The recent Entrepreneurs in Downtown survey found that new business starts in Wisconsin downtowns over the past five years reached a high-water mark in 2018. New businesses of all types were cropping up downtown in communities large and small. A few notable aspects of this new crop of entrepreneurs is the diverse age range (high school students through retirees) and strong representation of women, representing more than half of new business owners. These new businesses are not only notable on paper, but are also remarkable places to visit in person. In years past, there was a clear list of traditional business types that represented a coup for the local community: “wish list”–type businesses such as toy stores, bakeries and coffee shops. Today, the Best New Business nominees often defy the expected categories, and offer a unique mix of products and services housed in memorable spaces.
Aunt Ethel’s Adult Emporium in De Pere
Consider the 2018 Best New Business winner: Aunt Ethel’s Adult Emporium. This downtown De Pere business is a new take on a traditional arcade. Owners Casey and Tim Jelinski were already successful business owners in downtown De Pere when they decided to purchase a long-vacant 1880s property down the block. Looking to both spur evening activity and effectively utilize the oddly configured space, the couple settled on a vintage adult arcade for the space. Their business plan focuses on local business partnerships, featuring local products and implementing a gift card swap program with several local businesses. The business has achieved its goal of creating a hip hangout, hosting more than 25 corporate events and attracting nearly 12,000 social media hits over opening weekend, another new metric for a successful business launch.
Longevity in business is a laudable goal. This year’s three co-winners for Best Business Success Story highlight the fact that there is not any one path to success, and that small business success is defined by the owner. Black’s Floor Covering in Darlington (shown above), for instance, represents a four-generation business that has at various times incorporated products and services for all aspects of home improvement and design. From flooring to curtains, décor to drapes, the business has done it all, improving homes throughout southwestern Wisconsin.
In contrast, Anshus Jewelers in Menomonie has continually sought to lead the way in the jewelry world. As customer demands have changed, the store has evolved from watchmaking to gold design and now quality diamonds, specializing in offerings that cater to today’s customers. Being in business for more than 100 years has the added perk of attracting couples over the course of their lifetime, looking to rekindle the magic at the same place it all began or reinterpret a classic piece for modern styles. Finally, Keck Furniture in Watertown, Wisconsin’s oldest furniture store, originated as a cabinet maker and continually expanded offerings to provide furniture, window coverings and interior design services to help southeastern Wisconsin residents optimize their spaces.
Communities hoping to cultivate this type of business locally can learn from Ashland, which won an award for the Opportunity Knocks Retail Business Contest. The contest offered a mix of goods and services to the individual who presented the best business plan for transforming a long-vacant space into a complementary retail business for the district. Four applicants participated in the business training sessions, with two successfully completing the courses and being offered prizes. Ultimately, Superior Floral ended up occupying the targeted space, providing a previously absent service for the community.