Under one Omaha roof, women come together to sell their own products

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Posted: Monday, July 29, 2013 12:00 am

As the owner of the Cordial Cherry chocolate shop, Melissa Stephens found that about 95 percent of her customers were women, and many were coming in to pick her brain on how they might be successful and “have it all” — time with their families and a dream job.

“I thought, there's gotta be a way to have our cake and eat it, too,” Stephens said. “If I can come up with a way that these women can launch their businesses, sell their product, not necessarily have to be here from open to close and maybe be able to lean on each other for things they're not so good at, like photography and Web design, then we can be more successful.

“I wanted to come up with a way for women to pursue their dreams of business ownership and do it in a way that doesn't require they give up the other things they love in their life.”

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The result?

Stories Coffeehouse, which opened July 15 and is located just a few spaces down from the Cordial Cherry in the Spring Ridge Shopping Center at 180th and Pacific Streets. The shop — eclectic in product and decor — is what you get when two pastry chefs, a cook, a popcorn maker and a chocolatier come together under one roof.

“Coffee goes with everything,” Stephens said.

Stephens had a few businesses in mind from the start. Amber Christ was testing her small catering business, Homemade by Amber, on her son's day care center and other businesses. Pastry chef Lorraine Howard of L Pastries was already selling some items out of the Cordial Cherry.

Michelle Kaiser, also a pastry chef, was operating her business, Alotta Brownies Bakery, known for its homemade peanut butter cinnamon rolls, out of Fremont, Neb., looking to gain more exposure in Omaha. Connie Lusk had been making her homemade caramel pecan popcorn for friends, family and special occasions for years when she met Stephens at a fundraiser and decided to start Noni's Popcorn.

The shop wouldn't have been possible without landlord John Hoich, who gifted the initial seed money after Stephens pitched her idea to him. “It didn't cover all of my expenses, but there's no way I could have done it without him,” she said.

Christ provides the savory items (paninis, salads and soups) while Lusk, Stephens, Kaiser and Howard take care of the sweets (cakes, brownies, bars, bags of popcorn, cinnamon rolls and, of course, chocolates). The women split labor costs and rent based on the square footage their products occupy. Stephens' sister, Jennifer McNamara, owns Imaginoodle Photography and also offers free product photography in turn for advertising and exposure on the shop's website and social media accounts.

This is not your typical west Omaha coffee shop. The concept for Stories was Stephens'. It features painted black windows, mismatched tables and chairs and bookshelves filled with books, chess and cards. Dressers stacked on top of one another decorate the espresso bar, and the fireplace is adorned with old doors. Vintage desks with small table lamps line one wall, perfect for students and remote workers.

“I wanted to create an environment that didn't feel like suburban Omaha,” Stephens said.

The shop gives each of the businesses more exposure — each one will have a sign out front as well as space on the Web page — while sharing the risks of starting a business and enabling some to keep their day jobs.

Lusk is a nursing educator at Boys Town, and Howard is the lead pastry chef at Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs.

Christ quit her job as an accountant about a year and a half ago to cook meals, mostly her grandma's recipes, for families at her son's day care. Each month, Christ makes a menu with an entree for each day. Families can order from her website and pick it up at their work or at their child's day care in time for dinner. She currently offers the service at the Goddard School, her son's day care, Primrose School of Legacy and Ervin & Smith, a marketing firm. She plans to eventually offer pickup at Stories Coffeehouse as well and was recently hired to cater a wedding.

Stephens encourages the women to be there as often as they can, but it's not a requirement. She manages the espresso drinks as well as the day-to-day kinks that come with running a business, and the women are there to support one another and make up for one another's weaknesses.

“We all kind of work together promoting each other,” said Kaiser of Alotta Brownies. “I love it because we can help each other out and there's no competition.”

Kaiser added that she and Howard coordinate on items so they aren't selling the same desserts at Stories.

Stephens plans to serve wine and coffee liqueur drinks in the winter, and host storytellers, musicians and other artists. She's looking at adding a few more businesses, including a caramel-apple maker and a cookie business. She's also on the hunt for someone who makes pies.

In the past two weeks, Stephens has seen her idea come alive as a meeting place for Bible studies, networking groups and a cozy place to knit or play chess.

“It was exactly what I was hoping would happen,” Stephens said.

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