Category: Retail

A. Caplan Co.

Anyone who’s driven through Waterford on Route 19 is probably familiar with A. Caplan Co.’s slogan: “If you cook, stop and look!”

As Luke Caplan describes, the slogan was a spur-of-the-moment creation from his father, Aaron, who founded the business in 1981.

The slogan, which now graces the sign of the Waterford Township business, perfectly sums up the draw of the kitchenware store.

On the retail side, at least, the store has become almost a destination of sorts for at-home cooks, Luke Caplan says. In the storefront, all manner of kitchen gadgets and gizmos jockey for space. There are stacks of gleaming silver pots, rows of coordinating china, racks of spoons and spatulas for any purpose.  There is also a collection of vintage items, including quirky or collectible kitchen tools and serving pieces reminding shoppers of days gone by.

But the retail side only represents about half of what the business does. A. Caplan Co. also serves commercial kitchens, supplying equipment to restaurants, taverns, schools, clubs and churches. That equipment, which A. Caplan Co. sells both new and used, runs the gamut: Huge commercial ovens and refrigerators, stainless steel sinks for proper sanitation, other devices like rice cookers, bread slicers, mixers and meat grinders.

The business has evolved over the years into its current form, with the Caplans tacking on extra room as needs required. They’ve grown slowly but steadily over the years, Luke Caplan says – and that was the intention. “Dad never was in it to make a ton of money,” he says. “Just to make a living.”

Today, that living supports a second generation of Caplans – Luke and his brother, James, as well as 10 other dedicated employees – and has carved out a comfortable niche for itself in Erie County. Even so, the Caplans are cognizant of their main competition – the Internet – and have had to make their mark as a unique presence.

“We know we have to get out there and sell the experience,” Luke Caplan says, “and sell ourselves.”

About A. Caplan Co.: Aaron Caplan started his business in the former Dog N Suds, and the drive-in’s old awning remains. Today, the commercial side of the business serves customers in a fairly wide radius, serving customers as far south as Pittsburgh and delving into eastern Ohio and western New York. The retail side of the business has been bolstered by a nationwide trend of home cooking, evidenced by the variety of cooking shows and competitions. In addition to supplying equipment, the business offers services as well – including installing equipment, advising customers on kitchen layout, and even professional knife sharpening.

Why Erie County: A trend in Erie County to support locally owned restaurants has proved beneficial to A. Caplan Co., Luke Caplan says. In addition, A. Caplan Co. enjoys a good relationship with other restaurant equipment dealers in the county. “There’s a camaraderie” in their industry, he says.

Challenges of Erie County: As previously mentioned, one of A. Caplan Co.’s biggest challenges as a retailer is from the Internet, in the form of online shopping. However, the company also sees challenges here at home, particularly when it comes to attempts to expand the business. The company might have the resources to expand, but not necessarily the time or money to invest in the process – including permitting – that must be undertaken before the expansion can actually take place, Luke Caplan says. The obstacles can be disheartening, he says, for a company that is trying to grow.

Fun fact: Luke Caplan might just be destined to work in the restaurant supply business. His father’s parents were in the restaurant equipment business, long before his father opened A. Caplan Co. And his mother recently found a paper from his elementary school days that revealed his childhood hopes for this future. “It said, ‘When I grow up I want to sell restaurant equipment,’” Luke Caplan says with a laugh.

Address: 12607 U.S. Route 19, Waterford, PA 16441 or www.caplancookware.com.

Rudy’s Shoe Repair

In a small corner storefront on the City of Erie’s west side, Rudy Rodriguez is doing more than repairing shoes – he’s living the American dream.

The El Salvador native and his wife, Adriana, have run Rudy’s Shoe Repair since 2015 – a decade after Rudy came to the United States.

His path to becoming a business owner is, as Adriana describes, “quite providential.”

After experiencing problems with his feet, he saw a local podiatrist and then was referred to Walk Rite, a local store that offers footwear and other services for people with foot problems. There, with the help of Walk Rite owner Nathaniel Zimmerman, Rudy started training to learn how to make custom orthotics – and thus the dream began.

“As soon as I started training, I just fell in love with it,” says Rudy, who worked as a tailor in El Salvador. “I saw so much potential.”

Soon, he was working full-time out of the Walk Rite shop, filling a need for shoe repair in Erie.

Before long, Rudy’s Shoe Repair expanded into its own space, at the corner of West 26th and Myrtle streets.

Since then, business has been steadily growing, mostly by word of mouth.

Now, looking around the workshop, crowded with shoes in for repair, Rudy and Adriana see another possible move in their future – an expansion of their successful enterprise to a larger storefront, maybe one with living space above for their family.

When asked if he ever expected to be an entrepreneur – “empresario,” or businessman, as Adriana explained in Spanish – Rudy’s answer is clear: Never. He never pictured himself owning his own business.

But now, with his shop doing a steady business by filling a niche in Erie, perhaps he has realized a dream he never knew he had.

About Rudy’s Shoe Repair: Though the shop started out by only repairing shoes, now they take on all manner of leather products – purses, jackets, luggage, belts, saddles, even furniture. The workshop features a mix of old equipment, picked up secondhand, and new machines that the owners have invested in. As business has grown, so has the need for help. As a result, Rudy’s is no longer a one-man operation. Though Adriana also works a full-time job, she also helps out at the shop, and they also have two part-time employees. Rudy’s Shoe Repair also recently joined the Erie Regional Chamber & Growth Partnership.

Why Erie County: Rudy and Adriana both say that Erie County – and its people – have been very good to them. That includes the training and guidance Rudy received in starting the business, and it carries through today, when they exchange referrals with other local businesses and rely on a network of mentors to help them as they continue to learn the trade. In addition, they have found it is simply a good place to raise their two children, ages 2 and 6. “A lot of people say there is not much in Erie – but there is. You just have to look a little, and you’ll find great things,” Rudy says.

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that Rudy’s Shoe Repair faces are not unique to the county, or unique to shoe repair. Rather, it’s the burden of any small business owner who wears many hats – greeting and helping customers, filling orders, doing the finances, etc. In addition, Rudy says he works hard to adjust to the differences in culture and language that distinguish his new home from his native country.

Address: 263 W. 26th St., Erie PA 16508 or www.rudysshoerepair.com

 

Coming up next week: We visit Hoffman Industrial, the oldest rigging company in the United States.

 

American Cruising Sails

Anyone who’s ever gazed from our shores during the summertime can see that Erie loves its sailing – and, as a result, has a market for sailmaking.

Several years ago, a group of entrepreneurial-minded local sailors decided to fill that niche, and American Cruising Sails was born.

As two of those founders – company president AJ Miceli and general manager Kim Yamma – showed me around their workshop recently, it was evident that they are not just knowledgeable about the wind and the water, but are dedicated to their craft.

“Erie has a fine tradition of local sailmakers, and we hope to be the next generation,” AJ said.

American Cruising Sails has been in business since 2014, benefitting from both mentorship and referrals from longtime Erie sailmaker Dave Bierig.

Now that their reputation is growing, with orders coming both locally and online, they are looking to grow – eventually hoping to add an additional staff member as well as looking for a larger physical space.

Currently, they are located in the basement of a building on West Eighth Street in the City of Erie – a space that, interestingly enough, once housed another local startup, Erie.net. The location served the needs of the early days of American Cruising Sails, but now they are looking for room to grow.

In the existing space, a giant, 28-foot table nearly fills the workroom. As crisp white material runs the length of it, passing under the busy needle of the sewing machine, it is clear why a table of such size is warranted – and, when hearing about a recent order for a 52-foot sail, why an even larger table is desired.

The room hosts more than sewing – a chalkboard details new orders, and a computer helps with the design and plotting. Across the table from where Kim operates the sewing machine, AJ works on cutting out shapes that will be pieced together.

Elsewhere in the space, bags of sails are ready for repair or, when finished, delivery to customers. New rolls of canvas await their future as new sails. And a small display showcases the Vela line – totebags, pillows, placemats and even Christmas stockings – repurposed from retired sails.

Though a small operation, American Cruising Sails is committed to providing the best service for their customers – something that big-business competitors, whose products are often made in Sri Lanka or China, can’t touch.

“We’re sailors,” Kim says. “We know what we would want in a sail.”

About American Cruising Sales: The company’s small staff is still made up of the four original owners – AJ and Kim, along with vice president Mark Platteter and partner Rosemary Briggs. Like with any startup, the partners began by chipping away at the work on evenings and weekends, before eventually transitioning AJ and Kim to full time. Mark and Rosemary still work at the business part-time. Though about 85 percent of American Cruising Sails’ work is local, they’re also growing their national footprint, having shipped sails to Texas, Florida, Maryland, Vermont and elsewhere.

Why Erie County: A sailmaking business is, of course, a perfect fit for Erie County, with its miles of shoreline and natural bay. But in addition, American Cruising Sales’ owners say they see plenty of potential for their business in Erie County. “We see nothing but opportunities in Erie County,” A.J. says, with Kim adding, “We’re big fans.”

Challenges of Erie County: The challenges that American Cruising Sails faces are universal among small startups – not enough hours in the day, the owners say. But the owners are also seeing a challenging in finding a new space for their loft. They are looking for something of the right size, at the right cost, that is convenient to the bay.

Fun fact: A sailmaking workshop is known as a loft – even if, as in American Cruising Sails’ case, the shop is located in a basement.

About: 1640 W. Eighth St., Erie PA 16505 or www.americancruisingsails.com

Rosebud Flower Shop

The family roots run deep at Rosebud Flower Shop – not just for the florist business, but for its location, at the corner of East 10th and Reed streets on the City of Erie’s east side.

Ruth Thompson’s family has been located at that corner for generations. Her father, the late Erie City Councilman Jim Thompson, started the flower shop nearly 60 years ago, eventually moving it into the East 10th Street location that had previously been home to other family businesses.

Today, Ruth, who also runs the ANNA Shelter and a property management company, is gradually passing the flower shop business on to her daughter, Rosealena Thompson.

Rosealena has been part of the business since she helped out as a child.

Back then, she came up with her own flower arrangements that her mom displayed in the shop – though they were, as Ruth laughingly describes now, “hideous.”

Today, however, Rosealena’s arrangements are colorful and creative – and are boosting business.

She’s also been marketing the business on social media, and making connections in the community.

“Maybe she’s found her niche,” Ruth says of her daughter.

For Ruth, it’s a comfort to see her daughter embrace the business that has been in the family for more than 50 years – in a building that was built by the family in the 1800s.

“Just the idea of someone else having this – the idea of closing it was so hard,” Ruth says.

About Rosebud Flower Shop: The family had previously owned other businesses, including a general store and a hardware shop, at the East 10th Street building. Though the flower shop used to get walk-in traffic, especially in the heyday of GE and Hammermill, today the majority of sales are made online. Other family members join Ruth and Rosealena at the shop, including Ruth’s mother, JoAn, and several siblings. “People say they have a family business. This, literally, is our family’s business,” Ruth says.

Why Erie County: The family’s roots are, of course, vital to why Ruth Thompson remains anchored in Erie – and, more specifically, remains committed to the city’s lower east side. “I can’t imagine leaving this corner,” she says. “I’ve had several opportunities. But this place is our roots.” She also sees continued support from Erie residents in supporting small businesses. “Flowers are a luxury. Same with eating out. People say how horrible the economy is, but people are still buying flowers, and people are still going out to eat,” she says.

Challenges of Erie County: Ruth Thompson’s biggest challenges should be familiar to any small-business owner – trying to juggle all the work that needs to be done. Trying to do the jobs of several people – a necessity for a small business – means that some aspects of the business inevitably get the short shrift.

Address: 660 E. 10th St., Erie, PA 16503 or www.rosebudflowershop.com

 

Coming next week: We check out the operations at Curtze Food Service, also in the City of Erie

 

Purple Peacock, Epiphany’s Emporium and Pipit’s

It’s hard to believe, but here we are at Week 18 of my 50 in 50. This week, I decided to take a break from the usual format. Instead of visiting one business, I visited several – all along the City of Corry’s Center Street stretch.

The timing seemed serendipitous: Last week, when I visited, was PA Small Business Week, and it was also the Corry Downtown Business Association’s first First Fridays event of the season. On top of that, three downtown Corry business – the Purple Peacock Candle Company, Epiphany’s Emporium and Pipit’s – were celebrating their grand openings or grand re-openings.

The Corry Downtown Business Association (CDBA) was formed by a group of Corry small-business owners who were looking for ways to support each other and spread the word about Corry’s downtown shops.

Purple Peacock owner Alice Muir, one of the CDBA’s unofficial leaders, says the group began with several business owners “banding together to see if we could get something to happen.”

That “something” included launching the First Fridays events, which returned for 2017 this past Friday. The CDBA’s 15 members also meet regularly to brainstorm ideas to spur business – such as brushing up on their social media skills – and to offer support to their fellow small-business owners.

Slowly, but steadily, the CDBA is making an impact in Corry. It is helping to promote the idea of shopping locally (by supporting both local business owners and local artisans), and it is reinvigorating Corry’s main thoroughfare.

For Miki Hammond, owner of Pipit’s, the mission is simple: “We all have a vision for our town and what we want it to be.”

Purple Peacock Candle Company

My first stop in Corry was at the Purple Peacock, which recently moved down the block into a larger space.

The room, with signature purple walls and shelves, offers a variety of handmade items, notably owner Alice Muir’s hand-made candles and bath products, which really launched her business. Some uniquely scented soy candles share shelf space with traditional scents, but all – yes, even “Sasquatch Poop” and “Unicorn Toots” – smell uncommonly good.

In addition to the candles, Muir offers refurbished furniture and a variety of home décor items, some rustic and hand-painted by local Corry artists, some offering a touch of whimsy. And, of course, there were peacock statues scattered around, just begging for a selfie.

For Muir, who has owned businesses before, the Purple Peacock is a chance to be her own boss and to sell her hand-made products in a storefront, in addition to in her Etsy shop. And the CDBA is a chance to connect with other businesses and to see her store, and the Corry community overall, thrive.

Purple Peacock Candle Company: 109 N. Center St., Corry, 16407 or www.facebook.com/purplepeacockcandles

Epiphany’s Emporium

My next stop in Corry was at Epiphany’s Emporium, an eclectic little shop that was celebrating its grand opening.

The store is next-door to the Painted Finch Gallery, a favorite shop of mine. Epiphany’s Emporium is owned by Painted Finch owner Wendy Neckers.

By the time I made my way into Epiphany’s, the crowds had started to flow in. A big draw at Epiphany’s was the taste-test table set up in front of a wall of uniquely flavored craft soda pops.

Valerie Beckerink, who manages the store for Neckers, her sister, expertly described the different flavors – some of which come from as far away as England.

Aside from the pop bottles, Epiphany’s offers an array of interesting items, including whimsical clocks, fun handbags, and exquisite journals and pens. One corner features a variety of art supplies, and racks near the register display handmade greeting cards.

While some of the items in Epiphany’s are made locally, Beckerink says she would like to see more items originate from Corry-area artisans.

Epiphany’s Emporium: 34 N. Center St., Corry, PA 16407 or www.facebook.com/EpiphanysEmporium

Pipit’s

My next stop was Pipit’s, where owner Miki Hammond was setting up the store for a children’s fashion show that was planned for later in the evening.

Pipit’s was celebrating its grand re-opening, after moving up the block to a larger space. I also got to chat with Miss Erie County Dakota McElravy, a Corry native who was on hand for the grand re-opening.

Looking around the shop, it was clear to see Pipit’s specialty: Children’s clothes – specifically, adorable handmade frocks for little girls.

Hammond sews the pieces, and even has a workshop set up in Pipit’s so customers can watch her work. The pieces are not just professionally done, they are also one of a kind.

She also has cultivated a presence online, providing personal service to customers near and far.

Hammond is proud that her enterprise, just a few years old, has already expanded into a larger space – and she hopes that one day, she’ll be able to expand again, including by hiring staff to help with the sewing. It’s a dream, she says, to one day be able to provide good jobs in her community.

Pipit’s: 36 N. Center St., Corry, PA 16407 or www.facebook.com/PipitsDresses

FishUSA

When I planned my visit to FishUSA in Fairview Township, I expected to hear about how it reflects the world-renowned fishing opportunities in Erie County.

What I found is that though FishUSA does capitalize on its prime location in the heart of “Steelhead Alley,” it actually serves a national and even international customer base.

FishUSA operates a small retail shop at its West Ridge Road headquarters, but the true business is in the vast warehouse behind it – and in the technology that keeps its website, www.fishusa.com, drawing clicks and customers from near and far.

FishUSA isn’t looking to compete with the bait and tackle shops that dot Erie County, says Dan Pastore, the company’s founder and president. It has its own angle, and its own aim: to dominate the national online market for fishing tackle and related equipment.

For FishUSA, this means carving out an e-commerce niche that separates it from the larger players in the national market, like Field & Stream, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s. What FishUSA can offer that the big chains can’t is specialization, Pastore says. A company that focuses solely on fishing can better answer customers’ questions and concerns, more so than a company that also sells hunting gear and camping equipment.

Pastore sees this as an area for future growth in his company – and he knows a little something about growth. FishUSA has only grown since it was launched in 2000. In fact, the company started this year with 13 more employees than it had the previous year.

As the retail industry moves away from brick-and-mortar stores and resettles itself online, Pastore has positioned his company to be a leader in not fishing, but in e-commerce strategy.

“It’s not like how it was where every town needs a mall,” he says. “Only a few online companies will be needed to dominate the market.”

About FishUSA: The company grew out of FishErie.com, a forum for Erie County anglers that Pastore had helped launch from Erie.net, a groundbreaking internet service that he co-founded in the 1990s. Today, FishUSA can count itself as one of three leading national online retailers of fishing equipment. A West Coast-based company specializes in bass, an East Coast company specializes in saltwater fish, and FishUSA covers the rest – including ice fishing, steelhead, walleye and fly fishing. Because the company writes its own code and manages its own servers for its website, it employs programmers, in addition to offering positions in marketing and customer service as well as in the warehouse.

Why Erie County? There’s more to location than proximity to popular fishing spots. For FishUSA, location means an advantage in logistics. The company can ship to locations as far as the upper Midwest, Maine or Virginia in two days – and that’s a service that customers value. In addition, Erie County offers a relatively low cost of living, Pastore says.

Challenges in Erie County: FishUSA, which has its eye on expansion, has had difficulty finding funding assistance Pastore says. The process of seeking aid from the many economic development groups has been frustrating. In addition, Pastore says he has had difficulty finding spacious, modern buildings that could accommodate his growing company. And he also at times has found it challenging to hire programmers, who often flock instead to the larger corporations in the region.

Fast fact: On a busy day, FishUSA has seen as many as 400 people shopping on its site at one time, Pastore says.

Address: 6960 West Ridge Road, Fairview, PA 16415

 

Coming up next week: We visit All-American Hose in Union City.

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