Pioneer Valley Business 2014: Local startups prove finding the right location is key for niche businesses

Last modified: Monday, February 17, 2014
Location, location, location.

That long-held real estate maxim touting the essential ingredient for a property’s appeal is the key word for three new businesses that opened in the area last year.

Finding the right space spurred plans from the talking stage to reality for Art Alive in Amherst, Tandem Bagel Co. in Easthampton and Indie Automotive in Hatfield. For Indie, it was cheap rent and a landlord willing to share car-repair equipment and business expertise; for Tandem, it was the sudden availability of an historic train station building to lease at the edge of a private school’s campus; and for Art Alive, it was the chance to get a pretty storefront facing the Amherst Town Common that needed no renovations.

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Finding their shop on Linseed Road, “is the number one factor in us being successful,” said Indie Automotive co-owner Greg Lawrence.

Starting an enterprise in a tough economy has gone remarkably smoothly for all three because, the owners say, in addition to finding great locations, they have a service or product that fills a void, had some business acumen to begin with and did not take out big loans.

Indie and Tandem say they are busier than expected and expansion plans are already in the works, while Art Alive’s clientele is increasing steadily and the bills are getting paid.

Don’t bank on banks

Though the bagel bakery needed capital from investors to pair with personal funds, the other two started with savings, earnings from the first months of operation and bartering.

“We never approached a bank,” said Brian Greenwood, 49, who opened Tandem Bagel last March with his wife, Shannon, 48, and longtime friends Chris, 45, and Andrea Zawacki, 44. “Banks are notoriously difficult,” for startup businesses, he said.

Instead, each couple came up with half the money they needed to renovate the building, equip a commercial kitchen and buy furniture and supplies. He declined to say how much they borrowed, only that it was a “sizable” sum from private investors that has to be repaid.

Brian Bucala, 36, and Greg Lawrence, 36, of Indie Automotive and Tamzeena Hutchinson, 33, and Brian Giggey, 29, of Art Alive, a crafts-making and crafts-selling store, initially pumped $25,000 and under $10,000, respectively, into their ventures and then invested more as they’ve earned it.

Still working full time elsewhere when they first opened, Bucala and Lawrence already had sizable tool collections from 17-year careers as mechanics. They were determined not to borrow.

“We would feel a huge pressure to advertise and try to really pull people through the door if we knew there was a $100,000 debt hanging over our heads,” said Lawrence. “This way, we can keep our rates reasonable.”

The right space

Hutchinson said she and Giggey own two other businesses — Soundscape Imaging, a T-shirt screening enterprise run out of their Amherst home, and Explore Disc Golf, a disc golf design company — and they had enough money to cover initial expenses. The lease agreement for their downtown space was the biggest chunk.

At $2,250 per month, not including utilities, for a prime storefront on South Pleasant Street, covering the rent each month is a worry. “If we don’t make it, it will be because the rent is too much,” said Hutchinson. But having an attractive store in the central business district with big windows and pretty brick interior walls and just the right kind of space for sales, crafts events and birthday parties is key for her success, she said. It advertises itself to passers-by and needed no renovation.

Discovering it was for rent last February moved her from thinking about opening the business to doing it. “It just happened to be available, and it suited us really well, the way it was set up and arranged, the scale of it and the location is obviously huge,” Hutchinson said.

Unbeatable atmosphere

For the Greenwoods and the Zawackis, it was the same story. Brian Greenwood owned his own construction company, with Shannon Greenwood helping out, and Zawacki was a top executive at the Hardigg Industries in South Deerfield. Andrea Zawacki is a fitness instructor.

Inspired by a bagel business in Washington state where the Zawackis once lived, the couples had been talking about opening a bagel shop in Easthampton for years. And then Greenwood heard the little, old, red-brick train station building in the heart of the Williston Northampton School campus was being vacated by the woman who was living there. The foursome decided to pounce. “That location was huge for me. I’m an aesthetic person,” said Greenwood. “You can’t beat these old buildings. It’s one of our biggest draws. People love the atmosphere.”

And, being in the midst of the campus presented a possible symbiotic relationship with the school. The couples made a proposal to Williston which offered a break on the rent due to the extensive renovations Greenwood would do. Room for outdoor dining, a view of the mountains, proximity to the bike path, parking “and a landlord that wants to work with us,” made for a sweet deal. “It doesn’t get better than this,” said Greenwood. Long-discussed plans were now moving forward.

Learning by chance that an independent mechanic who was working in half of the building owned by Todd Dextraze of Quality Automotive was moving pushed Bucala and Lawrence to take the leap, something the lifelong friends had pondered for over a year.

Dextraze offered “an extremely reasonable” rent — the pair do not want to risk their good fortune by specifying how much — and the willingness to share resources. “We couldn’t be happier with this space,” said Lawrence.