Building Top This Chocolate is my life’s pursuit. However, I began last year working again in a law office. My online sales alone don't cover the bills yet and the majority of orders come before occasions like Valentines Day. Without a store to bring foot traffic, it gets tough in between the chocolate holidays. After multiple attempts at leasing retail space the previous year, I was frustrated, broke, tired of living like a broke person and ready for a break from a project that wasn’t getting anywhere. The learning experience from the attempts was that Los Angeles has very few suitable spaces where the numbers still make sense. Day after day I read about food businesses going under all over the city. I was looking for a needle in a haystack and with rents on the upswing, it felt like needle was getting smaller and the haystack bigger. I knew that opening a store most likely meant leaving Los Angeles but I wasn’t ready to do it. I’d moved to LA sixteen years ago to attend law school. Most of my friends are here and I love California. I needed to take a few minutes to stabilize my finances and sort out my feelings. It was back to a lawyer job for me.
However having a regular job like a normal person with a stable paycheck wasn’t the break from struggle I had fantasized about. Like many jobs, it was exasperating and unfulfilling. I had a difficult boss and was surprised to be handed bankruptcy matters. I had no previous experience in this area of the law and received little guidance. The worst part was the situations of the clients in bankruptcy. These were business people who had ventured out in some way and had it all come crashing down. Some situations were of their own making but others definitely were not. Either way, their messes had to be cleaned up and it was disheartening. For a brief time I enjoyed having spending money but eventually I began coming home too down to do much. This plan B was expiring and plan A was looking more attractive. My business hadn’t failed, right? If anything it had just failed to launch. After one particularly bad day at work, I realized how lucky I was to already have something I was passionate about pursuing, to already have a business plan and to already have launched in beta at least. So many who find themselves in an unpleasant life situation have no idea what they would do instead. If they figure it out, they may need to move a mountain to get there. Hadn’t I already moved at least half of that mountain? Why stop now? Because it may end in bankruptcy? In a moment that felt reminiscent of the line in It’s a Wonderful Life where George says “I Want to Live Again”, I said, “I Want to Be Broke Again." I’ll do anything, just let me live my dream again.
I renewed my commitment to finding a home for my store even if it wasn’t in my beloved Los Angeles. Maybe I wouldn’t even have to go very far to find affordable retail rents. It was difficult to devote time to searching while working and still fulfilling chocolate orders at night (love my repeat customers). So, I calculated how much money I would need to save before I could stop working for long enough to give it another go. A few months later it was April and I gave my notice at work, wrapped up my cases and walked through the door… into the great wide open.
With renewed determination, I pounded the pavement everywhere within driving distance. I reconnected with Sebastian, the hardest charging of the real estate agents I had worked with and the only one who never tried to talk me into a bad location just to get a commission. He suggested Seal Beach and we put in an offer on an underpriced former juice bar with huge beach traffic. It was quite a find. However, the landlord chose to lease to a coffee shop instead and Sebastian was crestfallen. Poor guy. I was used to these disappointments though and had already moved on. I combed online listings night after night, searching neighborhood by neighborhood and extending the map further and further. I was so determined I often wouldn’t leave my computer screen until 3 am when I could barely see anymore. One night I saw a listing in Ventura that looked interesting. Ventura, where is that? I had driven up there once a couple years earlier to see one of my favorite artists play a show (Jim James). I remember noticing then that it was a quaint beach town with an easygoing vibe. I sent an email to the property manager and had a response by the time I woke up the next morning.
I visited shortly after and found a wondrous place. Ventura Harbor Village Shopping Center was a cute complex tucked between boat slips and the ocean. It was packed with both tourists and locals. It couldn’t have been more perfect. In real estate they say “location, location, location” to stress the importance of this factor. I stationed myself in the center many times to get a feel for the customers. Chocolate is an impulse buy and a chocolate store needs a lot of foot traffic. But not all foot traffic is the same. This place had leisurely foot traffic - not people rushing to or from work - but people who had come to the harbor to eat seafood, have a drink, shop and take a stroll along the waterfront. These were definitely the type of people who would stop in and buy chocolate. To make matters better, the only other place to get dessert in the whole complex was an ice cream parlor with lines out the door. It was much more affordable than what a similar space in Los Angeles would be. I had considered and rejected over 70 locations over the past four years. This one I had no doubts about whatsoever. I was ready to make it happen!
It would take a lot of work over several months to lease a strorefront. The complex was owned by the Ventura Port District, a government body with an elaborate process for approving new tenants. Finally, after my business plan and a host of other documents were submitted, approved and lease negotiations occurred, I was placed on the public agenda of a Port Commission meeting for a vote. This vote would be the final step in sealing the deal. I was nervous but it ended up being a unanimous YES! It was so refreshing to have a landlord that was genuinely enthusiastic about having Top This Chocolate in the shopping center. I was elated. My business would finally take the next step. I did a happy dance on the day in August when I got the keys (see video below). It was a triumphant beginning but there was trouble ahead...
Continued in Part Two.