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  • Storefront
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  • Published On:
  • Wednesday, June 24, 2015

At Artisan's Palate in Kimco’s Palm Plaza Shopping Center in Temecula, Calif., gourmet food is a way of life.

Pia Maffei is the founder and owner of the healthy, specialty gourmet food shop which connects area shoppers with local artisans that produce some of the highest quality products in the region. Throughout her career as an entrepreneur and executive, Pia has traveled the world for business, and everywhere along the way has sampled cuisines native to each destination she visits. Artisan’s Palate represents her passion for food and aims to introduce shoppers to both the unique cultural finds she has discovered as well as the boutique food brands that are delivering those delicious, healthy products.

The specialty foods market is flourishing in the United States, with revenues from specialty food stores reaching $8 billion in 2014. Launching into this hot sector, Artisan’s Palate joined the Kimco portfolio as part of the Kimco Entrepreneurs Year Start (KEYS) program which helps budding small businesses and startups get off the ground by providing a year of free rent and additional benefits to better ensure their success.

We spoke with Pia to learn more about the Artisan’s Palate’s distinct market offering, and to get her advice for other entrepreneurs looking to follow their dream. Check out our conversation below – and be sure to read through to the end for her top 10 tips for other small retail operations looking to get off the ground.

Can you share with our readers a brief overview of Artisan’s Palate and the kinds of products you offer?

Pia Maffei: Artisan’s Palate focuses on highly nutritional foods that are locally produced by boutique food makers. The range of products we sell includes things you would use every day to gourmet items to supplements for health and well-being. We sell everything from marshmallows to deodorant. Our kitchen allows us to make our own chocolate, boxed lunches, hummus, egg salad, soups, elixirs, coffees and more! But the common denominator in everything we sell is that they contain no high fructose corn syrup, artificial ingredients or artificial flavors or colors. All products must be "clean," and many are suitable for those on gluten-free or paleo diets.

How did you find out about Kimco and get involved with the Kimco KEYS program?

Maffei: As an active member of the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce, the President introduced me to Paul Nolta, a consultant for the Small Business Development Center (SBDC). He’s the one that told me about the KEYS program and he is also someone I worked with for several months prior to opening Artisan’s Palate.

Why do you think Palm Plaza Shopping Center is a good location for Artisan’s Palate?

Maffei: Artisan’s Palate is a destination location. People that are interested in food and eating clean will eventually find the shop and seek it out. We’re in a corner of the Palm Plaza Shopping Center and really are a hidden gem that we believe is Temecula’s best kept secret. Many of our customers shop and dine at many of the larger retailers and restaurants that are all in the vicinity.

How do you engage shoppers and get the word out about your location, your e-commerce offerings, your classes and the many other great features of your shop?

Maffei: The day we opened, we started to collect emails and encouraged customers to join our email list. Since we don’t really do print advertising, this direct marketing approach has been instrumental to our marketing strategy. Our growth is predominantly organic, all word of mouth. Many people find us due to our exceptional ratings on both Yelp and Facebook.

We recently deployed a loyalty program where customers earn points they can then redeem for various items in the store. We have priced our items quite aggressively so we really don’t put items on sale. Our Loyalty Program is a great way for us to give back.

As a small business owner, what is your philosophy about managing a storefront?

Maffei: I ‘walk the walk’, I shop at my own store! This is a lifestyle so I am able to share my experiences about the products and the reasons why I take the various supplements. This way the customer knows what to expect. I believe in giving the customer the best customer service; that includes greeting them by their name, remembering their likes/interests etc. and making recommendations that are applicable to them. We don’t really ‘sell’ here, we simply transfer knowledge and it’s up to the customer as to what they choose to do with that knowledge/information. Most people are very open to the fact that what you ingest directly relates and impacts your body. We often say, let the ingredient list guide you, don’t get fooled by deceptive marketing and popular labels.

Your inventory changes often, how are you developing those product lists?

Maffei: The shop is highly curated, so I only pick the ‘best of the best’ from small vendors, primarily from Los Angeles to San Diego, but not exclusive to that area. When an item makes it on our shelves our customers know it’s special! It’s not only good, but it’s usually good for you. We find items that are not readily available at your neighborhood grocer or specialty store.

Many of my customers also drop off product and make recommendations; it’s fun knowing that I have an Artisan’s Palate army out there looking for items that would be a good fit for the shop.

Some items that you've chosen for your shop have been seen on the likes of Oprah's favorites list, the Food Network and Dr. Oz. What’re your most popular items, and what is your own personal favorite product that you sell?

Maffei: It’s funny because I thought having items from Oprah’s favorites or The Food Network would be a huge draw and I’m finding that it’s really not. Once they taste the specific item then, yes, the customer sees why that particular artisan won ‘best of.’ But honestly, the customer shops and then decides on items based on their own taste profiles. Since the shop is small, I have to have items that appeal to a large cross-section.

Really, everything is popular, it just depends on the day or week. One week, everyone wants the protein bars we sell, the next week everyone wants the crackers. It’s very unpredictable.

Asking me to pick a favorite is like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. Truthfully, as my interest in superfoods grows, the pre-mix Elixir products that we’re making is becoming a personal favorite. How do you not want to make your own version of Einstein, Anger Management or Hercules? These elixirs can be made hot or cold, they taste great and they are amazing for you! Einstein clears brain fog, Anger Management is our delicious drinking chocolate and Hercules gives you energy.

Do you have any tips for other small retail operations looking to get off the ground?

Maffei: Yes! Here are my top 10:

  1. Become active in your community at least six months prior to opening your business. You can attend meet-ups, join the chamber, join business networking groups, etc.
  2. Ask a lot of questions. From the leasing agent, landlord, complementary businesses, tenants. This will make it easier to understand what you’re signing when it comes time to commit.
  3. Know your numbers! Make sure to start a very detailed spreadsheet that has all of your expenditures, including easy-to-overlook items such as trash removal, fire code, permits, toiletries, cleaning supplies etc. Once you have everything itemized, have someone you respect (a business peer) review and comment. Use the expertise from the local SBDC, etc., to help with your numbers and your business plan.
  4. Make sure you have a minimum of one year’s operating expenses. If you’re breaking even or losing money every month then you need to be able to withstand the challenges of the business.
  5. Set realistic goals. Know that your ‘fun hobby’ is now a business and needs a lot of attention. There’s a lot of sacrifice so know how to manage your time and balance your life commitments.
  6. Don’t buy into the ‘Go Big or Go Home’ approach. Many people have gone big and couldn't go home because they lost it! If possible, start modestly and conservatively, and understand when you’ll start to see a return on your investment. Then you can consider growth and expansion.
  7. Hire people that are responsible and trustworthy. If customer service is paramount then they need to reflect that.
  8. Be honest. Character is vital.
  9. Listen to everyone around you. At times it’s remarkable what comes out of a 10 year old.
  10. Pay your bills on time and respect your vendors.

Work up an appetite reading? Stop by the storefront at Palm Plaza to try out a variety of products and treats. Don’t live in the area? You can shop Artisan’s Palate online via their e-commerce site.

This has been an installment of StoreFront, an interview series with leaders of successful retail businesses. For more interviews, visit the StoreFront page. To learn how you can be featured, email us. We’d love to hear from you.