Many people think of entrepreneurs as gadget makers, the Steve Jobs of the world noodling around in their basements with computers, or business-to-business innovators like Paychex Inc. founder Tom Golisano, who realized he could make a fortune doing companies’ payrolls for them.
But millions of Americans are retail entrepreneurs, and the source of their inspiration is people — how to feed them or dress them, or lodge them overnight, or get them from one place to the next.
Retail entrepreneurship seems to have more of an in-and-out tidal flow than other kinds of startups. With every closing, every shop that didn’t find its audience, there is one to take its place.
In the Rochester region. roughly 40,000 jobs are generated by the $ 500 million sector centered on retail in food, culture, transportation, recreation, accommodations and other essential services.
The recession hurt small retailers more than other startups. The credit freeze that started in 2007 intimidated potential franchisees and independents. But in the Rochester area, many persevered. Even in the worst of the Great Recession years, new businesses found a place in the tidal flow.
Eugene and Susan O’Donovan of Pittsford says retail gets in your blood. It’s exhilarating to make something, or offer something, that people like well enough to buy and to return later to buy some more.
The O’Donovans had a tremendous, even legendary, success more than 15 years ago with their first Montana Mills bake shops in Brighton and Rochester that offered fresh bread in flavors and styles that excited the collective taste bud.
“We started Montana Mills because when we came here from Denver we couldn’t fund whole grain bread,” Suzy O’Donovan said. She and Gene had started out as accountants, and had lived their lives pretty much on the corporate carousel.
But they saw a chance — a product that wasn’t sold much around Rochester but was sure to find an audience among the health-conscious — and seized it. People lined up to buy cinnamon swirl and peach strudel bread.
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The O’Donovans thereupon went on a roller-coaster ride with their business. Over several years they opened 30 shops in four states as popularity spread. Executives with Krispy Kreme, the doughnut chain, visited and were enamored.
In 2003, Krispy Kreme bought Montana Mills for $ 37 million. The next year Montana Mills was sold to another bread company and later an overextended Krispy Kreme entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
But none of that, apparently, drained the O’Donovans’ enthusiasm for retail, especially the storefront foodie kind. They have taken a lease on the former Canaltown Coffee Roaster storefront at 4 S. Main St. in the village of Pittsford for a make-it-yourself, serve-it-yourself frozen yogurt shop called YoTality.
“We saw the concept first when we were in Virginia with our daughter, Bridie, for a lacrosse tournament,” Suzy O’Donovan said. She and Gene, and Bridie, 15, a sophomore at Pittsford Sutherland High School, were at the unfinished yogurt shop recently to show what they have in mind.
On the wall is a drawing of the new shop’s interior. A customer with an empty container will move along a wall of frozen yogurt machines to fill the cup with one of the yogurts or a mix of several. In the center of the store will be filling stations — natural ones, like fruit, and sweet ones, with candy and the like. There will be tables.
“It just seems like a cool concept,” Gene O’Donovan said. The clincher for the family was when they were in Colorado and saw a similar self-serve yogurt shop. It struck them that they had seen the same thing before, at a time when they also were with Bridie.
It wasn’t by choice that they were with Bridie the second time. She had been in Colorado at a ski camp and had had a bad accident on the mountain. She broke her leg, dislocated her hip. Her lung collapsed. Both parents flew west to be with her.
Bridie, who has two siblings, Josh and Maeve, is out of a wheelchair now and recovering. She will be working at the new shop when it opens. She is linked to YoTality as people often are linked to something that occurred or appeared when their lives took a turn. It’s her store, in a way.
The YoTality story is not uncommon in Rochester. Douglas Mabon, a former Kodak employee who is the Rochester chapter president for SCORE, a volunteer business consulting group, said retail is a ripe field for entrepreneurs because it is open to more people. You don’t have to be an inventor to open a dog grooming shop.
But, Mabon said, you do have to know how to put together a business plan, to research your field, to test your idea against others that are similar.
“We help them ask the questions that they have to ask,” Mabon said. “Many go ahead anyway.”
And some, like Montana Mills, are a revelation. They soothe a passion. But they don’t end it, as YoTality shows.