, canned food, some produce and, of course, Top Ramen. The deli case offers sandwiches that Dan makes fresh every morning: Roast beef, turkey, and ham sandwiches are unreasonably reasonable—$ 1.35 to $1.60. Their Polish and hot dog specials are a real hot item come lunch time.
The Warner Street Grocery is as different from a modern-day convenience store like 7-Eleven as Collier Hardware is from a Wal-Mart. One has a soul and colorful history, the other offers garish fluorescent lights and indifferent employees.
The market was built in 1937. Dan said his in-laws, Frank and Martha, purchased the place from a couple named John and Lola—he didn’t know their last name—who’d owned it since 1954. All of the store’s owners kept it for about 20 years before they sold it.
“That seems to be the pattern,” Dan said.
The pumps were removed in 1979, when it became too expensive to get fuel suppliers to deliver to such a small store, Michele said. The store now pulls in most of its revenue through the sale of beer, cigarettes and sodas.
The customers are made up of a variety of people, including the ever-changing faces of students and the reliable long-time neighbors. When Dan and Michele first bought the store they realized how important it was to have a good relationship with every one of their customers.
Dan said most of the houses close to the store are rentals occupied by students, which means a fairly transient population.
“It’s interesting when you start a business like this,” Michele said. “You have to be able to get along with everybody, from a homeless person to someone who is well off.”
If you are a regular customer, Dan and Michele or longtime clerk Deb Stewart probably knows your name, whether you are coming in for a tall boy or a tall coffee. The majority of their customers shopped here for years and created a social relationship with the owners of the store.
Dan is a gentle, soft-spoken man, who greets everyone with a smile and is never shy about asking someone how they are doing. Dan and Michele both had childhood dreams, and neither imagined that Warner Street Grocery would become their family business. Dan, a native of Washington, had just finished the Naval Academy and was in flight school when he met Michele in Sacramento.
They both wanted the same things: to be parents and live a comfortable life. When Michele’s folks announced they were selling the store, the couple decided they wanted to buy it. Michele said her father was a little hesitant, that he couldn’t believe his daughter wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“I never ever thought I would be doing this,” Michele said, “But we really loved the idea of being able to have our family and live in the back of the store.”
The store allows Dan and Michele to be flexible in their daily lives. They are not tied down to a 9-to-5 schedule. They wake up in the comfort of their own home, and they are only a few steps from work.
One of the greatest benefits, they said, is that their family is always together.
“If I need Dan for anything and he’s inside the store, I can just call him on the intercom,” said Michele. “If the employees have issues, we don’t have to drive across town; we are right here.”
A few weeks ago someone attempted to rob the store. Because of their proximity, Dan and Michele were help to give immediate help to Stewart, who was behind the counter.
“We were able to be here for Deb, rather than being all the way across town,” said Michele.
They said generally speaking they have a great relationship with their neighbors, many of whom help watches over them and the little store. If there is any suspicious behavior around the store, the neighbors have been known to call the police.
Dan and Michele have three boys, all foster children who are 8, 5 and 3 years old. (Because of a desire to protect these kids’ privacy, they asked not to be photographed.) The boys are home-schooled by both Dan and Michele, who is now expecting the couple’s first baby.
Since they work out of their home, the parents have a greater opportunity to spend one-on-one time with their children and oversee their education.
“We are learning a lot together, and the kids have a more focused education,” Michele said. They have a set schedule between work and schooling the kids that allows them to be together all the time, and the try to strike a balance between working and raising their children. The oldest son is up at 6 every morning and comes to the store to practice math with Dan.
“He is probably the only 8-year-old who knows how to count back change from a $50,” Michele boasted proudly. “Some college kids can’t even do that!”
Dan and Michele appreciate their situation. They said they realize how lucky they are to be able to live and work in the same place. Not many people can wake up and walk a couple of feet to their jobs. And not many can say they truly enjoy what they do.
The store has been around for decades in a neighborhood that has change quite a bit over the last 70 years. It has seen people from many different eras come and go.
The Warner Street Grocery has carved a fairly deep niche in its neighborhood it has served for the last seven decades and should continue to do so for years to come. “Yeah, I’ll keep it as long as I can make a living at it,” promised Dan.
From his home to yours, Brenden Merwin takes care of the details
Beware: There is a certain species of tree here in Chico that for some reason the city saw fit to plant next to seemingly every parking space located near downtown. About this time of year, these trees produce a red berry that attracts hungry birds like senior citizens to a Sunday all-you-can-eat buffet.
You can see the results on all the cars parked under these trees—numerous droppings splattered in a polka-dot design.
You then have four choices: Ignore the poop and wait till the rain washes it away; take your car to a car wash; do it yourself; or have it done professionally at your home.
The fourth option is made possible by Brenden Merwin’s North Valley Mobile Detail, which since August, 2002, has been taking the drudgery out of washing your car by doing it for you.
From his home, Merwin, an organizational-communications major at Chico State University, tows an enclosed trailer to and from jobs all over town. Filled with high-speed buffing equipment, a vacuum, an air compressor and chemicals like Teflon paint sealant, which he says is “highly recommended for new-car owners,” his trailer is the closest thing he has to an employee.
After paying $25 to the city of Chico for a business license, getting his name out there on business cards and advertising in various newspapers, Merwin became the proud owner of a business that has him scraping, buffing and waxing fancy sports cars, large trucks and even airplanes, leaving them with like-new engine, interior, and exterior shines.
Merwin was involved in beautifying automobiles long before he became an independent business owner. He is a former employee at the Infiniti dealership in the Roseville Auto Mall and at ABC Detail in Chico before it closed its doors.
“Once I learned how a detail business was run, I had an idea that I thought could earn me a lot of money,” he said. “It was also something that I didn’t think anyone had tried in Chico.”
Being his own boss, he said, is the most attractive aspect of his work.
“I have no one breathing down my neck, I have no timescale or deadlines, and how much money I make depends on how much work I put in.”
That last part, he said, is an option that he did not enjoy in any of his previous employments.
On the other hand, running your own business does have its drawbacks. He may not have a boss or time schedule, but he is responsible for any damage that occurs in any of his projects.
The changing of the seasons, he said, can make his income somewhat inconsistent, but it can also bring many of his clients back. Although he has some customers who prefer regular cleanings, much of his work comes via word of mouth and from being a member of the Chico Network Association, a nonprofit organization of independent business owners in Chico who trade business cards and other occupational information with the hope that word will carry of their various ventures.
Whether it is a simple car wash, sprucing up a boat, cleaning a motor home, or overhauling an airplane inside and out, Merwin sees no task as too large and takes pride in the service he provides.
“I have an end product that I can be proud to return to a customer,” he says, “and getting paid for it is even that much better.”
North Valley Mobile Detail can be reached at (530) 864-6256.
Terra Bella florists flourish in west Chico
Mark and Julia Kessler are gracious people. On Feb. 15, the day after the busiest 24 hours a florist experiences all year, they and their 5-year-old son Tava welcomed me into their home, which is also their florist shop.
Their business, Terra Bella, is on the western edge of Chico, beyond the Greenline and next to an old walnut orchard. In fact, the whole area used to be orchards. The Kesslers showed me an aerial photo taken in 1955 that showed only their house, which had recently been constructed, and the next-door farm house, both practically swallowed by the trees surrounding them.
Now most of the orchards along Oak Way have given way to development.
The Kesslers are about to begin their third summer in Chico, having finally made a complete transition after six years of commuting between Idaho in the summer and here in the winter.
“We were snowbirds,” Julia said, “young snowbirds,” as she clipped, stripped and washed flower stems in the brightly lit—and recently added—room in the house that serves as their shop. Terra Bella is still in the stages of establishing a niche as one of only two local florists that grow their own flowers. And, Mark said, they are also going through the bureaucratic process of becoming certified as the only—as far as he knows—organic florist in the state.
The house sits on three-quarters of an acre, and their back yard includes a couple of out-buildings housing their walk-in cooler, rows of various types of flowers and, against the back fence, a wall of 10 solar panels that power the ranch and allow the Kesslers to sell juice back to Pacific Gas and Electric.
The Kesslers haven’t always been in flowers. Their original foray into gardening concentrated on vegetables in a part of the nation with both an unforgiving climate and a short growing season.
“We started farming 11 years ago in eastern Idaho, in a little town called Victor,” Mark explained. Victor is near Jackson, Wyo., where the two met. He is originally from Ohio, she from Oregon.
“One of the problems up there, and Californians won’t understand this, but in a landlocked area like that there is no organic food, no good food to eat because it is miserable by the time it gets to you.”
So he became an organic farmer growing a vegetable and flower garden. But the couple started getting more requests for flowers, and that sort of took over the garden. Still, growing a garden in eastern Idaho, in the shadow of the Tetons, is a hard row to till. Imagine, he said, trying to grow a garden in Lassen National Park, and you get the idea.
“At one point we realized the limitations of growing flowers in the Rockies, so we picked up and moved to Chico—we did know somebody who went to school here, but really it was just looking at a map and deciding.”
Mark said the combination of a small town with a college and a park like Bidwell made the decision easy. They bought a house on 21st Street, fixed it up and sold it and then moved to where they are today.
Most of their business today is weddings—though Valentine’s Day this year was their biggest yet, about 5 percent of their annual sales. Typically, he said, Valentine’s Day makes up as much as 20 percent of a more traditional florist’s business.
The existing florists cater to a different, and bigger, clientele than do the Kesslers.
“We recognized there was nobody doing the contemporary, modern designs with fresh flowers, and as far as using your own flowers, the variety we have to choose from is just exponential compared to other florists. They are choosing basically from roses, lilies, carnations, mums, not much more than five flowers.
“If I order lilies from a distributor, they might have four types of lilies. If I order bulbs to grow my own lilies, I’ve got 400 to choose from.”
Mark said that, when they have abundant harvests, they do supply some of the other florists in Chico, including Christian & Johnson and San Francisco Flowers.
Longtime business partners as well as husband and wife, Mark and Julia have a comfortable division of labor. Mark makes most of the business decisions, while Julia devotes much of her time to being a mom. Mark jokingly refers to her as his “field representative.”
With the exception of a few hired hands to pick in the summer, the couple do all the gardening work, most of which is self-taught.
“I didn’t want to take a class and ruin my skills,” Mark said, only half-joking. “When we first started and got our first big wedding, I thought, ‘Man, I ought to really work on this.’ So I went to Barnes & Noble and looked in this book, and it said, ‘The five methods to design are: composition …’ I looked at it and closed it up. I don’t want that running through my head. I don’t want to know what it has to be. To me art is not this thing that has its rules.”
He has since taken a class and studied the principals and agrees they do have some validity. He just didn’t want to start with them.
The Kesslers say they are looking to lease more land for their flowers, possibly a few acres in Capay in Tehama County.
“We’re running out of room for the flowers,” Mark said.
You can visit the Kesslers’ Web site at terrabellaflora.com.