In episode 5, you’ll meet Chris Iousa, owner of Destaré martini bar and Chaibo coffee and tea house in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. Listen as he shares how small businesses have the power to transform Main Street and revitalize communities.
Small Biz Stories tells the story of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet — small business owners.
You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.
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You can also read the transcript below:
Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.
Chris: The chasing of money, it actually bores me. It’s just not something that intrigues me. It’s difficult for me to be around a lot of other business people. They’re talking about their profits and their return on investments. It doesn’t inspire me. It’s like, what have you done? What have you created? What difference have you made in the communities that you’re in?
By default, the businesses do make money, but that’s never been my passion. It’s been really about engaging with customers, engaging the neighborhood, hoping to help make people feel a little more pride in their community.
Dave: Chris Iousa remembers the first time he drove through Fitchburg. The old mill town architecture and Victorian homes awoke an excitement that hasn’t left him since. Driving down Main Street, Chris saw an opportunity to revitalize a community and reclaim Fitchburg as the destination spot it once was during the peak of its industrial and commercial prosperity.
Like many small business owners, Chris is passionate about his local community. He knows his customers’ names and their favorite orders. He listens to his staff and gives them opportunities to directly contribute to the business. Above all, Chris holds a strong conviction that small businesses have the power to transform communities.
Today, Chris shares how he overcame doubts and challenges to create profitable small businesses in his community. He’ll share how his approach as a business owner has changed over time and his best piece of advice for those just starting out.
More than fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. These are the stories of those who beat the odds. My name is Dave Charest and I’ll be your host as we share the stories of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet, small business owners. You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.
Chris’s interest in community development stems from a background in real estate. For years, Chris has made lasting impact by renovating space and stimulating neighborhoods.
Chris: My passion is transforming space. Prior to acquiring this building, most of my development activities were looking in the most desperate of residential neighborhoods. I’d find the worst house in the neighborhood and I went in and renovated it.
We did a full development of the space of the building. I watched on a small scale that our efforts on one building in a neighborhood would start getting. I’d send my crews down there. The landscapers would go out and do their thing. Then I’d watch the next weekend a property that had been completely unmaintained for years and years and years, now the other person, a neighbor was out actually raking the leaves that had been accumulating for many, many years. I looked at that and I said, “You can’t count on the neighborhood transforming but you can make a difference.”
I did that for a lot of years. I took homes that had notorious reputation for gang activity or notorious activity for drug activity and went in. We did our thing and turned it into a beautiful spot, beautiful landscaping, and turned what was the eyesore of a neighborhood to really the jewel of a neighborhood. It transformed neighborhoods.
I figured with that experience, I would take that experience and bring it down to Main Street. Because it’s really once General Electric left Fitchburg, the Main Street area really had suffered dramatically. For 10 years, I’ve been working in various capacities both from a private business perspective and with nonprofit organizations to try to find ways to just put us on the map as being a destination spot.
Dave: Chris will be the first to tell you he’s not afraid to go out on a limb. When it came time to find the right building to renovate, he chose one of the most visible buildings in the city — the massive and historic Dickinson building.
Chris: This building had been vacant for 40 years when I bought it. I went out and did my typical real estate developer activities and attempted to find larger, more well-recognized, the Starbucks and the 99 Restaurants. I said we’ve got a beautiful space. It’s the Gateway Building on Main Street and it’d be a great spot for your establishment. They looked at the demographics of Fitchburg and had no interest. So I kept hearing this time and time again. I said, “You know what? I’ve heard it enough. I’m not going to continue to go down those roads. I’m going to just try to reestablish this city as a destination spot.
We started with the business center just to get some activity in the building and then moved over to Destaré and really put the effort into designing a space that would be considered really over the top for the area just to get the recognition factor, and we did. We got Chronicle come out. We did a piece on Chronicle. It was just a very interesting interview, because from their perspective the question was why. In this particular area, why would you ever consider? We owned the building. The only way that this area was going to make a transformation is if we stepped up to the plate and made things happen that otherwise would not be happening. I think they called it the most audacious display of confidence they had ever seen.
From my perspective, it’s all made sense.
Dave: Despite the misgivings from other businesses and media outlets, Chris pushed forward with his mission. His first step was to open Fitchburg’s Business Center, which serves as an incubator space for local small businesses. Then, on the street level, Chris focused his efforts on Destaré, a martini bar named for its Italian translation: awakening.
But making his business a reality was not an easy process. Here’s Chris describing some of the early challenges that occurred before opening Destaré’s doors to the public.
Chris: The challenge, it took us two years to get a building permit to open our doors. If it were just monetary gain that I was seeking, I never would have went through the two year process.
We started this process of the building plans right after the horrific experience in the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island. So the idea that we were now going to open a nightclub with a large capacity of people as our potential customers, the fire department was very alarmed, justifiably so. I mean, people lost their lives and there was a tragic accident, but the pendulum swung so far to the other side that they came to us and said, “In order to build your space, you need to take the five floors above you and heat it and make it fire safety ready.” We need sprinklers up through there. I said, we have a 48,000 square foot building. Almost 40,000 of that are on the upper floors. The idea that we’re going to heat that amount of space to maintain a sprinkler system is just absurd.
It was a year after year process of negotiating with the architects and the engineers to finally be able to create what we consider to be a very, very safe spot from a fire safety perspective. It worked with the fire department as well. But for two years, it was a long drawn out process. There were times where I said this is testing patience, but the conviction was always there to make this happen. We followed through and here we are.
Dave: With patience and persistence, Chris made it to Destaré’s opening day. While the wait was longer than he would have hoped, it did create anticipation and curiosity within the community.
Chris: We just put our lights on and the trickle of people flow and people started coming through. They said, “We’ve been waiting for this moment. Because a lot of the time during construction, we took and put a great big question mark in the front window.”
People were driving by. A lot of people were saying, “What is going on in this building. It’s been vacant for so many years, what is happening?” I just played into that a little bit and put the big question mark up. A lot of people who were not really close to me either personally or in a business perspective had asked what was going on. I’d say, “We’ve got something unique and special going on. I can’t fill you in much more of the details.” So there was a little bit of built up pent up demand to know what was happening.
Those customers came in, our friends and family and business associates in there just started trickling in. It was just great to see the menu being well received and people going up and down the menu saying, “Wow, look at the selection. Look at the diversity of beverages and food.” It was just a great experience for us.
Dave: The quality of food and drink is something Chris approaches with a great deal of pride. With Destare, Chris made bold menu choices to offer Fitchburg residents something new and distinctive that they couldn’t get anywhere else in the area.
Chris: There were no other martini bars. To get a martini in this area, you really had to travel outside the area. The martini, they’ve heard of it. Everybody’s familiar with James Bond. But as a source of a beverage that could be a once or twice a week activity, it was just not that type of familiarity with it in this marketplace.
So there was a lot more education to our customer base that we had to go through. We took that as a very interesting challenge. We started now introducing scotch that might not have been sold in Fitchburg since 40 or 50 or 60 years when Fitchburg was really experiencing its renaissance. We went to cognac and started bringing in bottles of very, very expensive cognac. We actually put a cognac on our menu that was $235 for a two ounce glass. People said, “You’re insane. This is a surefire way to have you head to bankruptcy.” I said, “No. I really believe that with the right education and the right presentation, people will buy it.”
This bottle of Louis XIII cognac has been something that we go through on a regular basis now. People were just saying, “We don’t understand how you’re doing it. The demographics of your neighborhood and your area really don’t support ever that type of sale of alcohol.” But we have it on our menu. We’ve kept it on our menu for eight years and we cycle through the bottles on a regular basis.
Dave: Chris’s commitment to providing new and quality experiences paid off. Just two years after opening Destaré, he opened Chaibo, a café with specialty teas, craft beer, and food items. Chris attributes the success of each business to the unique menu offerings and décor.
Chris: Specifically, our success has been the uniqueness of our menu. It has been something I really try to drive home the point that if you go up and down Main Street right now, a lot of businesses look to what is the easiest business to open and the most profitable business to open, which tends to be pizza shops. From the beginning of Main Street to the next, I haven’t been actually able to count how many there are but there have been a lot of them. A lot of them try and fail because they just don’t have a unique concept behind their particular plan.
For me, it was just creating such a unique menu that people would come in just for our menu. We would start advertising 30 different types of vodkas and 30 different types of scotches and 45 different types of cognacs. Downstairs at Chaibo, we have a very, very diverse selection of very outstanding craft beer along with great teas and great coffees and cheeses. People really found that to be the uniqueness of our menu was something that was very important to people.
For a small example, with Chaibo, it was that instead of selling tea as most every place in this area would sell it, we spent a lot of time doing a lot of research and made the presentation of our tea with a loose leaf tea pot and very cute cups to make the presentation very interesting with tea timers and made it a very interesting experience. People just flooded us. And for the first two years of our business, tea was our highest volume product to an area where loose leaf tea, there hadn’t been a loose leaf tea shop in this area, none that I could ever remember. So it was just by taking the unique market.
We did the same thing with gelato. Everybody was very familiar with ice cream in this area. I started making some craft gelato. I really had a great time with it. We introduced the consumers of this area to the experience of enjoying gelato. That was something so new to this area. Again, it was just the uniqueness of the menu that people were telling their friends and family, “You’ve got to try this.” I think that was to a great degree a reason for our success.
A lot of it also had to do with our decor. We tended to use design elements that were very unique to this space. It was actually a lot easier for us to build Destaré because we found the best chandeliers we could find, the best of everything, the highest quality of all the products that we could find for. We had all of our furniture custom made. We threw a lot of money at creating and designing Destaré.
Then with Chaibo, it was a little bit of a different unique situation. I wanted to use a lot of repurposed things. A lot of the mirrors and stained glass and lighting fixtures are all from Victorian homes around the city that I had renovated through the years and just accumulated these pieces always thinking they’d have a destination. I’d have a spot for them that would be very unique and special. Chaibo came along. I went into my garage and looked at the stuff we had in the storage and said, “Absolutely, this piece of lighting fixture is going to work wonderfully in this corner. This stained glass will work well up here.”
So it was a little more of a creative process to the design elements of Chaibo but it has a very special and unique feel because of that. So we really took our emphasis on defining our menus to be very unique and selective and defining our interiors to be something unlike you’d find anywhere in this area as well.
Dave: Many small business owners share this commitment to personal and distinctive customer experiences. As larger corporations threaten to homogenize communities, small business owners like Chris know the importance of embracing diversity and offering consumers something special.
Chris: We have a very unique opportunity to make Main Street a different flavor than vanilla.
A lot of times, I travel quite a bit. I crisscross the country often on motorcycle trips and I drive through so many communities and it’s the same thing. You see a Starbucks and a Target and a McDonald’s and then a Wendy’s. It’s like one town and looks like another town. I come back to this area and I look at the architecture that has just been standing here since the 1800s and these beautiful old buildings. I say, “Yeah, we have an opportunity to have a different experience here.” If the consumers in our marketplace can understand and correlate the opportunity they have to help business owners create a very vibrant unique downtown, then we’ve got a great opportunity in front of us. That’s been my last 10 years passion and I’m hoping to make it the next 10 years as well.
I just want to see something different. I think that eventually, what will be the downfall of a lot of the chain restaurants and chain coffee shops, it’s that people love familiarity, and that’s what the chain stores have going for them. You get a mocha latte in Starbucks in Manhattan and go out to San Francisco and get your mocha latte, it is going to be the same. People like the familiarity with the taste profile of their product.
For me, and I think a lot of other people, they want to walk in and see something visually different. They want to see a menu that’s a little different. I think that that’s something that as a society if we’re not cautious, we’re going to lose that diversity. Some people could care less. I just happen to be in the selection of people, maybe a minority. I’m not sure, that hope that doesn’t happen. I want that diversity. I want to drive into a small town and say, “This is a great place,” because look at the unique establishments you’re seeing all around you. That’s just my own personal view.
Dave: With such a clear goal in mind, I asked Chris what he sees as the biggest challenge to his business and what he does to overcome it.
Chris: It is very simply getting customers in our door. That’s where it’s been so important for us to use tools like Constant Contact to be able to have a tool to collect names, get them on our mailing list, and then present some very unique and special things to them. To this day, we still spend more of our time on marketing than I would ever care to, but that’s the plight of a small independent business owner. We’re always having to reinvent ourselves. We’re always having to get our message out. That particular process is really the one aspect of running a business, that’s just not my favorite.
We have good people helping us and great tools like Constant Contact to allow us to get the word out to consumers. If there’s something fun and unique and different going on, letting the customers that have already said to us, “We want to be on your mailing list,” letting them know about it usually results in them coming in.
Dave: Being able to follow up with customers means Chris’s businesses can stay fresh in his customers’ minds. He’s also able to get the word out about food or drink specials or upcoming open mic nights to drive business in the slower months.
The ability for us to keep that engagement going forward is just paramount for our success. The presentation that I’ve made while they’re in our shop is . . . They’re gonna forget that after, I’m hoping, a day, probably 15 minutes after they walk out the door. They forget the interaction they’ve had with me, but the ability to follow that up with an email newsletter just gets us right back.
It might say, “Now remember,” because a lot of people . . . It may have been their first step through the door. Without that follow up piece of activity, that follow up piece of communication, it may potentially be their last. We may have made a good impression on them, but I tell my staff all the time, “A good impression doesn’t cut it. A super impression is the only way that we have a chance to get people back through the door.”
A super impression, followed up with a nice email or a newsletter that may be received at the right time, on a continual basis, just reenforces that great experience they had. We hope that that works, and we’re pretty confident it has.
Dave: While Chris understands the importance of marketing, he doesn’t see it as one of his biggest strengths. I asked him how he makes time for marketing and how he provides value to subscribers.
Delegation. Yeah. From my perspective, I do virtually none. When I do it, I’m usually hearing from my staff that I worded this wrong. It’s just something I learned at the beginning stages. I just gravitated towards my staff that had the greatest flare for that particular piece and just let them run with it. I certainly monitor things very closely, because it’s my name and image that’s on the organization. So I’m cautious about it. But once we’ve developed that level of comfort from there, it’s just let the people who know what they’re doing run with what they’re doing. It’s not me.
Chris: I think one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned, again, is getting back to the willingness to delegate tasks to the right people. I think a lot of entrepreneurs fall into the trap of thinking. In many instances, it’s accurate that they are the best person for every job. They’re the most passionate, the most knowledgeable. Although that may be accurate in most every instance, except for me and marketing, there is a time when you just have to let the people that know best run with the ball. To build a team, you need to allow that flexibility.
Dave: Chris has learned to spend his time working on the parts of the business he’s best at. He gives his employees more responsibility and the ability to contribute — so they have a stronger level of commitment because they know their ideas are being heard.
Chris: We employ, between both companies, between 25 and 30 people. Most all of them are part-time people. We employ a lot of students from Fitchburg State. Most of our staff has been with us for quite a while. There is quite a bit of turnover in this business, but we’ve been very fortunate to have people that feel engaged with our business and, as a result, want to continue. They like the idea their feedback is being listened to.
Right after this particular meeting that we’re having, I’m sitting down with three of my staff members for menu item changes, to say . . . I’ve given them some homework to do, to come, each of them, with three new items we should be rolling out to Chaibo’s menu. I said, “Look. You’re listening to our customers. You’re out back there, cooking. What is it that you think we need to have?”
That level of engagement with the staff has been critical for my side of things, just to keep turnover low, but it’s made them feel part of the organization. It’s great, as well, that we actually have a customer base. A lot of our staff . . . Tipping is a big portion of their pay. Because of the unique product lineup we have, the staff have done very well.
It’s great to see people put themselves through college or be able to support themselves in their own apartment, just based on working what might be considered a minimum-wage job. But in our instances, they’re being very well-paid. It’s great seeing somebody be able to pay their own rent, based on their pay from here.
Dave: As Chris continues to learn from his employees and customers, he makes small improvements to make sure his businesses are offering unforgettable experiences to his loyal customer base. As a result, Chris hopes to inspire more businesses to join the community and restore Fitchburg to a commercial hub with a vibrant Main Street.
Over these five episodes we’ve heard some recurring themes: a dedication to your community, an investment in your staff and a commitment to getting the word out to your customers all play an integral role in your success.
We’ve also learned that while these things might never be easy, they have the ability to make a lasting impact.
As a last question, I asked Chris where he’d like to be in the next five years. I think you’ll hear his passion for the local community isn’t going anywhere.
Chris: I hope that we’re still in the same spot, doing the same thing. I’ve been asked very frequently to take our business models to different geographic areas. I just say, “No,” all the time. When I try to explain to people that it’s a passion for my community that I’m living in and doing business in, that makes me want to be where I am, not a passion for more revenue. If somebody presented to me a community that could benefit from having a Chaibo or Destaré in their neighborhood, I might be intrigued by that. But if I’m gonna be one more coffee shop or one more martini bar, that’s boring to me. For me to build something to take business away from somebody else, that’s just not the way I go about things.
Dave: We’ve been honored to hear the stories of small business owners who are making a difference in their community and overcoming challenges to find success and fulfill their dreams. We hope you’ve enjoyed these episodes as much as we have.
We’re about to go on mid-season break — and we’ll be back with five more episodes starting in August.
If you’ve enjoyed listening, please take a minute out of your day to let us know what you think by leaving a review in iTunes, Sticher, or contacting us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Small Biz Stories is produced by myself, Dave Charest Shaun Cronin and Miranda Paquet.
Small Biz Stories is brought to you by Constant Contact. Constant Contact is committed to helping small businesses and nonprofits connect to new and existing customers with email marketing. Find out more at ConstantContact.com.