Sep 3, 2023
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Nestled into a neighborhood shopping center in El Cerrito, CA, are Jenny K. Gift Shop and Well Grounded Tea & Coffee, both owned by Jen Komaromi and her husband.
I got the chance to chat with Jen in person at the Las Vegas Market, and having been in business for 20 years, she has some great tips to share.
Retailing with your family is a full commitment, but Jen wouldn’t have it any other way. When it comes to ordering products, creating training, menu development, running the books, and all the roles in between, Jen and her husband are sure to have a clear division of labor. Jen even shares some fun stories about her children being a part of the day to day as babies.
In addition to family, Jenny K. and Well Grounded are all about Community. Jen shares how they’ve utilized their small neighborhood location to develop relationships, support the schools, and strengthen their business.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Jenny K. Gift Shop in person, you can see for yourself online the incredible eye she has for the product. Which speaks for just one of Jen’s great tips in this episode: Buy for your customer, NOT yourself.
Whether it’s advice on digitalization and starting with a POS or a surprising way to manage stress, whether you’re a brand new retailer or have tons of experience under your belt… Jen shares some great stories and tips you don’t want to miss.
I’m rooting for your success.
- Owning a business with your spouse and family.
- The value of Involvement and connection in community.
- Sourcing inventory: Quality and value.
- Great advice for new and experienced retailers.
Mentioned In This Episode:
- Jenny K – El Cerrito
- Jenny K. Gift Shop – Facebook
- Jenny K. Gift Shop (@jennykgiftshop) • Instagram photos and videos
- Well Grounded Tea & Coffee Bar
- Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times
- Commerce Sync
- Big Commerce
- EVOLVE 2024 in Denver, CO – Crystal Media
- Crystal Media Insiders
- Crystal Media
- Crystal on Instagram
- Crystal Media on Instagram
- Crystal Media Co – YouTube
Crystal Vilkaitis: In this episode of Rooted in Retail, I am sitting down in person with Jen Komaromi, the owner of Jenny K. I am so excited for you to listen in to this conversation. If you get a chance to watch it versus listen, we’re actually in person. We’re together at the Las Vegas market. As you know, if you watch the previous episode, I got the opportunity to sit down in person with several of my guests and it was so nice to just be in person and have these conversations.
In this episode, Jen and I talk a lot about running a business with your husband and with your family. She owns Jenny K gifts like I mentioned, but also has a coffee shop and her husband and her work together at these. at these businesses. She also talks about having her kids be involved since they were very small growing up in the store.
And I’m sure some of you can relate. And so I love just hearing these stories and that dynamic. We also talk about being involved in your communities and ways to just really connect, which is just so important. For our independence. And I love hearing what Jenny has to say about that.
Plus she has some really great advice, if you are just getting started on your retail journey or you’ve been in your retail journey for a while, I think it’s just really awesome for us to hear from our peers and hear what would they do differently now? What they know after running their store. So we have that conversation. Plus Jen has a good eye for buying.
She kind of takes us through her process there as well. So I’m really excited for you to learn more about Jen and her stores. You can learn more about her at JennyK.com or follow along on Instagram at Jenny Kay gift shop. I’ve known Jen for several years. It was an honor to have her on the show. So let’s dive in.
Welcome to Rooted in Retail, the show that’s dedicated to helping independent retailers thrive in today’s ever evolving retail landscape. I’m your host, Crystal Vilkaitis, and I’m thrilled to have you join me weekly as we explore topics that are vital to the success of your store, from marketing to mindset Money to merchandising sales to leadership we’ll cover it all.
Each episode features interviews with industry experts and accomplished retailers who share their real life insights and actionable advice. Get ready for a great conversation on how to build your dream business with Rooted in Retail.
Jen, welcome to rooted in retail. I’m thrilled you’re here.
Jen Komaromi: Thank you so much for having me.
It’s an honor.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah, let’s talk shop. Let’s talk about your two shops. You have a gift shop and a coffee shop and you started these businesses, both businesses with your husband, correct? Will you, did you launch both of them at the same time? Take us through that.
Jen Komaromi: Okay, sure. Sort of. I actually started the retail store first and it was my business.
I started On the wholesale end of the industry. And so I used to be a national sales manager. I traveled around the country, uh, and at one point had founded my own national sales management firm, and it was called Jenny K, which was where the name came from. And, uh. Just because, you know, it’s an easy thing for people to remember.
And then, uh, I was able to get a website designed by some San Francisco State students. And it was beautiful. It was gorgeous. And this was in 2001, actually. And then, at that time, retailers were not using the internet and websites . And so I was getting lots of consumers requesting my products. And I had about six companies that I did national sales managing for.
So I converted my site to a retail site. Yes, I was kind of like pre Amazon. I did really well. Those first couple of years online and my husband at some point was said you need to move this out of the house and so we Moved it with I put an ad on Craigslist that I was looking for a store an office But maybe a storefront and so I always call myself an accidental retailer.
I never went into it thinking I’d be in retail Uh, then we, so that was in 2004 on Valentine’s day, which also happens to be, we met on Valentine’s day. So all of our anniversary celebrations are really fun and special. And then, uh, about two months after we opened the retail store, the space next door to us opened up and I told my husband we need a cafe.
My best retailers were always next to Starbucks. Uh, they were the most successful because you’ve got those people coming in every day. And so we actually looked to find somebody to open a cafe and, uh, couldn’t find anybody. So then we were crazy enough to decide to do it ourselves.
Crystal Vilkaitis: I love it. I love that you did that.
Awesome. Okay. So then how are you and Kevin balancing running these businesses together?
Jen Komaromi: So we do have quite a division of labor. Um, I just, I mainly do Jenny K. So I do the web site. I do the buying and. All the day to day operations. Uh, Kevin does the books for both businesses. So that’s how we divide our labor.
Um, and he kind of manages the cafe buying. Uh, I used to go and do the shopping for the cafe. Even when I was like nine months pregnant, I was out at Costco, like asking customers, I’d run into customers getting help loading cart. Um, but then once Kevin had another job for a long time, once he came full time, he took over the buying for that.
Uh, we developed the menu together. I had cafe experience. I used to manage a cafe. So all the way that we do the drinks, I developed the entire menu, the training program. We have a pretty established training program. Um, and, uh, And then he kind of manages those staff, and I manage the, I mean we both manage, but he’s really in charge, that’s his thing, I mean we are both the bosses, and, you know, but, so it’s hard for, I think it’s hard to work for a husband and wife team sometimes, because maybe if we haven’t come together, on an agreement on something.
But in general, at this point, you know, we’ve got it dialed in.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah. It sounds like you do. You have very clear who’s doing what, which I think that is so critical. I’ve heard from other husband and wife businesses that the employees have a hard time with that sometimes too, but I think that is just what it is.
Jen Komaromi: Yeah. And we try to, now we really try to be like, okay, how are we doing this? I remember when we first started. We actually would have arguments with each other with customers right there. In the beginning, it was so bad. I would, I just think, but you know, we, we now have our standards in place and we agree on them, but it took. Years.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah. Well, you’re learning, right? You’re learning. You mentioned raising a family within your business, nine months pregnant at Costco. And I know you had your, your kid working early, right? When we were prepping for this, you said like 14 weeks or something like a young
Jen Komaromi: So, for both of our kids. I only got three weeks off and then my husband was like, you need to come back to work.
So both kids were raised in the business. Um, when my son was little, we would wear him while we were doing the cafe. We would both work the cafe in the morning before I would open the store. Cause the cafe is really busy. He would be in his high chair, um, eating Cheerios during the morning rush. It was really, it was so special.
Cause like we, we had this one customer, this is one of my favorite stories. We had this one customer that asked. If he could speak to him every day in Mandarin, who’s Chinese. And he said, I want to just see how I’ll come every day. Cause this guy did a casual carpool in San Francisco with, uh, another customer.
And so he would come every day and speak to Jack in Mandarin. And Jack spoke Mandarin and people would be like, it sounds like he’s. Speaking in Chinese. And I was like, yeah, he is, but we don’t know what he’s saying. No idea. No idea. And the customer was so excited cause he said he spoke perfectly, had no accent, but then that customer moved.
So it’s such a bummer. But the, the kind of fun thing about it is Jack has perfect pitch, which, uh, Chinese is a tonal language. So 95 percent of Chinese have perfect pitch. And so I kind of think he got it from that. Although he isn’t in music now, but, um, it was kind of, it, they had cool experiences because customers would entertain them, play with them.
Um, and then when they were about two, they went to preschool, but still just, uh. All of the schools they’ve attended were walking distance to the shop. Oh, great. And, uh, yeah, it was, it was, I think for them, I hope they look back on it and have fond memories.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Oh, I’m sure. Well, and not nothing like that’s a true family business right there, like through and through.
Jen Komaromi: If we have to all be there at five 30, they go too.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah. Yeah. Right. We’re all in this together. Yeah. I love it. Okay. So you were also raised in a family business. How has that influenced your approach to business and what do you think that’s also taught your children?
Jen Komaromi: I definitely think that when you’re raised in a family business, it’s, it benefits you for life.
Um, the work ethic, knowing how to work. Standards. My parents were very, had very rigorous standards. My dad, my family owned a tire business and we would have to send statements out once a month to their clients. And we would, uh, it was a family, the first of the month, it was a family chore. We never got paid for it.
Um, but we had to put the. The labels on perfectly straight and if it wasn’t straight, my dad would tell us that cost us 10 cents because we had to redo it. Um, my parent, my dad taught me with everything he did, even just putting on a label. Um, he says this is how our customers see us. So when they receive a package from us or anything, even the stamp had to be straight because that’s going to reflect on our business.
And I think thinking of those details, like every part of your interaction with your client, that was a very big lesson. And I have shared that. Uh, when I managed, I used to manage a factory. I shared that with my staff then, uh, just about being really consistent with standards and having high standards.
And we have high standards. And I think that’s why we’re still in business.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Well, I was going to say, I mean, I say this a lot that the customer has so many choices and you really have to work hard for you to be that choice. And so having some of those levels of standards. And have teaching that to your kids too.
I mean, they’re going to bring that through to their jobs. Maybe their businesses
Jen Komaromi: Well, and even my staff, I, we look at our, we refer to our, a lot of our staff as our kids, we’re very proud of where our kids have gone and people often think, Oh, they’re all your children. No, they’re just. It’s a family, but we know they’re not going to work for us forever.
We know that they’re going to go on at some point. We want to make sure we give them things that help them in their future. And we have kids, we have somebody who used to work, who works for Google. We have somebody that is a storyboard artist at Pixar. Like we’ve had really successful graduates and we’re so proud of all of them.
Crystal Vilkaitis: That’s so cool, Jen. I love it. Okay. Contra Costa times tongue twister for me, which is a regional publication in the Bay area said that shopping at Jenny K is like shopping with a girlfriend with a really good eye. Can you share a little bit about your. Sourcing process and how do you find some of these smaller manufacturers like take us through how you are Developed your eye and how you use it.
Jen Komaromi: Well, I definitely think that my eye Part of it is my family heritage sort of my grandparents were Art collectors my parents are art collectors They would my grandparents lived in the philippines and they would collect Um, the antiques and this was 50 years ago. So the antiques, they would go exploring for antiques in the Philippines.
Um, my parents collect things. So we were never a house where we had like store bought. generic kind of posters and stuff. My parents always bought art. Um, and art is not expensive. Their first painting, they always say that one of their prized possessions is the first painting that they bought and it was $25.
Um, they’ve grown their collection. But that, what that did for me was just develop an eye for quality. But also making sure it’s affordable. And that’s something that’s very important to me. Uh, if something doesn’t meet my quality standards, I do not order from them. Again, I definitely have in the, in the beginning, when I first started my business, I kind of learned that some of the more mass merchant, uh, vendors didn’t work for me because their standards of quality were not consistent enough for me and I have a high level standard, but at the same time I want the right value, the price point has to be right. I’m in a middle class area. I don’t really do super high end. I try to keep it where everybody can come in my store and feel like they can get something that’s affordable and they don’t feel like it’s overpriced. Uh, so for me, I always kind of consider myself a retail anthropologist. That’s what I, I studied anthropology. And when you’re an anthropologist, you’re not imposing your belief on, you’re, you’re shopping what. Uh, you’re buying what your customer wants. And so when I’m looking for trends and things like that, I’m just looking at what are my customers wearing.
Uh, there’s a line I carried that I wasn’t very fond of for a long time, but I noticed all my customers were wearing it. Well, I want them to come to me for that. So I went very deep into that line and it was a very big line for me. It’s not necessarily my favorite line. It’s functional and it’s great. Uh, our area people aren’t super stylish, even though it’s San Francisco Bay area, you would think it is.
But a lot of my friends will comment, how come everybody looks like they’re ready to go on a hike? Because that’s kind of, we’re a little bit more casual of a town. So I just try to find things that I think people would love, but. are well priced.
Crystal Vilkaitis: So you’ve got that history in your family, but you really know your customer.
Jen Komaromi: I really know my customer, definitely. I buy for them, it’s not for me at all.
Crystal Vilkaitis: That’s really good advice.
Jen Komaromi: I think that that’s probably the biggest mistake retailers could make is buying for themselves.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yep. So good.
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Can you talk a bit more about your involvement in the community? I know this is a big part of what you love, being a part of your community.
What impact does your community commitment have on your business, and why is it important to you?
Jen Komaromi: Our connection to our community is really a foundational pillar. For the coffee shop, when we came up with our tagline, it was Coffee. Tea. Community. We wanted to be that third place for people. We wanted to be where people see their neighbors.
Um, and that happens. Everybody kind of has gotten to know each other. Uh, we, but not just like in our own business. We’ve, when we first started, uh, we got involved with the El Cerrito Theater. And they were petitioning to bring back this old Art Deco Theater and refurbish it. And we reached out to the Friends of the El Cerrito Theater.
We hosted their, they had like a little diorama of the, what the theater was going to look like. We hosted it in our window and we got involved in that. And that was kind of like our first taste of getting involved with the community. And it reaped a lot of benefits, sure, for us, but then also it helped us know more people in the community because we didn’t really know El Cerrito before that.
Uh, we also founded the local 4 H club with our kids, so we were involved in the community that way, and we’ve just found that it’s, you know, we are a business in our community, but our community is essential for us, and we want to support everybody in the ways that we can, so we’re big supporters of the public schools, uh, our kids have gone to all the public schools in El Cerrito, even the local co op preschool, uh, we Donate, not just donate, but host events, uh, do shopping nights, fundraisers for the local schools.
We’re very committed to that. Uh, and different organizations. We like to, like we sell, there’s a El Cerrito map that there’s a group called, I think they’re the trail trekkers, and they go hiking, and they support hiking in El Cerrito. We sell their map in our store. Things like that.
Crystal Vilkaitis: I love it. You’re so connected.
Jen Komaromi: Very. We can’t go anywhere without knowing.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah. Yes. You’re like a local celebrity because you’re so connected.
Jen Komaromi: Absolutely. We are so connected and it’s, it’s great. We love it. Um, we, you know, we walk every morning and in the community we see All the neighbors and part of the reason why we have focused so much on community is our location is a little different We are nestled in a community in the neighborhood So we’re not in a typical retail zone Our building was a five and dime back in the 50s and the local railway ended right where our Our store is, and so in the olden days, this was center of town, but then with the advent of cars, they built malls, and things were done in a different zone, so this retail district kind of died off, uh, now there’s like, but, but everybody that’s there has been there for a very long time, so there’s like a dental building, and there’s the hair salon that’s been there for 30, um, Probably 35 years.
And then now we’ve been there almost 20. So there aren’t many businesses where we’re located. So because of that, and because we’re surrounded by all the houses. It, it definitely lends more of a community.
Crystal Vilkaitis: For sure. For sure. A smart approach. And I love how involved you are and connected you are. Now in retrospect, what’s one thing you wish you knew before starting Jenny k?
Jen Komaromi: Well, there’s a few things. Um, probably more financial planning would be, I think that’s kind of standard for retailers, uh, starting with a point of sales system probably would have been good. We brought in a point of sales system several years in, uh, because my mom was an accounting background and she was like, I’m going to pay for you to get this because she was helping me with stuff and that really transformed and elevated our business doing that.
Um, but then also I think, managing stress. Uh, I recently, in the last two years, I started volunteering with our local mountain bike team and I can’t believe how much it’s done for me stress wise. And so I kind of regret that I didn’t do it sooner. I had been invited 15 years ago to, to help coach and, I was like, Oh no, no.
And I really, I do regret that I didn’t take advantage of that because I feel like I’m a better boss now that I’ve been mountain biking, because it is a sport that you can really let go of your mind. You have to focus a hundred percent on the task at hand. So it ends up being a huge stress reliever for me, not just physical exercise, but, um, getting your mind kind of in a meditative flow state.
Uh, mountain biking does that for me. And I wish I did that sooner.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Wow. That’s really awesome. I, I mean, man, that’s cool. Yeah.
Jen Komaromi: I love it. It’s, and the really cool thing is the organization’s called NICA and it’s, it’s actually big in Colorado. Okay. Um, And, um, actually maybe Colorado got out of it. They used to be part of NICA, but, uh, it’s a cool organization and they’re really committed to getting more girls involved in the sport.
And so what I’ve been, what I really prefer is to ride. With the girls that it’s their first time, so I like to start with the sixth graders and get them really trained and teach them, uh, mainly because when I started riding mountain bikes, it was always riding with guys and it was, you know, my boyfriend was a really good mountain biker.
So I rode with my boyfriend. I mean, I always rode with men. I didn’t ride with women until I was a coach and I just love that these girls are in this whole girl power and the girls all do it together and they are tackling things that they never knew they could and it’s so empowering and Feel. I’d love to be at the start of their adventure.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah. Oh, that’s very rewarding. I bet. That’s awesome. What advice would you give to those just starting their journey in independent retail?
Jen Komaromi: Absolutely be computerized. I feel like. They do now, kind of, it’s more standard than when I started, uh, but even along the years I’ve been always surprised when I still see retailers not having a good inventory control system, um, it’s just so much easier to order and to not forget about some bestseller that you had because you didn’t notice that you sold out of it really quickly.
There’s so many SKUs, it’s really hard to keep track, so find a program that has excellent reporting. For inventory and last sold by date, you know, last received by like being able to get really good reporting, I think is essential.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah, knowledge is power. Data is power.
Jen Komaromi: I love numbers and you have to love numbers.
I do. There was a retailer that was up the street from us and she didn’t, unfortunately, she, she wasn’t in business long, um, but I would always ask her numbers. She’s like, why are you so into the numbers? And I was like, well, The only way to stay in business is to know your numbers.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Exactly, you have to know your numbers.
You have to. Yeah. So what does the future look like for both your store and the coffee shop?
Jen Komaromi: Uh, well we are big about visioning and, uh, everything we’ve ever visioned has come true. So we’ve realized we need to dream bigger. So we’re, we’ve really expanded our vision. We’re really working hard. Uh, we, what, our eventual goal is we want to buy a building, either, if we can’t buy ours, um, another place where We have both businesses together.
It’s always been a goal of ours is for them to not be side by side, but actually connected, uh, cause right now we have a, we were connected briefly for a few years, but when we expanded the gift shop, we, there’s a business in between us, uh, not really a business, but there’s an organization in between us and we’ve always had the vision of, uh, being kind of like a California version of Cracker Barrel.
Um, And that’s always been what we wanted where you have to walk through the gift shop to go to the cafe. Yeah. But we’ve never been able to have that happen. And we really would like that to happen, but if it can’t happen in our current location, we’ll find another location. The other thing we’re working really hard on is massively growing our online business.
Um, We do, compared to most retailers, our online is pretty strong. Uh, but we know it can probably be ten times what it is. So we’re working on that. Uh, we’re really working hard right now on that. And we’re learning a lot. We’re working with Merchant Mastery. And I’m really impressed with their program.
It’s kind of a, it was a big buy in, but. But we’re learning a lot and it’s, it’s, I think this is what we needed.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Awesome. Oh, the future looks so bright for you. I’m so excited. Jen, are you ready for the resilience round? Okay. We’ve got rapid fire Q and A here to help our retailers be more resilient. Best business book.
Jen Komaromi: Lincoln on leadership.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Haven’t heard of that one.
Jen Komaromi: It’s a great book. I read it years ago. Whenever I think of best business book, it’s just what pops into my head. Um, it was really inspiring. It was looking at the history of Lincoln and how he saved our country.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Awesome. Best retail technology, like an app or software.
Jen Komaromi: My husband would say something that starts with a C that I can’t remember that links. Commerce Sync. Commerce Sync. My husband would say that. I would say a really strong point of sale system. I love mine. Amber Point of Sale.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Amber Point of Sale. Okay, I haven’t heard of that one.
Jen Komaromi: Yeah, it’s a Canadian company.
Um, I found it because it syncs with BigCommerce, which is what I use for web. I really like BigCommerce too, but I know there’s a ton of Shopify fans out there. Um, but. I like BigCommerce, but it’s okay to me if people aren’t on BigCommerce.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah, yeah, that’s a great option. Yeah, I agree. How do you keep up with the ever changing retail landscape?
Jen Komaromi: I would say watching trends on social media and seeing what people are doing, buying, eating, watching what my friends are doing on Facebook.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah, yeah, love it. Because retail is ever changing, how do you recharge your batteries?
I was going to say, we talked about it. Yep.
Jen Komaromi: Also taking, having fun when you travel for shows.
And one time Kevin and I, I wanted to go to Paris. We found a trade show in Paris. So sometimes we make the travel work for us.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah, that’s smart. I like that. To help retailers be stronger, more rooted in success. What’s a retail best practice?
Jen Komaromi: Definitely start with a point of sale system.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yep. Good one.
Finally, what do you think the future of independent retail looks like?
Jen Komaromi: I think it’s going to be good for people that are willing to kind of think outside of the box. You have to do a lot of events, and I’m seeing that right now with a lot of people. A lot of new businesses are doing a lot of events, which is what we did when we started.
Now we’re so busy, we don’t really need to do them as much. I try to, but we’re busy all day anyway, so. I feel less of a need.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re right though. We’ve got to think outside the box. So good. Jen, how can people find you online?
Jen Komaromi: Um, yes, you can find us at Jenny K gift shop on Facebook and Instagram.
It’s J E N N Y the letter K gift shop. And then Jenny K online. You just, it’s J E N N Y K dot com.
Crystal Vilkaitis: Awesome. Jen. Thanks for taking some time out of your market schedule and sitting down with me. I loved our conversation.
Jen Komaromi: Thank you so much for having me feel special to be on the stage with you .
Crystal Vilkaitis: I’m special to have you here means so much everyone.
Remember that I’m rooting for your success. Have a great week ahead. Bye.
Thank you so much for being here. It means the world to me. Don’t forget to join the rise and shine newsletter, which is social media news. You need to know sent via email every Monday morning, go to crystalmediaco.com/rise to join, and don’t miss the newest episode of Rooted in Retail, which drops every Sunday morning.