Filling A Niche

Posted on May 1, 2009 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Carrot Tree owner Chris Richter tends to the coffee bar at her shop on Hwy. 32 in Pulaski.

Perhaps not many people would take the route Chris Richter did about a year ago. She left a fairly recession-proof career – nursing – and started a business in a small town in the midst of a troubled economy. And while she may not take home a paycheck (yet), at least she can say she enjoys what she does.

Richter opened Carrot Tree Coffee and Gifts in Pulaski’s Mountain Bay Plaza last June, putting her job as a registered nurse on hold. Why? “It was truly just to get a place like this in Pulaski,” says Richter, herself a resident of the town located about 20 miles northwest of Green Bay.

“If it doesn’t work out, I tried,” she reasons.

While in college, Richter spent a lot of time in coffee shops, so she set out to recreate that comfortable ambience. She wasn’t sure if a stand-alone coffee shop would survive in the town of 3,000, so adding a gift shop element was her solution. After all, she already had some of the inventory – her own line of homemade soaps and lotions.

About eight years ago, Richter began making specialty soaps to soothe her sons’ eczema. She made soap from goat’s milk and also from carrot juice. Her hobby quickly turned into a business. When she asked her sons to help come up with a name for it, they suggested Carrot Tree Soaps – which last year accounted for about 13 percent of her sales.

Sharing space with the comfy coffee bar, a bevy of unique gifts is artfully arranged throughout the 2,000-square-foot store. Among them: Harold Weinstein flower tote bags, Pure Integrity soy candles, stretchy, casual Calypso rings and Ballmania lip balms in ball-shaped containers.

“Gifts, more than the coffee, build the business,” admits Richter. While she didn’t release specific numbers, Richter says her gift sales are up over last year, even amid a challenging economy.

She says the hardest part about running the gift end of the business is determining what will sell. “I sought out sales reps that had interesting lines, and I try to keep my gifts somewhat functional,” she says. “I’ve learned not to buy so much of one thing … but just enough to make a statement.”

Financing a venture such as Carrot Tree is no small feat, but Richter and her husband, a physician, were fortunate to use their own cash as capital, with an additional small line of credit.

Richter admits that she jumped into the venture completely green. She attended trade shows to survey potential merchandise and talked with owners of similar, but non-competing, businesses to tap their knowledge.

“I had a very informal business plan,” Richter says. Since she didn’t rely on bank  financing, “I didn’t have to account to anyone but myself. We’re both (she and her husband) so thorough at looking at things. We felt like we were prepared.”

This year, she plans a small expansion to her store, to create an area for packaging and shipping her skin care products.

Now after only one year of business, Richter feels she’s created that niche she was looking to fill, and she’s pleased that a loyal customer base has spread the word.

Regular customer Kristi Piper, who lives in the neighboring hamlet of Angelica, definitely agrees. “There’s really no other place like it around here,” she says. “It opens up so much for Pulaski.”

And that’s proof of the comfortable, customer-friendly ambience Richter set out to create in the first place. “For this business, it’s all about customer service,” Richter
says. “We can do what the big stores can’t.”