At the end of July, after eight months of competition and business school bootcamp, the Bayfair Center in San Leandro will crown its 2010 Retail Star.
The contest has all the makings of a reality TV show: Public presentations of elevator pitches, dramatic elimination rounds, and the winner walks away with $250,000 worth of prizes — including a year's worth of free rent at the mall — to help the aspiring local entrepreneur open up shop.
"A lot of resources are available to participants in the Retail Star program," said Paul Lundstedt, an East Bay SCORE counselor and a contest judge. "A lot of resources are available to the winner to help them get started. It takes a little pressure off."
This year's finalists include an aromatherapy and candle business, a woman's clothier that would sell customized items, and a wig shop. To get to this phase in the competition, the contestants have fine-tuned their business plans, crafted marketing strategies, and drafted ideas for the store layout — which they presented to a panel of judges in front of an audience at the mall. Along the way, they got help from small business mentors and received four-hour training sessions on each topic.
"You can find areas where you can improve all of the proposals, and the hope is that by pointing out the weaknesses, the contestants can go back and strengthen the plan," said Lundstedt, a former executive with Kmart and Mervyn's. "Because those people who are not the winner still have good concepts that maybe should go forward."
Last year, during the inaugural Retail Star contest, Oakland resident Ben Wanzo wowed the judges with his concept for a cafe-meets-learning center that he called TEAch Bar, which opened in December. "You go into cafes and you see individuals studying and doing work all the time," he said. "I thought it was a natural fit to bring a learning lounge and classroom aspect into a cafe and make it a more functional place to work. We added white board walls, collaborative work spaces, we put in sliding glass doors to close off rooms if you really need to focus on what you're doing. We wanted it to be a warm and inviting place, and cafes provide that feeling."
As the winner, Wanzo won prizes such as $25,000 in cash, design and build-out help for the cafe, and a year's free rent at the mall — the very same mall he patronized as a kid. "It is really weird," he said of his return to an old haunt. "But it makes it that much more worth it. I look at the teens in the mall, and I think, 'That used to be me.'"
The contest doesn't just benefit business upstarts like TEAch Bar, of course. Madison Marquette, the company that operates Bayfair, has attracted a number of Retail Star contestants to its empty storefronts. "We have 10,000 square feet of rent-paying tenants that we met because of the competition," said Whitney Livingston, Bayfair's regional director of marketing. "We were trying to address the problem that all shopping center developers were dealing with and we knew at the end of the day we needed to collect rent to stay in business. But along the way, we could also provide entrepreneurs with tools to be successful."
The company developed the contest before reality shows like Shark Tank hit the air, and it has been videotaping the contest and the participants. Will we all be watching "America's Next Top Retail Star" next season?
"We are open to all of the possibilities," Livingston said.
Retail Tour: Specialty Ethnic Groceries
Last weekend, La Borinqueña Mex-icatessen (582 7th St., Oakland; TamaleGirl.com) celebrated its 66th birthday. Founded by Tina Ramos' Grandma Rosa, La Borinqueña started as a corner store selling toilet paper, soap, tortillas, and Latin groceries. An immigrant from Mexico, Grandma Rosa bought the shop on credit against the wishes of her Puerto Rican husband, who was placated when she let him name the business (which Caribbean natives may recognize as a reference to the Puerto Rican national anthem, and which also means "the Puerto Rican woman").
A few years later, the store moved to a new location, adding a bakery where Grandma Rosa started selling her famous homemade tamales. Ramos' parents met thanks to the expansion; her mother helped Grandma Rosa in the shop, and her father-to-be was hired as a baker. The couple bought the store — also on credit — from Grandma Rosa in 1958.
A third move for the business came in 1971, when La Borinqueña was forced to relocate because it fell in the path of the downtown Oakland freeway overpass construction. The Ramos family took that opportunity to develop the business into a restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as a specialty Latin grocery that dispenses tortillas, chili pods, chipotle, spices, and Goya brand canned goods, which are typically impossible to find on the West Coast.
But the tamales are what bring the crowds. "We make them the same way grandma did," said Ramos, who goes by the nickname Tamale Girl. "We slow-grind the corn for the dough in-house. It's all made by hand." La Borinqueña also has updated the traditional, and among the six tamale offerings is a vegan potato-green-bean-stew option and a dessert version, where the dough is infused with crushed pineapple, cinnamon, and raisins.