A week before she was set to fly to India for a month, Melissa Kendrick got some bad news: The person who was set to watch after her store had been admitted to the hospital.
Kendrick, who owns and operates Sojourns, a fair trade store on Third Avenue North, has not had a vacation in almost eight years. “This is pretty indicative of what it’s like owning a small business,” Kendrick said as she unlocked the door to the store one Friday morning. “Nothing can ever be easy. Now I’m having to run around like a crazy person to get everything sorted out before next week.”
Immediately after opening the door, several customers came walking in behind her. “I don’t open for another 30 minutes, but you’re welcome to come in and look around,” she told them. “I’ll put on a pot of coffee.” They browsed around for a while before eventually settling on several small African carvings and some tapestries.
“See? I’m not even open and I probably just had my biggest sale of the day,” Kendrick said. “You just never know what each day will bring.”
Now in its third location, Sojourns has been in downtown Birmingham since 2005. Kendrick’s business is as about as small as it gets, she said. She is the only full-time employee, with one or two other seasonal employees who work part time.
“I love being part of the fabric of Birmingham,” Kendrick said. “It makes me feel more connected to the city, like I have a role to play. When I lived in DC and worked for a nonprofit, the work I was doing wasn’t really connected to the city.”
“[Owning a small business] is the hardest, most challenging, most wonderful, hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she added. “I always say hardest twice.”
Owning a small business is not without its challenges. Roughly 50 percent of startups fail within the first year and 90 percent don’t last five, according to Bloomberg Business. Even with those daunting statistics, business owners like Kendrick contend there is nothing else they would rather do. Challenges aside, having a store or a restaurant that reflects who you are as a person while also contributing to the community instills a feeling that is hard to replace, Kendrick explained.
Are there specific challenges that present themselves to business owners here? New businesses continue to open every month in Birmingham. What are some of the factors that have led to the apparent growth?
Owning a small business in Birmingham
Wooden statues of women and long-necked birds line the corridor at Sojourns. The walls are alive with colors. Cultural influences from around the world collide with one another in every corner of the old building. Kendrick loves her space and the fact that her fair trade business is aimed at helping promote sustainability and better trade policies in countries around the world.
Kendrick said it was important that her business stood for something. “I didn’t just want a store. I wanted something purposeful to me.”
When she lived in Paris, Kendrick said she was introduced to the concept of fair trade shops. “That idea really resonated with me. So when I decided to start a business I kept coming back to that.” Fair trade businesses help promote better working conditions and sustainability in developing nations by partnering with producers who otherwise may not be selling their goods at market value.
“It was my way of getting make my own decisions and not have to answer to a board of directors. It was a way of doing something meaningful, staying connected to the community and also being able to keep those international connections that I’ve made from working everywhere for the last 20 years,” Kendrick said.
But starting a business from the ground up wasn’t an easy task, Kendrick said. Her original space was only 600 square feet. When she decided to upgrade her space a few years later, she moved to a new location on 20th Street and planned on getting new signage.
“We had someone else building out the spot, and of course they had to go before the Design Review Committee. And was a disaster trying to get anything approved,” Kendrick said. “So we just put a banner up at first and then when we moved here I did the same thing.”
Like other business owners in Birmingham, Kendrick she has to deal with the lack of available parking downtown. “People will park in the deck at the Galleria and walk for a mile. But here, if they have to park around the block, for whatever reason, people seem to think it’s a big deal to have to walk a little bit,” Kendrick said. “Maybe it’s because they can’t see where they are going.”
Over the years, Kendrick said she’s accumulated a considerable number of parking tickets. “There’s a lawyer who I know that has a firm around here. He told me he’s almost racked up 1,000. We’re going to throw him a party when he gets there,” Kendrick said with a chuckle.
Jeff Bajalieh is a veteran restaurateur who, along with his family, is responsible for operating Slice Pizza and Brew, Sol’s Sandwich Shop and Deli and the recently opened Sky Castle Gastro Lounge in Lakeview. While busy expediting food in the window of his restaurant, Bajalieh also said that parking is a problem.
“You can’t keep having these new businesses open without addressing the parking issue,” Bajalieh said. “I think the city needs to show us some love in that aspect too. I feel like it’s a big tax revenue generator with all the food and liquor being sold in the area, but all those people need a place to park.”
On Monday afternoon, Sky Castle echoed with clinks of silverware and the chatter of patrons enjoying their lunch. Bajalieh said he wanted to create a laid back atmosphere with an elevated level of cuisine. It offers such regional favorites as southern fried chicken with gravy to littleneck clam and gulf fish chowder. For a Monday afternoon the place is, by all accounts, very busy.
“We appreciated the history and wanted to foster a community spirit. We love Lakeview,” Bajalieh said. “Supporting local vendors is an essential part of what we do here. Whether it’s a brewery or a local farmer, we want to build a rapport with those kinds of people.”
He added, however, that being a small business owner in Birmingham “has its challenges.” For instance, Bajalieh said that city ordinances sometimes pose a challenge, though he understands why there are strict regulations. “The rules are in place because someone at some point couldn’t follow them,” he said.
His father, Sol Bajalieh, opened Sol’s Sandwich Shop and Deli in the original John Hand Building in 1968. He continued operating there until the building was condemned in 1995. In 2008, Jeff and his two brothers, Chris and Jason reopened the deli. Before that, Jeff said, he was a franchisee with Domino’s Pizza. “I’ve been in the restaurant business my whole life, basically. You put a lot on the line for no guarantees,” Bajalieh said.
While Bajalieh hopes to eventually franchise more Slice restaurants — “or Sky Castle if this concept takes off” — there has been a great support system between local small business owners that have made the prospect of success achievable.
Kendrick agrees with that notion: “I love to hear when people come in and say, ‘Oh have you been to so-and-so yet? That place is great!’” She said one of her favorite moments since opening her own store was when a boy who was celebrating his 12th birthday came in because all he wanted to do was visit Sojourns and Reed Books, which is located on the same block. “It’s great to see when places can have that kind of impact, even on someone so young.”
“It’s not a pissing contest, so to speak,” Bajalieh said. “Lakeview, the ballpark, Five Points [South], Avondale… They all have their little niches but I think people patronize all of them. I don’t consider any of them my competitors. We’re all one voice who are here to help better our community. It’s not a corporate rivalry like Budweiser versus Miller or Papa John’s versus Domino’s. I think it’s kind of silly to be teeth-gnashing with these people when there are a lot of things we need help with on the same level.”
‘Here to help’
Kendrick and Bajalieh both mentioned a greater need for a centralized organization in Birmingham designed to help facilitate small business growth. Both also mentioned that REV Birmingham is a great resource for that, but not when it comes to things like helping secure a loan or navigating the complex process of obtaining the proper permits.
Kendrick said she wishes there were more resources available to small business owners struggling to squeak out a living.
“There needs to be some kind of clearinghouse,” she said. “REV was going to take on that role, but it’s not really what they are doing right now. [It would be beneficial] if there were a group or entity that could help with things like permitting, securing small business loans and other roadblocks that owners must overcome if they are going to stick around.”
In response to these comments, REV provided the following statement:
“When REV was formed our mission was, and remains, ‘Creating vibrant commercial districts by filling vacant spaces and growing sustainable businesses.’ In 2015, REV clocked 2,274 hours providing technical assistance to 137 business clients. In 2015, 57 businesses were created, grown or stabilized in downtown and neighborhood commercial districts through REV BIZ programming.
“This includes Taylor DeBoer, featured in an ad on the inside front cover of Weld‘s small business issue. We are proud of, and can put you in touch with, scores of businesses that have been positively impacted through REV’s work. I am disappointed that we were not provided the chance to address this before the March 17 issue went to print, but we will continue to be a resource to large business, small business and people dreaming of starting a business.”
The Birmingham Business Alliance was formed in 2009. Before the BBA’s conception, the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce was the entity responsible for helping to facilitate business growth in the area.
Victor Brown, the BBA’s small and minority business development professional, said that the increased level of competitiveness between Birmingham companies is a positive sign for things to come.
Having worked for the Birmingham Chamber from 2007 to 2009, Brown said he has been impressed with the recent surge in new businesses, which has moved the city from an industrial focus toward becoming a hub for innovative, small and locally owned companies.
Brown said that the growth in downtown businesses results in part because consumers are beginning to appreciate, more than before, the benefits of shopping locally as opposed to big box stores. Small business incubators like Innovation Depot have also contributed greatly to the abundance of new businesses launching successfully.
“That place was a ghost town on Saturdays,” Brown said, referring to Innovation Depot. “Now you go there and see people there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It has truly become a gathering place for growth and innovation for the whole area. It goes beyond the 90-plus businesses that are housed there.”
As for the role the BBA plays for local companies, several business owners said they feel like their needs are not being fully addressed by the organization. However, 80 percent of the BBA’s membership is comprised of small businesses. Brown said he thinks people aren’t aware of the resources available to them simply because they don’t ask.
“Communication plays a big part in what we do here,” Brown said. “We are intensely involved with the challenges for small businesses in the Birmingham region. One of the big issues is access to capital. It’s a sticky wicket for small businesses because you need that to grow.
“The growth that’s happened here has been very organic. We have a very rich small business community here in Birmingham. We as a community have really recognized that which has also helped with the growth,” Brown said. “We are better than we think we are.”
Editor’s note: Weld did not attempt to seek a comment from REV before this story went to print. We regret this omission. REV has provided a statement that was added to the online version of the story.