Samantha Hines, Co-Owner of Cookshop Plus, told Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about how her Australian, family-owned startup decided to open a location in West Hartford, CT.
NAN PRICE: Tell us what it’s like to be part of a family-owned business.
SAMANTHA HINES: It’s a great partnership. Our West Hartford space is so big space and it’s such a huge undertaking, it’s great having such a strong team with the four of us.
My parents, Joanne and Terry [Ryan] own our Australian store, which has been open for about 12 years. My husband James and I had been running the Australian store for the past three years. I grew up with the business and have always worked there, but running it was more like being in charge, which is a bit different.
NAN: Is business ownership something you’re passionate about, or did it just sort of fall into your lap?
SAMANTHA: I guess a little bit of both. As I said, I grew up in the business, so I was working in it from the time I could start working. I went to university for a Bachelor of Business program. I wasn’t sure what I want to do, but I knew I really like business. I like all of the planning and doing and then seeing it all the way through.
So I didn’t have it in mind to be a business owner. When I finished my studies, the opportunity came up to run the store, which James was very keen on. He’s got a background in sales, but he’s always said wanted to own his own business. So he said: This is perfect. We can trial it out and see if we like it. If we don’t like it, we can do something else with our lives. If we like it, then this could be the start of something great.
NAN: So he had more of that entrepreneurial drive?
SAMANTHA: Yes. And for me it was a chance to get more into the business side of things. Obviously, I had experience with it, but it was as an employee, working in it. Whereas now I’m transitioning to I’m going to work on the business. I’m going to be in charge of things and see how it runs and do all of the accounting and all the fun things like that.
NAN: And how was that transition for you?
SAMANTHA: It was good. It actually surprised me how much I enjoyed it. I guess that’s why we are here in Connecticut now.
NAN: On that note, what has been the biggest challenge for you during the transition from being an employee to taking on ownership?
SAMANTHA: That’s a very good question. I would say the biggest challenge was probably coming to an already-established, very successful business. So on the one hand, James and I had the opportunity to—as Terry and Joanne would say—“bring new life to it,” which we did. But at the same time, it’s such a successful business you don’t want to just go in and make changes. Why would you change something when it’s so successful?
It’s a fine line between wanting to take the reins and say: Let’s try this, let’s just do everything! And then kind of pulling yourself back and saying: Hold on, maybe this isn’t the right market for this, or knowing just because I want to do something doesn’t mean it’s going to work.
The market we’re in is very established. Our store has an interesting customer base. We also have a very strong, loyal customer base, and if you start messing with that too much it wouldn’t be a good thing.
That’s why opening this new store in this location is great, because it was completely new.
NAN: Let’s talk about that. What makes an Australian company decide to open a store in West Hartford, CT?
SAMANTHA: James and I had been running the Australian store for about a year and were very much focused on that. We’d been in the business long enough to get a feel for if we wanted to keep going with it, so we started having conversations about the future and what we wanted to do. Do we want to open another store all four of us? Do we want to open two stores? Do we want to start exporting?
The four of us decided we wanted to open another store, but then we couldn’t decide the location. We talked about Europe and America. My vote was always for America. I had wanted to live here. Eventually America, specifically the New England area, became more of a focus for all of us.
Terry and Joanne took a trip to scope it out. They originally thought maybe Cape Cod would be a good place. They were looking in this general area as well, thinking maybe somewhere in Connecticut. They ended up visiting with an old school friend from West Hartford, which they thought was a beautiful town. So, that’s kind of how it happened.
NAN: What do you enjoy most about the location?
SAMANTHA: We’re excited to be somewhere where there’s always something happening. And people are so proud of their town. They love talking about it. They love supporting it. The response to us being here has been so great. When people talk to us about the store, they tell us it’s great for the town that you’re here. It’s really cool. We really like that.
We wanted to make sure that we were somewhere we could get involved in the community. It was important for us to be involved and make sure that we are part of the community, not just sitting on the main street without having any involvement.
NAN: In what ways are you involved in the local community?
SAMANTHA: Cookshop Plus donates items and gift cards to a lot of local events, such as The Mayor’s Charity Ball. We want to support more local charities.
In the future, we’ll be looking to partner with some of the other local businesses in different ways. For example, we’re in the middle of organizing something with the local Whole Foods.
We also support the local community with something we call our “Support Local Producers Initiative.” We are partnering with local producers and offering them space in our retail store on Saturdays to sell/sample/demonstrate their wares. It’s something we are proud to be offering, as we are very passionate about supporting other local, small businesses in the area. We have had a great response to this, with our list of local producers growing each month. For producers, it gives them a retail space to access a new customer base. For us it means exposure to new, locally made products and the added bonus of supporting another small business!
NAN: Any future plans?
SAMANTHA: Our future plan is to build a demonstration kitchen in our downstairs space. We put it on the back burner for now because we want to focus on the store first and get that going before we add another component. It will be great when the kitchen is built out. Our plan is be able to offer our space, so we will eventually be looking for people to use the space for groups or nights out or charity events and things like that. That will be the biggest thing we do going forward. But we don’t want to launch it and not do it properly.
NAN: Do you think you’ll open additional stores?
SAMANTHA: We’ll have to wait and see depending on how this all goes. Certainly if this one starts to succeed and is well received then I think we’ll look at opening other stores. That’s sort of our general direction.
NAN: This store is still relatively new right?
SAMANTHA: Right. We opened December 3, 2015. So this one is super-new. But that’s the plan, to open a couple more in a nice, slow time frame. For now, we’re going to focus on here.
NAN: You used the phrase “interesting customer base.” Tell us more about that and how you are marketing and building that customer base.
SAMANTHA: We have an interesting customer base because it’s very hard to pin down exactly who our target market is. We certainly have a target market, but it encompasses so many people. We get such a range, which is great because we attract a lot of people, but at the same time it’s challenging to manage because when you’re speaking to people you have to read them to determine their needs. It’s interesting because you never know who’s going to walk through the door and what they are going to want.
NAN: That must be common with a storefront business. You have to be ready for anything.
SAMANTHA: Definitely. Which is fun.
In terms of marketing to our customer base, it’s something we’re still figuring out. We recently did a Facebook campaign using a video. The response to that has been good. I think we are in more of a social media area, it seems to be heavily used and relied upon here in Connecticut versus our store in Australia. All of the stores around us here seem to use social media and get a really good response. The interaction between businesses and consumers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram seems to be very high.
NAN: What’s the best thing about living and or working in the greater Hartford area?
SAMANTHA: I just love the absolute variety of everything. There’s always something happening. Another thing I really like is there are so many independently owned businesses.
NAN: As an entrepreneur and business owner, how do you define success?
SAMANTHA: That’s such a critical question. Personally, I see success as when you have an idea and you formulate it—you see something that you obviously believe in because you want to keep going, and you see it through. You work really hard on it and put all of your energy into it and then, at the very end, you have a result.
I consider it a success whether the actual thing is successful or not, it’s more about the process of seeing it through. Every day I’m thinking of things and trying to see my ideas through—not all of them are successes, but when they are, it’s the greatest feeling.
NAN: Any advice for others who are starting out?
SAMANTHA: When an idea it doesn’t work out, I don’t see it as a failure. If you take every failure as a setback than it really will set you back. You have to look at any sort of failure or disappointment and say: That didn’t work, let’s try again, let’s try it slightly differently, or let’s just wait because maybe it’s not the right time. You have to look at things constructively—which is hard to do sometimes—but it’s definitely the most important thing you can do.
Visit the Cookshop Plus Facebook page for more information about events and food tastings.