This is the latest entry in a series called Who Owns That? We ask readers on our LinkedIn group to identify their favourite small businesses from across Canada, and we track down the owners so they can tell us their stories.
Introducing Nicole Cherlet, the owner of Big Mountain Kitchen & Linen, an independent housewards shop in Revelstoke B.C.
1. Let's start with the basics. Can you briefly describe your business, including when it was founded, what it does, and where you operate?
Big Mountain Kitchen & Linen is an independent housewares shop in Revelstoke, British Columbia. Originally founded in 2003 as Chantilly Kitchen Bed n Bath, I bought the shop at the beginning of 2014 and rebranded a few months later.
The city of Revelstoke has a population of 7,200 people, so our shop carries a little bit of everything, like a micro-department store. We stock everything from cookware, knives, bakeware and cake decorating supplies, to bedding and bathroom supplies. The City of Revelstoke is a typical mountain community. Residents include a mix of singles, families, and retirees; full time and part time outdoor adventurers; environmentalists, modern loggers, current and retired railway and hydro workers.
The 'Big Mountain' lifestyle that inspired our shop's new name puts a high priority on responsibly made and sustainable products, locally produced whenever possible. Freight and shipping costs are very high (even though Revelstoke is located on Hwy #1), so smart and careful purchasing is essential, especially since my goal is to focus on quality, mid-price items rather than the kind of high end, boutique products typically featured in many smaller stores.
2. What inspired you to be an entrepreneur and to branch out on your own with this idea?
Like many university students, my first work experiences were in the restaurant and hospitality industry. Later, as I worked in larger companies and moved into management, I was increasingly frustrated by decisions made to please distant shareholders rather than to address the needs and interests of customers and staff on site.
I started working at Chantilly as an part-time employee because its products appealed to me as a customer. I was taking business courses at Okanagan College learning more about hospitality and tourism (you can only learn so much on the job). Soon after, the previous owner approached me with the idea of buying the business, and I started a work-to-own plan in 2013. I believe my knowledge of our products from both the commercial and retail side helps bring customers coming back for more.
3. Who are your typical customers, and how do they find you?
Being the only kitchen store in Revelstoke and the surrounding areas, I pull customers from a wide area. Currently, most customers still originate from Revelstoke but, increasingly, we're attracting more and more from nearby Sicamous, Golden, and Nakusp.
Revelstoke is a major summer and winter tourism destination, and we send many products back to the big cities with our tourist visitors. It's hard to find a comparable selection of cast iron cookware anywhere. Our handpicked selection of products is enticing to customers frustrated by their experiences in shopping in big box stores.
Social media is our new word of mouth – and Big Mountain is active on Facebook. However, traditional media is also a big part of our public image. I voice all our radio ads personally, and a lot of customers credit my voice with persuading them to stop by. Also, Revelstoke is a pedestrian-friendly town and we're located in the central downtown core, so foot traffic is steady.
4. What are the roles of you and your co-founder in the business? Do you have any employees?
My husband is a chef, and has been a big supporting factor in my success. Having access to his kitchen knowledge and experience means sales reps can't sway my decisions towards their products as easily as they'd like. We test a lot of products at home, and we love to give weekend demos in the shop when time allows. I do the purchasing, merchandising and marketing; my husband and I, and two other employees, staff the shop.
One of my employees is an amazing woman who's been part of the shop since it began; she keeps me on track when I get my eyes in the sky. The other employee is a talented cake decorator and a young mother, who brings a different skill set to the team. Without those two staff, we wouldn't be able to be open seven days a week, and I'd be nuts.
5. You've been identified by one of our readers as a standout business. What do you consider the key element of your success?
Modern retail is currently going through a transformation. Low– and high-end products are selling well, but the mid-range products – those kind most of us can afford – have largely been taken over by the big box stores. The impersonal approach inherent in the big box stores allows an opening for a small business like Big Mountain Kitchen & Linen to stand out as different and unique through personal recommendations, product support and genuine interest in the lives of our customers.
When you come into our stores as a customer, we take the time to find out what you're looking to do, and then we make recommendations for the right tool for the job. For example, many customers who come into the shop looking for food processors end up leaving with a mandoline (a special cooking utensil used for slicing and cutting), because they'll get a lot more use out of it. They'll also spend less money, which is how we earn their trust.
I also work hard to be a visible participant in the community of Revelstoke. I'm an active volunteer with the North Columbia Environmental Society and the Local Food Initiative Committee that runs our Community Garden. Big Mountain handles the Food Initiative Committee's food preservation equipment loans, so members are able can, dry and juice with quality tools without the financial investment or having to store bulky equipment. More and more local customers who previously dismissed us as a boutique shop are starting to view us as a working person's store.