cover story

October 28, 2010

The little guy


Des Moines’ small businesses learn to compete with corporate giants


By Jared Curtis


Most of us know the biblical story of David and Goliath in the Valley of Elah. When the soldiers in the Philistine army battled the Israelites, they put forth a giant man in full armor who mocked them and issued daily challenges to fight. This giant, who was said to measure more than 9 feet tall, was named Goliath. The king of Israel and the entire army were petrified of him.

A young teenager saw this giant and the fear that he instilled. This boy was named David, and he volunteered to fight Goliath. Armed with only a slingshot and a pouch of five stones, the boy faced the giant with extreme confidence. When Goliath moved in for the kill, David slung one of the stones at the giant’s head, knocking him unconscious. David then took Goliath’s sword and killed him, which scared the Philistines into retreat.

More than 3,000 years later, many of the same struggles ensue in the business community. Right here in Des Moines, hundreds of business owners continue to face the daily challenge of competing against corporate giants, often feeling the same sense of helplessness that the Israelites endured. Some business owners gave up early on. Others fought valiantly till the end, eventually losing. But a strong group of warriors continue to accept the daily challenge and face the giants head on.

We share the stories of a handful of these Davids, the little guys who continue to successfully sling their stones against the corporate Goliaths.


Jay’s CD & Hobby

At 34 years old and standing 5’8”, Jason Shreve doesn’t fit the description of David or Goliath. But Shreve has always marched to the beat of his own drum.

Shreve, the owner of Jay’s CD & Hobby at 5921 S.E. 14th St., offers an eclectic mix of merchandise in his store, including DVDs, CDs, vinyl, comic books, videogames, action figures, gaming products, board games, disc golf equipment, posters and sports cards. Jay’s CD & Hobbies is said to have something for everybody, and that appears to be true. With so much inventory, Jay’s caters to a wide range of customers, but he also must compete against big box retailers and chain stores that offer similar products.

The king of box stores, Wal-Mart, operated more than 8,500 stores in 15 countries in 2009, generating more than $258 billion in sales. Its presence is strong in metro Des Moines, too, with six stores scattered in Des Moines and the suburbs. Throw in other Goliaths like Best Buy, GameStop and Toys “R” Us, and the fight can seem insurmountable. As a result, Shreve keeps a steady eye on the big guys and operates in close vicinity to all of his competitors.

“You gotta go where the traffic is,” said Shreve, who opened his first location in 2005 and a second Merle Hay Mall location in 2009. “I think competition is good, and people want choices. I’m very price sensitive, and I’m always looking at competitors’ prices so we can offer the best deals.”

Shreve says he strives to offer his customers affordable entertainment with dependable service and a knowledgeable staff.

“I think people need entertainment. You might be bummed about work or your love life, but you still need something to do,” Shreve said. “You can’t take a family of four out to a movie with snacks for less then $40, but you could come here and get 10 DVDs for the same price.”

Shreve keeps his inventory fresh and changes it from week to week.

“It’s important to stop in all the time because we get new items every day,” Shreve said. “Plus, I try to carry stuff that my competitors don’t have including vintage action figures you won’t find anywhere else in town.”

As the inventory continued to grow, Shreve needed a bigger space. On Nov. 1, he’ll move his current southside location up the street to 3315 S.E. 14th St. The store’s current building is 3,800 sq. ft., but his new location will be nearly tripled in size at 11,000 sq. ft.

“I’m excited for the extra space, and at least 30 percent of the stuff at the new store is back-stocked items that have never seen the light of day,” Shreve said. “With the extra space, we’ll carry more than 8,000 CDs — a majority of which Best Buy or Wal-Mart don’t carry — and more than 10,000 movies with 60 percent of them available for $5 or less.”

Along with a massive selection of all things entertainment, Jay’s employs nine people, each knowledgeable about the inventory.

“Each employee has a specialty, and there is always someone who can answer your question, which you don’t find at those other places,” Shreve said.

With all the extra space in the new location, expect expanded selections and more room for gaming tournaments.

“We’ll be able to hold up to100 people for gaming tournaments and be able to hold multiple tournaments on the same day or night,” he said. “I’ll be able to carry a bigger disc golf selection, expand the vinyl section and be able to carry stuff I never had room for before.”

On Nov. 13, Jay’s CD & Hobby will celebrate its five-year anniversary with a grand opening celebration. Shreve is banking on a growing number of consumers that will flock to his new store.

“We’re a family-orientated business, and we keep the store kid-friendly,” Shreve said. “We cater to our customers and try to help them find what they are looking for. So why not stop here first? You’re likely to find the item you’re looking for at a reasonable price.”

The Dairy Zone

Ice cream behemoth Dairy Queen has more than 5,900 restaurants in the United States, Canada and 20 foreign countries. When it comes to Dilly Bars and Blizzards, Dairy Queen is unquestionably the king. Meanwhile, an eastside staple for more than 20 years continues to scoop out its own share. The Dairy Zone, located at 2219 E. University Ave., has been open since 1985. Current owners Carol Farrell and Kim Gilmore have been running the place since 1990.

“We both worked here growing up, and we have been doing it so long it’s second nature,” Farrell said. “We’ve been building up clientele over the years, and one of us is always here, so customers know they’ll receive a quality product.”

The Dairy Zone, which is open from March 1 to Nov. 1, is known for its Tornadoes, the Snickers Delight, tenderloins and beef burgers. They also offer seasonal treats with the pumpkin shakes being popular in the fall.

“We always have a noon-time special and night-time special every day,” Farrell said. “And we are always adding new things every year.”

The new owners recently celebrated their 20th anniversary.

“I never expected to be here this long,” Gilmore laughed. “But it’s been great. We’ve grown up with our customers and have served ice cream and sandwiches to multiple generations. Now our kids are working for us, so we’ve kind of come full circle.”

The Dairy Zone’s tasty treats are not the only thing bringing customers back.

“Stopping at the Dairy Zone is a local tradition,” Gilmore said. “But that only gets you so far. We have to serve a quality product and use quality toppings.”

They also offer treats for man’s best friend.

“People love that we offer doggy cones for dogs,” Farrell said.

As its season comes to an end, customers flood the location for one last chance at a sweet treat and then spend the next four months thinking about their next visit.

“The last day we’re open is a big day,” Farrell said. “Then we have a countdown through the winter until we’re open again. The customers get really excited.”

Gilmore says their business, unlike the big chains, is heavily involved in the community, sponsoring local teams and school events.

“It’s important to give back to the community that has supported us for so many years,” Gilmore said.

Although they’ll be closing shop for the winter, patrons still have a few more days to savor their tasty, frozen treats.

“Our customers say our ice cream tastes better than our competitors’,” Gilmore said. “But don’t believe us; try it for yourself.”


Beaverdale Books

Americans aren’t reading as much as they used to. As a result, Beaverdale Books owner Alice Myer not only has to duke it out against the likes of Barnes & Noble and Borders, she also has to fight a growing epidemic of people reading less. Fortunately, she has found ways to compete in both of those battles.

“We offer a little bit of everything and receive lots of compliments on our children section,” Meyer said. “We don’t have a huge inventory, but we have a large local author selection, which you won’t find at the big chain stores.”

Beaverdale Books debuted in 2006, and Meyer knew even before she opened the door that she was in the right place.

“I’ve lived in Beaverdale for 22 years, and I never thought about opening the store anywhere else,” she said. “It’s a great place with a unique neighborhood feel, and a book store fit perfectly.”

Meyer believes there are a number of things that set her store apart from its bigger competitors.

“We know the names of our customers, and I know what they like, so when I’m ordering books and see something a specific customer might want, I order it,” she said. “And if we don’t have what you’re looking for, we can special order it and it’ll be here in a few days.”

The store provides more than 4,500 books in a variety of genres. Meyer is proud of her shop, which offers a relaxing vibe and plenty of seating along with numerous literary quotes written on the walls. She is especially proud of the attention she brings to local authors.

“It feels good to help the local authors,” she said. “I love seeing the look on their faces when they see their books on display.”

Meyer says she has local authors stopping in all the time, inquiring about selling their books.

“If we can get their book on the shelf, it’s a win-win for everybody,” she said.

Meyer knows she can’t compete with her competitors on inventory numbers, but she believes her store offers something better.

“We knew they were there when we opened and they serve a purpose, but we serve the community,” she said. “We’re here for our customers, and they have embraced us, which is great.”

Along with selling books, Beaverdale Books also hosts weekly readings. A schedule is available at www.beaverdalebooks.com.

“We partner with the Downtown Library and do a lot of events with them as well,” Meyer said.

Meyer believes her shop offers plenty of advantages over bigger chain stores.

“Customers are not overwhelmed when they come in. Although we have a smaller inventory, it’s easier to find what you’re looking for, and it’s manageable for customers,” Meyer said. “We ask a customer what they’ve been reading and try to recommend titles, and you’ll never have to wait in line for the next available cashier.”

Meyer sees nothing but blue sky ahead for Beaverdale Books.

“I think people are becoming more conscious about buying local,” she said. “Our customers know when they stop in they’ll be helped by a knowledgeable staff who can offer great recommendations for your next read. We’re here for our customers, and we’re not going anywhere.”


Java Joes Coffeehouse

More than 50 percent of Americans drink coffee on a daily basis, which makes beans big business. Starbucks is proof, operating more than 15,000 stores in 50 countries including an overwhelming 21 locations in the greater metro. Even so, there’s no rule that says coffee drinkers have to go to Starbucks. Java Joes Coffee House is one of a handful of independent shops in the metro, but is the oldest coffee roaster in Des Moines, opening in 1992. Current owner, Amy Brehm, took over almost three years ago.

“I owned an ice cream shop in Ankeny, and my husband, who loves coffee, discovered the place was for sale,” Brehm said. “It was a great location, and there is always something going on in the Court Avenue District.”

The prime location draws a wide variety of clientele.

“We get it all from professionals, to students, to people heading to the Civic Center, and bands playing at the downtown venues,” Brehm said. “Vice President Joe Biden even stopped in a few weeks ago.”

Along with roasting its beans in house, Java Joes offers a wide variety of coffee, tea, fresh baked goods, breakfast items, sandwiches and a vegetarian menu. Products are also wholesaled to more than 50 accounts throughout the Midwest. It even has a theater next door for live entertainment.

“Our goal is to make everyone feel welcome,” Brehm said. “It’s a great place to meet and catch up with people, hold a meeting or just relax and enjoy some coffee.”

Brehm has a few reasons why coffee drinkers should visit a locally-owned shop instead of a chain.

“They (chains) don’t have anything they’re doing that is authentic,” she said. “We offer a warm, friendly place with premium products. And we have the best mocha latte in town.”

Java Joes relies on a strong regular customer base, but they enjoy meeting new customers each day.

“We know a lot of our customers by name and will start their order when they walk through the door. A lot of our customers are closer to Starbucks or another chain, but they choose to come here,” Brehm said. “We also get a lot of people who have converted over to us from a chain store.”

Along with numerous drinks, Java Joes serves breakfast and lunch items, as well as a kid’s menu.

“Lunch is a pretty busy time for us, and we’re working on extending our breakfast and lunch menus,” Brehm said. “It’s all made to order, and we want people to know we’re not just serving great coffee.”

The adjacent theater also adds plenty of atmosphere to the shop. Upcoming shows include The Chapin Sisters on Nov. 8 and Alyssa Graham on Nov. 13. A calendar of events is posted at www.javajoescoffeehouse.com.

“Entertainment is great for a coffee shop and with it being next door, it allows customers the option to listen from either side,” she said. “We bring in some great acts, both local and national, as well as theater and artists.”

Brehm encourages chain store coffee drinkers to try Java Joes.

“We’re not a franchise; we are part of the community, so help support local businesses,” she said. “We offer a great, premium product, and you won’t find a fresher cup of coffee in town.”


Varsity Theater

Multiplex theaters nearly caused the single screen theaters to disappear. The movie-going masses seem to prefer to spend their money venturing into newly constructed complexes filled with multiple screens. They’re convenient, but they often lack the charm of many single-screen theaters. Numerous chains exist throughout the greater metro area, but there are only a couple of single screens available today. One of those, the Varsity Theater, is located in the Dogtown neighborhood and has been home to cinemagoers since the 1930s.

“Originally the theater was on 24th Street and University Avenue,” said Denise Mahon, owner of the Varsity Theater, 1207 25th St. “My dad and partner bought it in the mid ’50s and then bought out his partner in 1975. I grew up in a movie theater, and I guess you could say it’s in my blood.”

Mahon knows her theater creates a unique atmosphere for filmgoers.

“It’s an escape from reality, and you can travel to a different place and time,” she said. “For a couple hours, you can forget about your troubles and be entertained.”

The charm of the Varsity is one of its strongest draws, but the way they treat their customers keeps people coming back. One of the biggest complaints of chain theaters is the 10 to 20 minutes of previews and advertisements that run before the show. You won’t find those at the Varsity.

“We treat our customers like we would like to be treated,” Mahon said. “We don’t run commercials before or after the show and try to only have one to two trailers playing before.”

Another advantage to the Varsity is the prices. Cinemark Theater (425 locations and 4,907 screens in the U.S. including the Century 20 at Jordan Creek) charges $9 - $9.50 for admission. Carmike Theater, which has 2,850 screens in 36 states and three in the greater metro area, charges about the same. Add in snacks that start in the $4 to $5 range, and a night with the family can become a small investment. The most the Varsity charges for admission is $7.50, and a small popcorn (which is locally grown) or small pop will run $1.35, with candy starting at 80 cents.

“It’s expensive for families to go to the movies. It’s very pricey, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Mahon said. “People are really surprised when they see our concession prices.”

Along with affordable concessions, the Varsity also offers unique films that filmgoers are unlikely to find playing anywhere else in town.

“We bring in a lot of foreign films to discourage the stigma about subtitles. A lot of people don’t want to read while at the movies, but they miss out on some really great films,” said Mahon.

Being located adjacent to Drake University, the theater attracts college students, but it also has a regular, non-college crowd.

“My dad built quite a loyal customer base, and some people are here every week,” Mahon said. “We have great support from our regular customers, and we get new people coming to shows all the time.”

Mahon knows times are changing in the theater business, and she is proud to offer a unique film-going experience for everyone who comes through the Varsity’s doors.

“We’re setting the pace for bringing limited-run films to Des Moines, while offering movies of substance for competitive prices,” Mahon said. “In the ’70s my dad was involved in a ‘David vs. Goliath’ battle with the multiplexes. His goal was to bring independent films with substance to Des Moines.”

Mahon says the Varsity tries to offer films that make the audience think.

Mission accomplished, without slinging a single stone. CV


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