Feature: My Work, My Story

The inspiring journeys of five St. Louis entrepreneurs.

 

No one ever said it’s easy to find work that fits you. For these seven local entrepreneurs, it was a personal journey filled with many ups and downs—but the reward far surpassed anything they could have ever imagined. Their stories may be different, but their message remains the same: Don’t settle for anything less than doing what you love.

On Working as a Husband-Wife Team…

By Mary + Eric Thoelke
FOUNDERS OF TOKY BRANDING + DESIGN

Mary: On our wedding night 18 years ago, I asked Eric what he wanted to accomplish in life. “Three things,” he said. “First, I want to have kids. Second, I need to own my own company, where we can do work we care about and work only with people we like and organizations we respect. Last, I want to design a house to live in, something personal and unique.” Three years later, in late January, I gave birth to our youngest child. On March 1, barely a month after, we opened TOKY with one employee and a 5,000-square-foot office.
Eric: We knew we’d grow.

[M] It’s a recurring joke that he and I both had babies 14 years ago, but his baby is way more work.
[E] The space was on the top floor of what would become the City Museum.
[M] It was $1 a square foot to lease, so we paid like $450 a month for the whole thing, but it was beyond raw.
[E] It was a packing plant for lentils. It smelled like falafel.
[M] Windows broken out everywhere.
[E] Then came the Museum, and they stuck a bus on the roof above us. Drilled right through the ceiling
and then didn’t seal the holes. The office flooded 6 inches deep with the next rain. Good times…

[E] We have a great team of people. We all really like each other. Some say it’s luck, but it’s more than that. Sure, we look for people who are incredibly talented, but it’s also important they’re involved in making St. Louis a better place to live.
[M] We’ve learned that personality is as important as raw talent. It’s more disruptive to hire people who aren’t good team players, no matter how smart or talented they might be.
[E] We’ve watched our team grow up, some from college graduation, to getting married, having kids, buying houses, becoming cool adults. It’s an awesome second family.

[E] Mary and I do very different things inside TOKY. I run the creative side and do business development and strategy, and Mary does legal, finance, IT and keeps us in the black. But we make all big decisions together, from hiring choices to real estate.
[M] While raising four awesome kids and taking care of aging parents.
[E] But it’s an easy back and forth. I usually know what she’s thinking.
[M] Yeah, at this point we can kind of read each other’s minds.

[E] Seriously, we couldn’t do what we do without having each other’s backs. We’re totally in alignment with each other in what we’re trying to achieve over the next 10 years. But that alignment doesn’t just happen.
[M] LOTS of conversations. Long ones.
[E] That’s why we do so many road trips.
[M] It’s the only time we can stop running and just talk and plan.

[E] As a business and as a couple, we haven’t taken the easy, fast highway toward some place called “success,” whatever that is. Instead, we’ve chosen to take a longer path, often along less explored back roads.

[M] We want every day for us, our kids and our team at work to be interesting and filled with opportunities for learning and growing.
[E] It’s not about the money. It’s never been about money.
[M] We’ve raised our kids so they can do anything they want. We don’t want them to go into a career that just makes them money.

[E] We try to live by long-term planning, but always try to keep our minds open to possibilities…
[M] …so interesting things can happen every day.

On Taking a Leap…

By Randy + Jeff Vines
FOUNDERS OF STL-STYLE

We always felt like we weren’t cut out for conventional jobs. Even though we had both been working full-time for other companies since graduating from college, we always looked forward to 5 o’clock, when we were free to pursue our true passion—creating catchy t-shirts that reflect our love for this great city.

St. Louis was our first true love. From an early age, we were so proud of the city and were inspired by its originality, its authenticity and its no-nonsense urban character. For years, our company, STL-Style, was little more than a moonlighting hobby. We maintained a very primitive website and printed t-shirts at night on our friend’s kitchen table in Dogtown. With the help of our senior designer, Kadie Foppiano, who was able to turn our ideas into artwork, we managed to attract a solid niche market for our St. Louis pride gear, and the company started growing organically, mostly through word-of-mouth.

What began in 2001 as a strictly after-hours affair took a very different turn nine years later when Jeff, who had been working for a bowling shirt company for the previous six years, unexpectedly lost his day job. Instead of polishing up his résumé and hitting the pavement to land another unfulfilling nine-to-five, he focused his energy on trying to make STL-Style a viable full-time enterprise.

We had just moved our operation into a storefront on Cherokee Street—our first brick-and-mortar retail location—and it soon became clear that Jeff losing his job was a blessing in disguise. One of us finally had the time we’d been craving to concentrate on growing STL-Style into something we’d only dreamed about. By stepping up our custom graphic design and screen printing services, Jeff was able to increase the company’s demand and revenue, and the new shop attracted a lot of local media attention. By June 2010, we had enough business to justify me quitting my day job to join him. I took the leap.

It was several weeks before the reality set in that we were actually doing this. It was so exciting, but also scary as hell. Not only did we lack the comfort of regular paychecks, but we also had to learn how to run a real business! We had always been good at the creative stuff, but now we had to wear some more serious hats, too. This proved to be the biggest struggle we faced. With a robust retail operation, more clients depending on us and more money streaming in, we were forced to figure out how to manage our books and our taxes, among other things completely unnatural to us.

At the end of the day, though, there’s nothing more gratifying than knowing we’re doing what we love and contributing to the vitality of the city at the same time. When we spot a stranger walking down the street carrying our messenger bag, or send off a package of t-shirts to New York or London, we know we’re succeeding. It would have been very easy for us to get stuck in the daily grind of working for someone else our entire lives like most people do, but that was never our calling. Here we are, after 10 years in business, making a living doing what we love to do. Plenty of naysayers think it isn’t possible to live your dream in a city like St. Louis. We beg to differ.

On Leaving Corporate America…

By Patrick Horine
FOUNDER OF LOCAL HARVEST CAFE + TOWER GROVE MARKET

I had a unique childhood. I spent my school years in the San Francisco Bay Area and my summers in rural Missouri. In California, our weekends were spent food touring for as far back as I can remember. Cuban, French, Mexican, Russian—we would try anything. These urban excursions are some of my fondest memories. My summers in Neosho, MO, were markedly different, but equally enriching. I worked in my family’s garden, helped with the cattle farm and immersed myself in the family business: grocery stores.

After high school, I left the grocery store business behind. I graduated from college, spent a year working in Spain and got into the graphic design field. After a few years as a creative director at Maritz in St Louis, I left to start my own design firm because I was eager for the freedom and challenge of running my own business. It was my first experience being my own boss and I loved it. I realized, though, that something was missing. It was easy enough to start and run a company, but I wanted to run a business that would build the community around me. I loved my new home near Tower Grove Park, and I wanted to do something that would improve the quality of life for my neighbors.

So, I made a list. On it were just a few things: a “green” hardware store, a neighborhood improvement foundation and a farmers’ market. Luckily Home Eco opened within weeks after I made my list, so that made my decision easier. I knew nothing about running a foundation, but I did know plenty about food and grocery stores. And, since my college days in Columbia, MO, I had been shopping at farmers’ markets whenever possible. The decision was made, and I jumped in head first.

It would prove to be one of the most difficult and rewarding undertakings of my life. There were logistical hurdles, city red tape, naysayers and hours and hours of phone calls to farmers trying to convince them to give my market a try. But I found myself, an introvert by nature, tackling each challenge and consistently operating well outside my comfort zone to make it work. The first Tower Grove Farmers’ Market kicked off in May 2006, and hundreds of people from the neighborhood and beyond came by to thank me. It was a thrilling experience.

By the end of the first season, I had an instinct that the neighborhood would support a year-round resource for local and fresh food. As luck would have it, my friend and now business partner, Maddie Earnest, approached me at a party and asked if I would open a grocery store with her. I didn’t hesitate, and said “yes” right away. Six months later, we opened Local Harvest Grocery, and my transition into the food world was complete. I was working harder than I had ever worked, but I was happy; I was on the right path. In 2008, we opened Local Harvest Cafe & Catering. And then in 2011, we expanded the grocery store into a larger location.

I now find myself a third generation grocery store owner, helping farmers who live in settings that reflect the summers of my youth. I’m also an urban business owner, providing potential for the food explorations I made as a child. And, finally, I am an entrepreneur doing good for my community and my city. When you love your work, it is no longer work, and I am grateful to St. Louis for making this possible.

On Giving Back…

By Lisa Zarin
FOUNDER/CEO OF COLLEGE BOUND

Five years ago, I met the first students of a newly created organization my fellow founders and I called College Bound. Two of us had just left the safety of salaried jobs to put a stake in the ground for higher education and those least likely to access it. Ayriel, a 16-year old from UCHS, told us that day, “Y’all better toughen up, or this little idea of yours is gonna fall apart real fast.” I am grateful we didn’t know then what Herculean reserves of stamina, will and patience would be required of us, or we would have pulled up the stake right then and there.

The idea for College Bound began when my son was a junior at John Burroughs. Parents were flying their kids across the country from UPenn to Berkeley and laying down $2,000 for SAT tutors. Despite astonishingly good support from Burroughs, many parents hired private counselors to give their children an even greater edge in the application process.

My high school experience was very different. I grew up in Newark, NJ, the daughter of a single mom and first grade teacher. The houses on my block were down-at-the-heels; my neighbors were all modestly employed or poor. Our neighborhood grocery store was ShopRite, where we often went after school. On one particular occasion, I remember my mother telling me we couldn’t buy lettuce because there were migrant workers in California who were being mistreated. I didn’t know what a migrant worker was, and California was not near the No. 14 bus line or anywhere we took the car on weekends.

So the daughter of a school teacher and activist had, as an adult, become familiar with privilege but was never quite comfortable with it. When I had the experience of seeing how it informed the higher education options of the wealthy, I couldn’t get a powerful sense of inequity out of my mind. It’s not that I thought it was wrong for parents to take advantage of resources that were available to them; I just kept asking myself what was happening to the kids in the neighborhoods where I grew up. I had thought that college admission and completion was a meritocracy, but it appeared that higher education had more to do with the family you were born into than how hard you worked.

Ayriel’s warning that we had better “toughen up” was prophetic. We realized quickly that while these kids definitely needed the test preparation and quality college counseling we were providing, they also needed bus fare, eyeglasses, jobs, a safe place to go at night and crisis counseling. We changed our program radically to include transportation stipends, meals, cultural outings, community service, job shadowing, internships and financial literacy. At the heart of everything we did was a relentless determination to get every single student we served out of generational poverty and into the middle class. The result was truly transformational. Five years later, our students are on track to graduate college at the same rate as students coming out of John Burroughs, MICDS and the nation’s highest income families.

Here’s what I’ve learned: We don’t realize our goals without the baggage or blessing of the families we were born into. Our lots are cast together, our lives and futures intertwined, and because of that, I have hope. I have hope because I’ve seen how a single mom, who cared about a migrant worker whom she had never met from a state she had never visited, created the spark that would become a movement launching 1,500 students into a life of dignity and prosperity.

On Following Your Gut…

By Tom Schlafly
FOUNDER OF SCHLAFLY BEER

I can still recall my parents saying, “Oh, Tom,” in the same tone of voice they used in my adolescence after I had done something exceptionally stupid. It was the summer of 1991, and I had just showed them the building I had purchased with my business partner, Dan Kopman. The dilapidated structure at 2100 Locust Street was where we planned to open The Saint Louis Brewery, a business I had incorporated two years earlier. Not only was the building in terrible shape, but it was also in a neighborhood where most sensible St. Louisans were afraid to venture at any time of day.

Friends, too, shook their heads in pitying disbelief, asking, “You didn’t really buy this, did you?” In fact, almost everyone in St. Louis thought Dan and I had embarked on a folly that was idiotic in several ways. The building we had chosen was in a state of terrible disrepair; the neighborhood we had selected was too rundown for any business to survive; and the whole notion of starting a brewery in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch was preposterous.

While Dan and I were optimistic about our dream, I had many moments of extreme anxiety. When I really wanted to torment myself, I would calculate how many pints of beer we needed to sell each month simply to pay the interest on the bank loan I had personally guaranteed. I was well aware that the people on whom I was counting to keep us afloat were already living perfectly complete lives that didn’t include Schlafly Beer.

Within a year of our official opening in December of 1991, our once skeptical friends and families were flocking to The Tap Room, along with thousands of other St. Louisans. Our outrageous concept was not only viable, it was successful. It would, of course, be the height of hubris for me to say we knew all along that our business would succeed. That said, we both felt strongly back in 1989 that within 10 years someone would have a successful microbrewery in St. Louis. Neither Dan nor I wanted to be kicking ourselves for not having had the courage to start one ourselves.

Our next outrageous idea was building a second brewery. Demand for Schlafly Beer in the late ’90s was threatening to exceed the production capacity at The Tap Room, so we decided to build a bigger facility with our own bottling line. Once again, we picked a building in bad shape that had been vacant for a long time (a former Kroger store) in a neighborhood with potential unrecognized even by savvy real estate professionals (Maplewood). Schlafly Bottleworks, which opened for business on April 7, 2003, cost a lot more to build than The Tap Room. Once again, the amount of debt I had to guarantee personally was keeping me awake at night.

Eight years later, we’re on the verge of exceeding our capacity at Bottleworks. Schlafly is now the largest American-owned brewery in St. Louis. The future is looking bright. Nevertheless, I’m ever mindful of the wisdom of Yogi Berra, who famously declared it was hard to make predictions, especially about the future. So, if you’re an entrepreneur with an idea for a business, and you’re wavering on whether to go for it, my advice is this: Ask yourself if you are prepared to sit on the sidelines and watch someone else succeed with your concept. If the answer is “no,” start developing your idea over a pint of Schlafly beer and go for it!

 

1768_647.jpg

Randy & Jeff Vines, Founders of STL-Style

Randy & Jeff Vines, Founders of STL-Style

1769_647.jpg

Mark & Eric Thoelke, Founders of Toky Branding & Design

Lisa Zarin, Founder/CEO of College Bound

1770_647.jpg

Patrick Horine, Founder of Local Harvest Cafe & Tower Grove Market

Patrick Horine, Founder of Local Harvest Cafe & Tower Grove Market

1771_647.jpg

Lisa Zarin, Founder/CEO of College Bound

Lisa Zarin, Founder/CEO of College Bound

1772_647.jpg

Tom Schlafly, Founder of Schlafly Beer

Tom Schlafly, Founder of Schlafly Beer

 

Photo credit: Photos by Attilio D’Agostino

Recent Posts