By Michelle Boudin
It seems Charlotte is always topping some sort of list—“The best place for millennials,” “The best place for business,” etc.—and there’s a good reason. Yes, our weather is great. Yes, we have great barbecue and biscuits. But we also have a business climate that makes it easy to start and grow a successful company. In fact, in 2016 alone, hundreds of new businesses popped up in Mecklenburg County.
Charlotte Chamber of Commerce Research Director Chuck McShane explains, “Charlotte combines unsurpassed quality of life with cost of living and cost of doing business below the national average … and entrepreneurs can easily connect with broad and niche markets.” Here, we take a closer look at some of Charlotte’s most successful small business owners to see just how these game changers made it all happen.
Scoot Wooten was born and raised in Charlotte and could never understand why the city didn’t have any sort of clothing that would help people show their hometown pride. He was temporarily working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2012 and saw people there wearing T-shirts promoting the city. Despite zero design experience, Wooten came up with a logo and started selling T-shirts with Charlotte themes emblazoned across the chests. It took a few years, but with lots of Charlotte-centric microblogs popping up and the Carolina Panthers 2016 Super Bowl appearance helping them along, the 704 Shop crew has found its stride. They now host regular pop-up shops and enjoy a thriving online business that includes hats, yoga pants, wallets and more. “We want to be a fashion lifestyle brand for people who live in Charlotte” Wooten says. He also wants visitors to covet the logo. “I want it to be much bigger; I want a storefront, and when people come to Charlotte, I want them to want to come get a T-shirt,” he adds. Wooten hopes that 704 Shop will soon also be on the must-see list for Charlotte residents and visitors.
To offer a good understanding of what Brewpublik is all about, owner Charlie Mulligan compares it to the Pandora music service: “It’s a custom-tailored craft beer delivery service,” he explains. The 27-year-old native Charlottean says he got the idea after seeing people standing in front of the beer section at the grocery store struggling to choose one. “The craft beer industry is exploding. We know people are interested in trying new things—new beers—and we want to be the easiest and best way for anyone to get craft beer,” Mulligan says. To get started, Brewpublik asks customers who sign up online (at brewpublik.com) questions about what they like and don’t like. Then a special Brewpublik algorithm (they call it the “beergorithm”) helps to determine which beers to send directly to a customer’s house. Mulligan started the company in 2014 after leaving his job at a bank. He says Charlotte has made it easy to grow his company because it’s such a business-friendly environment. “It’s really exciting. There’s a tremendous amount of young talent. People come here from all over to start their careers, so we get to select from the best and brightest talent here,” he says. In January 2016, Brewpublik became the first Charlotte-based company to be accepted into 500 Startups, a global venture capital seed fund and startup accelerator based in Silicon Valley.
Joanne de la Rionda says she didn’t know what to get her husband, Randall, for Christmas in 2009, so she got creative. On a whim, knowing that he loved gardening, she bought him a single beehive. He began working with it in their Cotswold backyard, and it turned out he was a pretty good beekeeper. So much so that the couple quit their banking jobs and created Cloister Honey. They now own 50 hives and produce more than 17 different flavors of honey that are sold nationally in 500 stores. Here in Charlotte, you can find the honey everywhere from the shelves of The Fresh Market to Reid’s Fine Foods. And while North Carolina has more beekeepers than any other state, the duo says they realized no one was doing flavored honey; the Queen City was the perfect launching pad. “Charlotte has a true entrepreneurial spirit,” de la Rionda says of the people who helped them along the way. “We knew this was a banking town, but Charlotteans also really love and support small businesses.”
Jon Luther calls himself the head hot dog maker at JJ’s Red Hots (named for his kids Jack and Jessie) and says he got the idea for the popular Dilworth restaurant from a place in Buffalo, New York, where he grew up eating the American classic. “I just figured that with a lot of transplants here in Charlotte, the idea to have premium ingredients and hot dogs built around regions would resonate … and come to find out, people are really passionate about hot dogs! Here we are four years later,” Luther says. The original location opened on East Boulevard, and a Ballantyne location followed a year later. Luther says the community’s support has been great from the beginning. “Charlotte has grown incredibly in the last 10 to 15 years, and people here embrace new things. They’ll give you a shot; you just have to deliver,” he says. JJ’s Red Hots has also taken its in-demand brand to college campuses, like Florida Atlantic University.
The premium outdoor clothing brand notched its first sale with a pair of pants online in November 2004. Eight months later, Mountain Khakis had shipped products to 75 retailers. Now, their goods are sold in more than a thousand shops across the country, including Jesse Brown’s Outdoors in South Park—their very first client. While product development happens in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the remainder of Mountain Khakis’ business operations and its 34 employees are based here in Charlotte. Company President Ross Saldarini says, “Charlotte has one of the most vibrant outdoor communities in the Southeast, and there’s a well-educated, diverse workforce here.” He notes that the business climate is a plus, too. “Charlotte is an affordable place to build a business, and there’s a rich history in apparel here,” he adds, pointing to the fact that North Carolina was a hub for manufacturing up until the 1990s. Saldarini says the brand’s mission is to help people live authentically, get active and make life an adventure.
Sisters Elizabeth Stafford White and Jacquelyn Stafford Buckner call their ever-popular jewelry business a happy accident. The fashion-forward siblings were searching for a statement necklace that wasn’t big and bedazzled and was comfortable to wear. When they couldn’t find it, they made their own by using a suede strap and natural materials. It was the summer of 2013, and they were vacationing at the beach. When White and Buckner wore their trinkets around town, their friends practically begged them to make more. Later that year, the Twine & Twig business was born. “We made 200 [necklaces], and they all sold out at our first trunk show,” Buckner remembers. Everything is still handmade, but now the busy moms have an office space, an online store that stocks additional products and a celebrity following. Their creations can be found in 150 shops across the country and around the world. The sisters describe their line as “earthy and organic elegance” and note that the support in Charlotte from friends, family and local shop owners has been huge.
We dug a little deeper into the minds of these six creatives to find out about their favorite Charlotte hangouts:
More Charlotte Startups:
Date Founded: 2000
Product/Service: Offers automated bill payment solutions for businesses.
Location: 1000 W. Morehead St., Ste. 200, Charlotte, NC 28208
Date Founded: 2002
Product/Service: Provides temporary and direct-hire placements in several specialty areas.
This article ran in the Winter 2016 issue of Charlotte Happenings magazine.