Innovation Spotlight: Those who paved the way
Making sure a business doesn’t merely survive but also thrives is a difficult and complicated process- requiring constant innovation and research. Where better to garner some invaluable advice on this subject than the very people who have already established long running and successful enterprises right here in the Ccty.
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Every year hundreds of businesses open up all over Grand Rapids. Making sure a business doesn’t merely survive but also thrives is a difficult and complicated process- requiring constant innovation and research. Where better to garner some invaluable advice on this subject than the very people who have already established long running and successful enterprises right here in the city. In this series, various local business men and women with an extensive history in this sector will be sharing some of what they have learned about doing business in Grand Rapids, and why they have experienced such success in their field.
Kameel Chamelly is the owner of both specialty wine and gourmet food store "Martha's Vineyard" and neighboring bakery "Nantucket Baking Co." Situated at 200 Union Avenue NE, these businesses are truly at the heart of the Heritage Hill neighborhood. The Martha's Vineyard website markets itself as "a corner store with a global wine selection. Seasoned wine drinkers, collectors and budding connoisseurs all shop at Martha’s for its vast wine selection and friendly, professional wine advice....Martha's boasts more than just an impressive wine selection, home to a diverse array of snacks, cheeses, fruit preserves, homemade pastas, and sauces from all over the world." If you need something extra to go with your Martha's selections you can simply pop next door to Nantucket, a busy but low-key bakery "specializing in artisan breads, delectable pastries, and gourmet pizzas."
Chamelly was born in Grand Rapids. He worked for a time in East Lansing but returned due to a family illness. It was during this hiatus that he decided to permanently relocate back to Grand Rapids. He set up the Eastown Deli in 1980. He would pass by the future site of Martha’s and Nantucket on his way home from working at the deli, often “dropping in for a soda.” Chamelly explains that at that time it was something of a “ghetto” establishment: bulletproof glass, mesh across the windows and no inventory. He got to know the owner of that business, a somewhat reluctant shopkeeper who would frequently tell Chamelly to take the store off his hands. When Chamelly explained that he didn’t necessarily have the means to do so, the owner said he could have it for $900 monthly rent.
And so over 25 years ago Martha’s Vineyard was born. Nantucket Baking Co. was added to the site in 2006. Chamelly explains he opened Marthas “on a shoestring.” He knew what his intentions for the store were from the beginning. He discovered a passion for wine at a young age and his Lebanese descent meant he had been exposed to a wider than average variety of cuisines. Despite these refined tastes Chamelly adds that he always wanted Martha’s to be a “neighborhood as well as a specialty destination store.” This vision of inclusiveness and reliability has ensured that Martha’s receives a high volume of repeat customers. Chamelly jokes that for a store on “two one way streets in the middle of a residential neighborhood, we’re doing okay.”
The store doesn’t only cater to those dwelling in the Heritage Hill area. Martha’s is the number one retailer of fine wines in the whole of Michigan. People travel from all over the Great Lakes state to stock up on their favorite vintages, often spending handsomely in the process. The variety of Martha’s stock, coupled with a loyal and generally affluent customer base, has seen Martha’s and Nantucket “getting a little better every year.” Chamelly explained that in the beginning he would reinvest almost all of his revenue back into the business and although that is still true, it is no longer to the same extent.
Despite his success, Chamelly remains a hands-on business owner, and is a regular almost daily presence within the store. “Percentages and formulas are a standard, [but] owners playing a role in the day to day running of a business is important, whether that be mopping the floors or manning the cash register,” he says. He greets and chats with customers that he often knows by name. His 85-year-old mother still makes the hummus they sell on Martha’s deli counter; his staff members are personable and efficient, ready and willing to aid with any questions no matter how specific. He believes it is predominantly these values that have contributed towards the popularity of Martha’s and Nantucket. “The most important component [of these businesses] is our staff. Every shop has a product to sell and price is dictated for the most part by the market. What we have are educated, enthusiastic staff that are well read in their field.”
When he opened Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Baking Co. Chamelly says he had “nothing to lose.” That is certainly not true today, with an expansion of Nantucket scheduled within the next six months to provide the business with a “bigger footprint” to work out of. The bakery supplies many of Grand Rapids' most popular eateries, including Electric Cheetah, Uncle Cheetah, Rockwells, The Winchester, Founders Brewing Company, Hopcat and The Sparrows, with bread and baked goods- and demand isn’t slowing down.
“To play in the big sandbox with Meijer and other supermarkets, all you can give customers is service. You have to exceed people’s expectations whenever they come in.”
I am sporadically productive- writing, painting and looking at the National Geographic website. Unfortunately though the majority of my spare time is desecrated by a compulsion to watch Malcolm in the Middle and eat original flavor Wheat Thins. This is my legacy and I have come to terms with it.