As the economy continues to reveal signs of recovery, some local entrepreneurs have decided that now is the time to grow and expand their businesses. We’ve spoken to three business owners whose hard work and determination are paying off.
Ruthie Zarren, LITTLE FISHES SWIM SCHOOL
After being laid off from Enron in 2001, Ruthie Zarren became a stay-at-home mom to her newborn son. As he grew, Zarren enrolled him in classes that included art, swimming and other activities. In preparation for her return to the professional world, she paid close attention to the programs her son attended. “I knew I wanted to combine my love of swimming with my love of working with kids. My son was my test subject,” Zarren laughs. “I just kept notes on what I liked and what I wanted to improve on.”
In January 2008, Zarren—along with one swim instructor—opened Little Fishes Swim School in Brentwood, and despite the recent downturn in the economy, the small business was flooded with clients. “With families, it seems the kids are the last thing that parents cut back on,” she explains. “Parents might sacrifice something for themselves, but the kids are important. Plus, learning to swim is really a necessity.”
Little Fishes was initially open just two days a week and ended its first lesson session with about 45 students, Zarren says. Now, the year-round business is open seven days a week, with 14 employees and 600 kids weekly. This tremendous growth has inspired a move to a new location (also in Brentwood) that will triple the number of Little Fishes swimmers. “It became apparent last year that we had completely maxed out of our current space,” Zarren recalls. “We had to put people on our wait list, and it just killed me that were not able to help every family.”
The new $750,000 facility—now under construction—will have three in-ground pools, as well as full changing facilities and room for parties.
Zarren credits local moms for much of the company’s success. “The ‘mom community’ in St. Louis is amazing,” she says. “We get 90 percent of our business through word of mouth, because when moms like something and feel like they’re getting a good value, they tell all of their friends.”
Steve Komorek, TRATTORIA MARCELLA & MIA SORELLA
Siblings Steve, Jamie and Christine Komorek are all products of the Slay family, whose eateries date back to 1911 in St. Louis restaurant history. Their mother, Marcella, was a Slay—and she is the namesake for their longstanding South City establishment, Trattoria Marcella, which opened in June 1995. “We are definitely proud of what we have accomplished—we have been very blessed and fortunate from the beginning,” says Steve Komorek of the restaurant where he serves as head chef.
When the family opened Trattoria Marcella, their hope was to create their own place with a fare that was a little different from what was being served around town, Komorek says. “My brother, Jamie (who runs the front of the house and handles the wine), always says, It’s easy to open restaurants. It’s hard to keep them open.” And keep it open, they did—expanding three years later from 60 seats to 100, and then to its current 150 seats.
Through the years, Komorek remembers considering several sites for a second restaurant, but the timing never seemed to be right. And with the challenges related to the economy, the family decided to continue its focus on Trattoria Marcella, adding a patio and completing some interior renovations. Then, about 12 months ago, Komorek says they started to see a solid growth in revenue; and from that point, everything began to fall into place for Ballwin eatery Mia Sorella (Italian for ‘my sister’). “Christine is our boss,” he laughs, “but Mia Sorella is really in reference to being the sister restaurant of Trattoria Marcella.”
Scheduled to open in September, Komorek describes a different dining experience at Mia Sorella. “We are not trying to recreate Trattoria Marcella,” he says. “But we are creating a new option for dining, which will have a little more casual atmosphere and a larger emphasis on house-made pastas and hand-stretched artisan pizzas made in a traditional brick oven with a crust that we have spent about a year researching.”
Jane Lavey, GIDDYUP JANE
In 2008, a friend of Jane Lavey opened MACS Designs in Ladue, and during that summer, Lavey was presented with an opportunity that she couldn’t pass up. “I was offered a corner of her store to test out my idea for GiddyUp Jane,” she recalls. “I was very lucky to have a chance to build an audience before I even had my own store.”
GiddyUp Jane opened in April 2009 in a 500-square-feet space, which Lavey refers to as a ‘pocket store,’ along Clayton Road. The focus: fashion inspired by the West. “The shop is different from most everything else in St. Louis,” she says. “I just love the style of the West. My family has always had homes out there, I went to school in Arizona and I love the casual look. The West is a beautiful and inspiring place, and people dressed beautifully because of that.”
In the beginning, space was among Lavey’s biggest challenges. Along with the limited square footage, she points out that “there was a bathroom, which also was the storeroom and my office— I’m not kidding,” Lavey laughs. “I knew it was ridiculous, and so when the space opened up next to us, we saw the opportunity to take it over.”
According to Lavey, the increase in space to 1,600 square feet in July 2011 was necessary, because not only was her boutique on the smaller size, but it also was sandwiched in-between several other successful stores, leaving GiddyUp Jane, for the most part, unnoticed. “Now that we are larger, we have a much bigger presence on Clayton Road,” she says. “We have a very dedicated following who ‘gets’ us—they love our look and love to live in the style.” Along with greater options for her female clients, GiddyUp Jane now offers menswear, home goods and gifts, as well.
An attorney by training, Lavey seized an opportunity for a career change and launched her business in the midst of the slower economy. “I opened at the worst of times,” she recalls. “So, my benchmark was very low. There was nowhere to go but up, which was a really good thing. The reality was, I was ready—and I couldn’t wait until the world was ready for me. Luckily, the gamble paid off.”