These business owners show that improvisation, clever placement, and thinking outside the box can work just as well as a primo Main Street spot
Location, location, location.
As the old saying goes, finding the proper spot to open a business is essential for success. However, not everyone can have choice digs in a trendy part of town or be in a highly visible complex with plenty of parking.
Around Bellingham, there are plenty of nooks and crannies with businesses thriving in them. Meet several of their owners.
Hans’ Watch Repair,
800 Lakeway Dr.
Working in a four-foot by five-foot enclosure, Hans Weiss operates out of one of the smallest businesses in town.
But, when you think about it, he says, even though he’s working with thousands of parts and tools, the space isn’t really all that odd. After all, he’s a watch repairman, and the pieces and equipment he works with are minuscule.
“I like little things and small spaces. I don’t find them claustrophobic. I’m very comfortable in my own cubbyhole,” said Weiss. “When you focus on something that’s small in size, you don’t need a big space.”
For the last three years, Weiss, 38, has owned Hans’ Watch Repair inside Fred Meyer Jewelers (which is itself inside the Fred Meyer superstore) on Lakeway Drive. And while the location itself isn’t much smaller than Saddam’s spider hole, it has some positives that have allowed the business to thrive.
First, said Weiss, master watchmaker Keith Blanchard, whom he learned the trade from, operated in the same location for several years before he took it over.
Also, even though the business is marked with just a small wooden sign, it piques the interest of Fred Meyer customers shopping nearby for groceries or jewelry.
“I’d say the positives are that it’s in a place that’s been in operation for a number of years, and it has a definite flow of traffic,” Weiss said.
He serves around 40 customers a day.
Because options for alternative locations are limited to working out of his house or renting space in a jewelry store, he said it’s unlikely he’d seek a new spot any time soon.
In working out of his home, he said, he’d lose all the foot traffic his current space provides, and renting space elsewhere would likely be more expensive than his current arrangement, where his monthly rent is a fixed percent of his total monthly sales.
“If you don’t have a huge bill for rent, it’s a plus,” he said.
Weiss, whose only advertising is his listing in the Yellow Pages, said he relies on word-of-mouth for new business. To create a positive experience for customers at his business, in addition to keeping a positive attitude, he’ll often do a simple job for free, such as fixing or polishing bands.
“Even if the customer never comes back, it’s still rewarding to do a favor for somebody — and it’s a great way to spark the grapevine,” he said. “I think when you can make people feel comfortable, you can do something to satisfy them, or can do something for free, people really remember that.”
1053 N. State St.
Finding Honey Moon, per the instructions on pamphlets advertising the business, can be a little like reading a pirate’s treasure map — following dotted lines and arrows until, finally, X marks the spot.
The business’ out-of-the-way location, in the alley behind Pepper Sisters Restaurant on North State Street, however, actually works to its advantage, making it a special spot for customers who find it, said Murphy Evans, one of Honey Moon’s four owners.
“When we first opened, people would come in and say, ‘Please don’t tell anyone about where you are, it can be our little secret place,’” Evans said. “I can totally understand that desire and impulse, but I told them we want to be a secret, magical place for a lot of people so we do need to advertise.”
When Evans first came across the location early last year — cutting through the alley on a jog to Boulevard Park — he thought the location, a former warehouse for glass products for Morse Hardware, would make a good spot to produce his wines and meads, or honey wines.
After signing a lease, owners soon learned the city required them to have a tasting room, too.
While there were some initial concerns about serving wine and appetizers in a warehouse, customers, Evans said, have embraced the location’s industrial atmosphere, which includes a two-ton winch hanging from the ceiling, 30-foot-tall doors and catwalks running the length of the ceiling.
“I think something that’s underappreciated is how much people appreciate a sense of history,” Evans said. “There’s a sense of time and history you can use to your advantage as you try to find new use for your space.”
Evans, who’s saving a lot on rent expenses since he’s not in a space coveted by many others, said there are some drawbacks to the location.
Without neon signage, he’s noticed fewer people have been able to spot Honey Moon from the street during the dark winter months. Also, with a sea of condominiums being built around him, parking can be scarce.
However, because Honey Moon is one of only a few production wineries in Bellingham, and among a handful of commercial meaderies in the nation, customers, Evans said, have a reason to seek out the business.
Indistinguishable businesses, he said, probably wouldn’t survive in an odd location.
“If you have a unique product, the fact that you’re also in a unique location makes it an all that much more exciting experience for customers,” Evans said. “You have to have a product that is worth someone’s going out of their way to find you.”
Robert’s Bike Repair
1480 Electric Ave. (usually)
Robert Moulton is all about fine-tuning a bicycle, so its wheels roll smoothly down the road or whiz down a mountain trail.
As he is focused on the perfect rotation of a bike’s tire, it is only fitting his business is also on wheels.
Moulton, 40, has owned Robert’s Bicycle Repair for nearly five years, operating much of the time out of a mobile bike shop he built himself, which he hauls like a trailer behind his car.
For Moulton, who worked as an aerospace tool design engineer for eight years prior to opening his business, the low overhead and marketing costs attracted him to the idea of operating as a mobile bicycle-repair shop.
His venture began originally in the gazebo at Barkley Village, but then moved after its first year to its current location in front of the Whatcom Falls Mini Mart and gas station at 1480 Electric Ave.
Moulton operates the mobile shop about seven months a year. During the winter he keeps the business running from his home, where he has a larger bike shop.
In the beginning, Moulton said, he had about 150 customers. Five years later, the number has risen to around 350.
He said running the shop usually takes more than 40 hours a week during fair-weather months, when more people ride more frequently, but, from November to February, when weather keeps more people indoors, he works by appointment from his home.
“My main advertising is out there on the road,” said Moulton, who estimates 90 percent of his business comes from being visible on the street.
To spread the word, he also has an ad in the Qwest/Dex phone book and recently launched a Web site, robertsbicyclerepair.com.
Because his mobile bicycle-repair service eliminates the expenses of a business with a fixed location, Moulton said, he can offer prices that are slightly lower than other bike shops.
Prices aside, Moulton said he is a perfectionist who brings an engineer’s mentality to servicing his customers’ bicycles. He also knows how a properly tuned bike should ride, as he spent time in high school working in a bike shop, is a certified bike technician, and was the 1980 New Mexico road racing champion.
“I treat all bikes like they were my own,” he said.
Moulton said he maintains his clientele by delivering good service and giving customers little extras, such as polishing bikes and test riding them to make sure everything is working correctly.
“My main advantage is that I’m the only mechanic here, and I can really do quality control,” he said.
— by Kenny Brown and J.J. Jensen