Recipe for success: Former lawyer finds his niche with West Lafayette store for cooks

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — Shoppers aren't likely to camp outside Larry Oates' West Lafayette store this week and rampage through like animals chasing prey the minute he opens the doors.

But Oates must be doing something right if business is still humming for Kitchen Art: The Store for Cooks after two decades.

Small Business Saturday is the tamer cousin of sale-crazed Black Friday, but the goal is similar — gin up holiday sales, only with a focus on small retailers who have deep roots in their communities.

"It's a very, very different world than it is for many of the national, larger retailers," he told the Journal & Courier (http://on.jconline.com/1vFf7S6 ). "I'm looking at products that can only be used in the kitchen or are used to be able to eat with."

Focusing on a niche market is key to a successful small business strategy, and Oates is all about developing specialties.

He practiced law in Chicago, focusing on nuclear power plant litigation and mass disaster cases — a legal realm that didn't have much demand in West Lafayette when he and his wife, Shannon Oates, moved into town in 1994. So he gave up his law practice and spent six months carefully considering his next venture.

Then it hit him: He likes to cook. He likes to eat. So, he thought to himself, how about opening up a local store giving dedicated cooks a place of their own for high-end tools and equipment?

Small Business Saturday is meant to highlight the crucial role that shops like Oates' kitchen store play in fueling the economy of local communities. It's definitely not easy for small business owners these days; many struggle just to stay in the black while seeing big-box retailers reaping much larger profits.

That's why they hope locals will give them as much of a chance as the big guys come the holidays.

"Obviously, the holiday season is an important time of the year," Oates said. "I don't think anybody in retail can say otherwise."

Good holiday sales, he said, can't save a lackluster small business — but they could certainly keep it from tanking.

"If I'm not profitable every single month of the year, I can't stay in business," Oates said. "So by the time I get to Black Friday, I'm already in the black."

To even out those times between revenue feast and famine, Oates devised some extras.

Twice a year, his store offers cooking classes instructed by nationally recognized chefs. Registration for the classes opens in February and August, two slow months for the store.

He also charters bus trips to Chicago for customers.

"We take one in the spring and one in the fall," Oates said. "We go to ethnic communities within the city. We go visit different culinary establishments."

It was on one of those trips years ago that Don and Frances Shelhart of Logansport met Oates and became familiar with Kitchen Art. They've been regular customers ever since.

"If I want something in particular, I know they have it," Frances said. "I like a store where you can talk to a person. Even if you call them on the phone, they know what you're looking for. They're very knowledgeable."

For niche stores — most of which have competitive prices with big-box retailers — success means shelving quality merchandise. It also means staffing the store with employees who know their stuff about what they sell — and thus have to be paid accordingly, meaning much higher than minimum wage.

Too often, big-box retailers hire employees who might have difficulty just pointing customers to the correct aisle, let alone getting into the nitty gritty of product quality.

Local business owners also set themselves apart from their chain brethren by forging deep bonds with the local community — financially, yes, but even further.

For starters, Oates noted 68 cents out of every dollar shoppers spend in his shop stays local and not off to some far-flung corporate headquarters.

"We're the ones giving that money back. We're the ones taking care of little Susie and Johnny's Little League baseball team and their soccer teams," Oates said.

Small business owners also typically don't just work locally, but also live locally. They're part of the community. They serve on civic boards, neighborhood watch groups and government commissions. Case in point with Oates — he serves on the West Lafayette Redevelopment Commission.

That kind of involvement doesn't go unnoticed.

"He and his wife are very giving in contributions to nonprofits," said John Dennis, mayor of West Lafayette. "Larry Oates epitomizes the best of small businesses."


Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com

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