Tim Schmitz has no trouble explaining why the business he and his wife, Susan, started late last summer should succeed. But ask him if it will, and a heavy pause hangs in the air.
“Yes,” he finally says emphatically, sounding more like he’s trying to convince himself and Susan, who sits at his elbow, of the possibility more than the visitor who has asked the question.
He has a good reason to wonder.
The Schmitzes opened Team Cuts, at Skillman and Royal, last August. It’s a simple concept: a sports-themed, upscale salon with a family-friendly atmosphere. Out front, there’s a large flat screen HDTV, an Internet bar, a station for shooting hoops and a small room where children can stay entertained while their mom or dad get their hair cut or colored, with PlayStation Game Cubes and a mini pinball machine. There are also mini-LCD screens at each stylist station for watching sports or, for kids, cartoons.
A visitor has to wonder how such a concept couldn’t succeed in Lake Highlands, where so many people move to make room for growing families and where high school sporting events are the frequent staging grounds for community gatherings.
But, though they try to remain optimistic, the truth is, Tim Schmitz says matter-of-factly, unless the neighborhood starts supporting them soon, they’ll have to close their doors in a matter of months.
How is this possible, particularly in Lake Highlands, where lack of decent retail is often listed as one of residents’ primary concerns? Shouldn’t a neighborhood business started by neighborhood people be better supported?
In a perfect world, yes, says Susan Morgan, economic development chair for the Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association (LHAIA). But the truth is, many other factors figure into the equation.
“That’s part of the black magic of entrepreneurism,” she says with a wry laugh. “It’s about more than just the store. It’s about the location, what’s around it, the kind of foot traffic it generates.”
It’s also, she says, about generating word of mouth, the power of which cannot be underestimated in a community like Lake Highlands.
Take the recently opened Highlands Cafe, in the former Lake Highlands Bakery location at Kingsley and Audelia. The idea for the restaurant was cooked up by a nucleus of neighborhood residents who knew that the LHAIA’s retail survey results showed that a family dining establishment was one of the businesses people most wanted to see started.
Twenty neighborhood families eventually came on board as investors. Some of them have kids in Lake Highlands schools. Many of them go to neighborhood churches. A few are members of LHAIA. And between them, they know a lot of people.
Money can’t buy that type of publicity, Morgan says.
“We have a very tight knit community – it’s that small town within the big city thing. Because of that, there’s a lot of interaction, a lot of synergy and vibrance in the community,” she says, adding: “Local businesses can be very successful here.”
That showed in October, as the restaurant was preparing to open. People peered through the windows to see the progress. Some came in to ask when the cafe would open and could they sneak an early peek at the menu? And it continued into the cafe’s opening.
“Almost each meal we served that first four days was an increase in customers over the previous one,” says managing partner Anita Siegers. “The need for a family restaurant was obvious, but I think every hungry person – literally and figuratively – has shown up in the first six days of operation.”
Because of such response, Highlands Cafe’s managing partners and investors are cautiously optimistic that their neighbors will continue to support them.
But, says resident Cheryl Calvin, even with such good buzz, turning profits can take some time. Nearly three years ago, based on conversations with friends and neighbors, Calvin decided to open The Store in Lake Highlands in the newly renovated Northlake Shopping Center at Ferndale and Northwest Highway. Her boutique carries women’s clothing – another retail area the LHAIA survey said the neighborhood was lacking in – and gifts and home décor.
For many years, Calvin’s mother had a similar store in Salado, Texas, and Calvin worked as its buyer.
“Because my mother had had a store, I felt like I could do this,” says Calvin, who has lived in the neighborhood for 15 years. “I already had 12 years of buying under my belt, and I knew my target market.”
But asked if the neighborhood supported her at first, she says, “I guess I will have to say no. I even find there are times today there are still people who have no earthly idea I’m here.”
Still, she adds, she’s generally happy with the level of neighborhood support she receives.
“My mother had her store for 12 years, and by my third year, I will match her last year in business [Calvin’s mom sold her Salado store last year]. Our sales have grown steadily,” she says.
“I would say that everyone always would like to have more, but I do feel very supported by the neighborhood,” she says. “My husband was very concerned about this whole thing at first, but we’ve kind of turned the corner, and we’re doing well enough that he’s not concerned anymore.”
She attributes The Store’s success to many things – her own dedication, great employees, location – but says: “Word of mouth is truly your best advertising. I was very much involved in PTA at White Rock Elementary, I go to Skillman Church of Christ. My father is [neighborhood veterinarian] Dr. Lindley. So there were a lot of people who knew me who were out there telling people, ‘You need to go in this cute little store.’”
The Highlands Cafe’s Siegers agrees: “Word of mouth is very important to us. We have poured our heart and soul into making this a success, and the community has thanked us with their words of praise and advertising as well as with their patronage.”
The Schmitzes hope scenarios like these will be their own success story someday. Two months into opening Team Cuts, they began to realize they’d underestimated the power of word-of-mouth publicity.
“With a new business, you put so much effort into construction and things like that, you’re not able to do any pre-advertising,” Tim says. “So now we’re doing a lot of talking to people, putting flyers on houses – that kind of thing.”
Tim was also planning to join the Exchange Club, and the couple had contacted schools and school groups to help attract customers, offering discounts to teachers and faculty. They’d also contacted the LHAIA, which will help them with networking and promotional opportunities.
“It’s a beautiful place,” Tim says of Team Cuts. “There’s no place like this anywhere in Lake Highlands. But we need to be supported. It’s got to happen.”
For her part, Morgan hopes Team Cuts pulls through the tough times. If the Schmitzes’ business and Highlands Cafe can succeed, it will encourage other neighborhood residents to take the plunge into small-business ownership.
“On average, only 11 percent of small businesses succeed,” she says. “But if you think about doing it in the world of Lake Highlands, because of the community we are and the loyalty we have, it’s probably better than average.
“We are a community with a multitude of resources. I am continually amazed when someone has an idea that addresses where there’s a need, there is somebody with the expertise who is willing to lend a hand,” she says.
Still, she’s quick to remind any would-be entrepreneur that “you’ve got to understand your target market. You’ve got to look very carefully at your immediate radius, understand who’s in that radius and serve them appropriately.”
In other words, she says: “There is no substitute for a bulletproof business plan.”