Survivors: Passing the test of time

Longevity in the business world is no easy task — just ask these veteran owners

Hobnobbing with customers is still one of the parts of his job that Stan Velis, owner of Stanello’s, still enjoys most, 32 years after the eatery first opened.

Dan Hiestand
   When you dine at Stanello’s Italian Restaurant in Fairhaven, your dinner has a good chance of coming with a side order of owner Stan Velis. In his opinion, it’s this personal touch that’s a big reason his restaurant will celebrate 32 years of existence in December.
   “Pretty much I’m hands on,” Velis said. “I’m here every day. I’m not a suit in a 14th-floor office tower.”
   Velis said he often starts at the restaurant early in the morning, and stays until 9 or 10 at night, seven days a week. The restaurant, he said, is truly a labor of love — as is evidenced by how he tries to interact with customers.
   “I’m walking the room and sitting down with guests,” he said. “Last night, I sat down at a table with a family — a husband and wife with three little boys. And we sat and visited for 40 minutes while they ate. I’ve been doing this since day one.”
   He said these conversations cover a wide variety of topics.
   “We’ll talk about sports. We’ll talk about their kids,” Velis said. In fact, the 53-year-old Velis — a lifelong bachelor — said he often ends up running a de facto “daycare center” for parents who are trying to gobble down the establishment’s offerings while keeping an eye on munchkins.
   “When the little ones come in and they’re getting a little squirrelly, I’ll pick them up and carry them and hold them and walk around the restaurant with them and take them in the kitchen,” Velis said. “It gives mom and dad a chance to eat their meal.”
   And it gives Velis an opportunity to make long-lasting connections.
   “Some of those kids we’ve carried around are now 21, 22 and they’re now in the bar,” he said. “We’ve grown with them, and they’ve grown with us.”
   A hands-on approach is just one reason a company might thrive over the long haul. The Bellingham Business Journal talked with three local businesses to identify a few secrets of their long-lasting success.

By the book
   By the time Michael Elmer, 46, co-owner of Michael’s Book’s — a used bookstore in Bellingham — first opened his business in 1983, he’d already had a decent amount of experience working with books. He got his first bookstore job at age 17, and landed a job at Powell’s City of Books in Portland in his early 20s.
   The lessons he learned from Powell’s founder Walter Powell helped him when he entered the market in Bellingham, he said.
   “He passed on the importance of knowing that your customers are your second-most important asset,” said Elmer. “Your most-important asset is the people you work with.”
   He said he has taken that lesson very seriously ever since.
   “Quality of life is very important to me,” he said, adding that most of his four employees have been with the bookstore for several years. “The people you work with, you spend a lot of time around, and they become like your family away from your family. It’s important to treat them well and with respect.”
   Elmer said he has actually cut back on employee numbers in recent years, and reduced store hours — changes he feels have actually helped customers and employees.
   “With fewer employees, and with less time open, we can be a better bookstore,” he said. “Because when we’re open, we’re focused on the customers’ needs.” Hours when the store used to service customers are now hours when his employees can concentrate on more administrative tasks, he said — tasks that help customers in the long run.
   While Elmer said customer service is a major focus, sometimes businesses can’t be afraid to cut ties with certain clients if the business cannot meet a customer’s needs.
   “There are people who are not able to be pleased, no matter how much you assist them,” he said. “Sometimes we will suggest they find a store that can better fill their needs … Sometimes you gotta fire (the customer),” he said, tongue-in-cheek.
   Usually, though, that doesn’t have to happen.
   “I talk to my customers and I listen to them,” he said. “I learn every single day from my customers, and I adapt as I go along.”
   Elmer said his store even hands out a map listing other bookstores in the area.
   “I do that because if I don’t have something that somebody is looking for, I want to help them find it, even if I don’t have it to sell myself. It builds goodwill and increases the total amount of people that are out there shopping for books,” he said.
   Elmer said it’s also important to stay flexible and be willing to adapt, adding that his industry has experienced a lot of change in recent years.
   “The biggest change has been the advent of the Internet,” he said. “It has changed the book industry quite a bit.”
   More people are buying and looking for things online, he said. To keep up with the times, his shop also offers books online. In fact, he said he does between 15 percent and 20 percent of his business via the Internet, and estimated that 10,000 of his roughly 200,000 books — or about 5 percent of his inventory — are for sale on the Web.
   “It’s quite a nice chunk,” he said. “Five percent of our inventory is now bringing in 15 percent of our sales,” he said.
   Perhaps the most important contributor to his company’s success is simply listening to advice, Elmer said.
   “I would suggest to anyone who wants to start a business to find a personal mentor that has been through businesses,” he said. “Listen to their stories. Ask them questions. Questions are the most important thing. There is no dumb question. I don’t know who said that, but I’ve adapted it myself and really personalized it.”

Growing pains
   “Being in business 25 years, there has been lots of challenges along the way,” said Monte Smith, co-owner of Woodsmiths, a Bellingham furniture store. Smith, 56, owns the business with his brother, Ron, 49.
   One of those challenges came in the form of a warehouse fire the company suffered in the mid-1980s that nearly put it out of business. The fire burnt out much of the company’s inventory near its former store on Chestnut Street.
   “It was such a disruption, and it was at an earlier stage in our development. That was a tough period,” he said. Soon after the fire, as the company got back on its feet, the brothers decided to open a second store in Oak Harbor in the early 1990s, while also moving its Bellingham operations from downtown to a new facility in Cordata.
   “Everybody was kind of moving out to the Cordata area from downtown,” he said. “We moved out there because we were looking for a bigger place.”
   The mass of changes in a short period didn’t work out well for his company, he said.
   “The combination of moving out (to Cordata) with higher overhead and then investing in a second store in Oak Harbor — that ended up being a challenging period,” he said. “It ended up also being a great learning experience. I think the adversity helps you become a better manager in the long run.”
   Eventually, the company shut down its Oak Harbor branch.
   “The Oak Harbor market was completely different than the Bellingham (market). That’s what we learned; you just can’t take the concept that you have in one city and necessarily apply it to another city,” he said.
   Bellingham, he said is a better fit for what his company tries to do — which suits him fine. In early 1998, the company moved back downtown to its current Cornwall Avenue location, he said.
   “After living through how devastated (downtown) was after the mall first moved out, and now to see it rebuilt, is rewarding,” he said. “We were one of the ones that left, but we’re back and we intend to stay.”
   And business has been good, he said.
   “Things have gotten a lot better,” he said. “Our sales have really grown the last seven or eight years. It’s been good.”
   As a testament to its vitality, the company will celebrate its 25th-anniversary in Bellingham this October, Smith said. He said the key to his company’s longevity is a simple equation: good, honest service with low-pressure sales techniques.
   “We’ve been here so long, and people see familiar faces down here all the time. We’ve always taken the long-term view,” he said. “One thing that gives me a lot of satisfaction is the fact that we have some really loyal customers that we see regularly. To see their children and their families coming in and buying furniture from us because their parents were so happy with their stuff — that’s been a rewarding thing. We feel like we’re part of the community and we’re selling a real product that people value.”

Location, location, location
   Before Stanello’s owner Velis started his Fairhaven restaurant, he knew he liked dealing with the public. A Spokane supermarket job taught him that. He also knew that he liked the restaurant business. His dad helped him figure that out.
   “Mom wanted to cook. Dad wanted to go out,” he said. After his siblings left home and he was the only one in the house, the three of them — mom, dad and Stan — would go out to eat three to four times per week.
   The combination of these two elements helped him make up his mind to start Stanello’s.
   At the time, Bellingham — “a meat and potato town” when he arrived — was ready for foreign fare, he said.
   “The market was pretty ripe for my kind of menu — especially with the university in town,” he said. The fact that he was Greek and planned to sell Italian food didn’t matter, he said.
   “People would say, ‘Why is a Greek selling Italian?’ Because in the ‘70s people wouldn’t eat Greek food,” he said.
   And so Stanello’s — which opened as Venus Pizza — was born. For 20 years, the restaurant called 1304 12th St. — the current location of The Big Fat Fish Co. — home. In 1994, the restaurant moved to its current location just down the road at 1514 12th St.
   To move out of Fairhaven would have been a big mistake, said Velis.
   “To move out of the area would have been suicide,” he said. “But just to move a couple of blocks down, still in the same neighborhood, was a positive thing.”
   He said the move did a couple of important things: The new restaurant is larger, it has a higher visibility than the old location, and it has better parking. Perhaps most importantly; it didn’t change much of what customers had grown accustomed to at the old location.
   “As we built this building, we tried to maintain a lot of the same flavor we had inside the old building — a consistent dining room feel if you will,” he said. The theme of consistency can be carried over into the food he serves, he said.
   “When guests go out to dinner, they’re always craving a certain item and a certain place. And when they go there, they expect it to look the same and taste the same. And that’s why they keep going back. And I like to take that one level higher and make sure there is consistency in the service,” he said.
   But perhaps the most important thing he has learned since opening those many years ago — aside from the importance of an ever-expanding menu — is to have fun.
   “Just enjoy what you’re doing. There are going to be challenges, and there are going to be highs and lows, especially in this business,” he said. “You just have to really like it. Plan ahead, and don’t get overwhelmed.”



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