All you need to start a business is an idea, some money, and lots of ambition. But it takes something extra for that business to achieve national or even worldwide success. Meet a couple of local entrepreneurs who definitely have what it takes.
K. Hall Studios Inc.
Whether it was canning homemade jelly or blending herbal teas, Kelley Hall Barr always enjoyed working with nature’s bounty. “I grew up in Northern Michigan, and my happiest memories are of working alongside my mom in her garden, then finding creative uses for the flowers and plants,” she says.
K. Hall Studios, the company she runs with husband John, is her childhood dream come true. Their cozy Brentwood store, k. hall designs, has aisles full of scented candles, reed diffusers and high-end laundry products, and is considered one of the best gift shops in town. Her aromatic, vegetable-based bath, body, and home-care products are carried in more than 2,200 stores worldwide, including Japan and Paris. Her latest line, Simpatico, also available in London and Paris, features home accessories and textiles.
Not bad for a business that started 13 years ago in an old University City gas station. “We used to mix stuff up in five-gallon buckets and package and label it by hand,” Barr recalls. Now the job gets done in the company’s warehouse/production facility in Brentwood, with help from 12 employees and 80 sales reps. Barr handles the creative and marketing end; John, a native St. Louisan, takes care of finance and management. They plan to open a second store soon.
Barr hopped majors and jobs quite a bit before finding her niche. “But I always felt there was an untapped market for beautifully crafted bath and home-care products.” She started making them in her spare time, selling small batches to national chains like Waterworks and Restoration Hardware. “When the re-orders started rolling in, that’s when we knew we really had something,” she says.
Barr eventually wants to sell the company, so she and John can spend more time hiking and fly fishing with their five kids—and maybe start a new business. Meanwhile, she has down-to-earth advice for would-be entrepreneurs: “Find what you want to do, do your homework, have faith in your path—and always play fair with vendors and customers.”
St. Louis Bread Company
Next time you’re waiting for your pastries or veggie sandwich at Bread Co., ponder this: What began as a single store has grown into some 1,400 bakery-cafés nationwide and in Canada. “We started in 1987; by the end of ‘93, we had 20 locations in the St. Louis area,” says original owner Ken Rosenthal.
Rosenthal was working in retail when he decided to try something different. “I kept daydreaming about a small, friendly place where neighbors could gather to enjoy coffee, homemade soups and sandwiches, and fresh bread and baked goods,” he recalls. After learning the bakery business in San Francisco, he returned to St. Louis, recruited partners and opened the first Bread Co. in Kirkwood. A second location in University City soon followed. “I knew right away we had a great business with a broad appeal.”
He found out how great when East Coast company Au Bon Pain, which later morphed into Panera Bread, bought him out in 1993. “The company’s stock has grown 13-fold since then,” Rosenthal says. “Ron Shaich, head of Au Bon Pain then Panera, had the wherewithal and knowledge to take my idea all the way. I love the way the business has continued to expand and evolve.”
Today, Rosenthal is chairman of Breads of the World, a franchise organization that runs Panera locations in Ohio and Colorado. He lives in Colorado with his wife, children and grandchildren. “Back in the ‘80s, when I was thinking about switching fields and opening my first place, everyone told me I was crazy,” he says. He advises aspiring entrepreneurs to listen and learn, “and then follow your heart. If you love what you’re doing, it isn’t work.”