Location: La Grange, Texas
Owner: Donella Dopslaug-Cernosek
Square footage: 7,200, including 5,000 sq. ft. of retail space
La Grange, Texas, is a small place with a big kitchenware store. At 7,200 sq. ft., Le Petite Gourmet Shoppe has more square feet of retail space than there are people in the town.
While owner Donella Dopslaug-Cernosek says that 5,000 sq. ft. is actually devoted to retail and bemoans that the remainder is office space assessed as retail by the tax department, she admits that La Grange, with a population of 4,712 may not have been the first choice for a gourmet kitchenware store.
But Dopslaug-Cernosek, a lifelong resident of La Grange, gambled her stock investments that the town’s location between major cities like Austin and Houston would bring in travelers.
“It’s the hub of a wagon wheel,” she says. And the town has delivered with visits from workers in the oil fields (and their wives), visitors to the Texas Quilt Museum (visitors are bussed there from the International Quilt Show in Houston), “Winter Texans” and the occasional minor celebrity.
“Mo Rocca came through in his limo one day,” remembers Dopslaug-Cernosek, “and made his driver pull over when he saw the store.” She says she had no idea who Rocca was, but he had a question for her: “Lady, what possessed you to put a store of this magnitude in a town of this size?”
Rocca, a CBS Sunday Morning and NPR correspondent, ended up buying a Fissler pressure cooker because “he didn’t know where to buy one in New York,” she says. “I said, ‘That answers your question. You wouldn’t have looked for it in Houston or Austin, but you bought it in La Grange.’”
Her store is large now, but Dopslaug-Cernosek started small, renting a 900-sq. ft. space in 2006 “to see if La Grange was ready.”
Within a year she says she knew the concept would be a success and upped her investment, moving to a 3,000- sq. ft. rental space. A few years later she moved into her current location, more than doubling the potential space and buying the building outright. She added a chef’s kitchen and launched a cooking school, which she says is instrumental in helping to sell product. Her customers, she says, “go with what we are demoing.”
After a first career as a home economist and Country Extension agent helping families learn how to can and preserve foods, Dopslaug-Cernosek enjoys innovation and gadgets and being ahead of equipment trends.
She says she was an early adopter of the microwave in the 1970s, owns a 1980s-era All-Clad induction cooker and installed a five-burner induction cooktop in her cooking school. She has filled the store with serious cooking equipment. That includes a substantial array of small electrics, a category many independent kitchenware stores stay away from because of tight price margins.
But not Dopslaug-Cernosek, who stocks a well-rounded assortment of small electrics. It is also well edited by the former home economist who culls the mix based on how a brand sells as well as how the equipment functions for her customers.
“I prefer Blendtec blenders over Vitamix because they are easier to use,” she says “and we sell more Blendtec than Vitamix. We like Kenwood, they are more powerful mixers than KitchenAid. I tried Breville, but it just doesn’t sell around here. I’ve been working with the Breville rep to try and move some of these things, but I’ve had several on my shelves for years and I’ve lowered the price to almost cost.”
With the array of equipment on shelves she also looks for staffers who can explain the differences between cookware brands or how a powerful blender works. “I hire the busiest and most successful young people from the high school because they have the best work ethics,” says Dopslaug-Cernosek.
“I always go with the County Fair Queen,” she says of her hires, noting that she has a pageant background. “I was named ‘Miss Texas Holstein Girl’ in 1964. It was easy to get because there weren’t that many of us.”
While hiring busy and successful high school students means she has to work around their packed schedules, Dopslaug-Cernosek says having dependable staff is worth the juggling. “When a customer walks into a store with six or seven types of cookware the staff has to be able to help that customer figure out what will work best for them. They need to ask how the customer cooks at home, what sort of stove they have,” she explains.
Dopslaug-Cernosek works with manufacturer’s reps and walks the International Home + Housewares Show to stock her store. “When I first started, I went to the Dallas Market but I kept hearing from vendors that the products I wanted were only shown in Chicago. After hearing that for two years I decided Chicago was where Miss Donella was going to be,” she says.
She also skips buying groups, although she notes “buying groups are good for new businesses.” She has other advice for those getting into retail and shopping at markets, reminding folks new to the specialty store world to reinvest in their stores.
“A lot of people who go to market for the first time buy products they personally like without actually stocking their stores. The money you make in the business is not yours, it is to replenish your product line,” Dopslaug-Cernosek says. “It takes at least three years to get on the road to success in retail. It’s hard.”