Portland is filled with many wonderful shops, however, Menagerie shines brighter than most. They are located in the most charming renovated Airstream, which is filled with a wonderfully curated selection of products that are great for you and make the earth happy. On top of that, they proudly support local makers and only carry well-crafted goods that are made with meaning and purpose. I was able to chat with Casey, owner, about how she made her dreams come true and what it takes start up and run a successful business.
You can find them at: Tidbit Food, Farm & Garden, 2880 SE Division Street, Portland, OR
1. So tell us all a little bit about Menagerie and how it all began. What made you decide to choose an Airstream over a traditional brick-and-mortar shop?
Since I was young, I always wanted to open a boutique that supports small-shop makers and artists. My background is in package design for beauty brands and small businesses, and natural beauty is an industry I care deeply about. Opening Menagerie allowed me to create a space where good design and good-for-you products could live hand in hand. I have to admit, having the shop in an Airstream is such a dream! The idea all started when Lou (my boyfriend) and I were both working as freelance designers in Chicago and decided to Portland so we could open a small store (and because we love the design community and nature out here)! After spending a little bit of time exploring the neighborhoods, I realized that one of the most unique things about Portland is its food cart scene. Then the idea dawned on me, “wouldn’t it be amazing to house the boutique in a mobile setting instead of a brick and mortar store like everyone else?” It allows the shop so much flexibility to move if I want to move and gives people a different shopping experience than a regular storefront. So I bought the trailer, completely restored it and kept it as open and light as possible so all of the products could shine. Right now, the shop is parked year round in a new outdoor market on SE Division Street called Tidbit with some of the best food carts in Portland. AND we just happen to be situated next to the only other retail cart in the city! It’s a dream come true.
2. What do you look for when sourcing items for Menangerie?
I always start with packaging and aesthetic. Maybe it’s the designer in me, but I refuse to put anything on the shelves that doesn’t have a thoughtful style and package. Then I look at the makers behind it. Do they care about the ingredients and quality that goes into making the goods? Do they have a similar philosophy as we do and what’s their story? Are they friendly, kind, “good people”? If the answer is yes, I try the products out for myself and make a decision.
3. The best part about running a business out of an Airstream is. . .
Being part of the food cart community! Because I’m only one of two retail carts in Portland, my neighbors, friends and business sounding boards are the food cart owners. Every day I witness unparalleled tenacity, hard work and passion from these folks. Food cart owners are some of the hardest working and talented business people in the city and it makes me humbled and feel most at home to be working along side them. I also love the flexibility that owning an Airstream gives me. I own the trailer so I can do with it what I please!
4. The most challenging part is. . .
Getting people to know the shop is here. Because the boutique isn’t situated in a traditional retail setting next to multiple other brick-and-mortar shops, I work extra hard to get the word out that the store is here! Come in! And yes we sell goods! The store recently opened in September so it’s growing organically by word of mouth, which is exactly what I want.
4. What does the average work day look like for you?
I wear many hats from day to day in operating the boutique to owning and running a growing design business as well. My typical day usually consists of client calls, design or illustration work, planning social media and new product updates for the store and website, scoping out Pinterest for new small beauty brands, going to estate sales, doing the shop financials and oh yeah! working in the actual store! Thankfully I have Nadia, our sales associate and Lou who often helps work in the shop when I can’t. My days always include some sort of schlepping goods to and from the shop, creating plant arrangements for sale and if I’m lucky eating too much Ramen with Lou and getting out for a much needed hike in Forest Park. Having the ability to go for a hike on a busy afternoon is one of the main reasons we decided to move to this gorgeous city! Clean my apartment? Ummm… maybe not so much.
5. In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before starting a small business?
1) Are your relationships strong and do you have (emotional) support? The road is as tough as it is rewarding. Especially in retail, no matter how small. I’ve been doing the design business for a while and it’s a world away from opening a store. There are going to be good days and hard days…sometimes really hard days…and having strong relationships whether it’s a patient significant other, best friend, business mentor or family member, you’re going to need their support.
2) Do you understand finances, or (but mostly AND) do you have a willingness to learn? I’ve always considered myself to be really good with money and managing budgets, but I’ve learned so much in terms of financial planning in the last 5 months of being open. There are so many small business owners with, amazing ideas, but struggle or don’t make it because they don’t know how to manage their finances. You don’t have to go to school for finance, you just have to be willing to learn and work really hard!
3) Do you have a point of view? This one is tough for a lot of small business owners, myself included. Everyone on Instagram and Pinterest look so creative, they have such good ideas. The ideas seem like they’re all taken. Your business doesn’t have to be completely novel or new, but having a point of view will help set you apart from the millions of creative people out there trying to do the same thing you are. For my design business, it was deciding to only work on beauty/fashion brands and, besides one of my long time small clients who works with large retailers, deciding to only work with small to medium sized companies. For the shop, it was deciding to go a non-traditional route with the storefront and similarly, to only work with small makers and artists for the sake of making a difference.
6. What's the best piece of advice for dealing with difficult customers?
Put yourself in their shoes and don’t become negative. What are they really looking for by sending you that nasty email? Most people just want to be heard and get their point across… without thinking about their manners first. My advice is to not take it personally. Try to figure out the underlying issue of what they want and strive to be empathetic. I’ve dealt with some really difficult design clients in the past. The worst thing to say to someone who is being problematic is “no, that won’t work” (even if you want to scream no!). My answer is always “yes, and here’s how”. Approaching things positively but also sticking to your guns is the best way to gain trust and respect. Kill ‘em with kindness (and be strong minded) is what my mom always taught me!
7. Can you name the biggest lesson you've learned running a business?
Honestly, I’m still learning new things every day! I guess the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that things rarely go the way you plan. Some things happen slower, some things faster, some easier, some harder. Maybe this week my sales are down but there are a ton of positive people through the shop doors. And the next week sales are up but we have a leak in the roof and no time to fix it! I’ve learned to be open to change and evaluate circumstances as they happen.
8. Lastly, what inspires you most?
Nature, hard-working people, my parents, and other small business owners.