GRAND RAPIDS — Meet Laura McMurry, brand-new recipient of the Michigan Retailer of the Year award.
McMurry, the ebullient owner and founder of a Breton Village Mall firm called Naked Plates, received the honor last week in Lansing, sharing honors with Alticor and a jeweler on the other side of the state.
The award went to her not only as an entrepreneur who has taken a fledgling company into that rare statistical territory of businesses that survive their first year, but also because she has put her firm on the map through its whole-hearted support of the “Soup’s On For All” fundraisers that sustain the work of God’s Kitchen.
For those not familiar with the firm, Naked Plates is a company that sells once-fired pottery — anything from simple tiles to elaborate dinnerware — to people who decorate it themselves. The company then glazes and fires the pottery for the purchaser-decorators.
McMurry told the Business Journal that she got the idea for the store in 1995 when she was going through a divorce and vacationing in San Francisco.
“I discovered a paint-it-yourself pottery studio,” she said, “and I spent my entire vacation in there making presents for everybody back home.
“Well, as I was in there I was thinking about having to have a full-time income for the first time in many years and I thought, ‘You know, I bet I could do this in Grand Rapids.’
“And I did it.”
She chuckles when saying that she opened the firm in 1996 against the advice of everybody.
“All my friends and family were saying, ‘You cannot start a business in the middle of a divorce when you don’t have any income or money. You’re nuts.’
“My response to them was, ‘What better time to do it. I have to make it work. I don’t have any choice. It has to work!’”
She opened the store, which she calls a studio, in its current upstairs site in Breton Village.
“They put me upstairs where nothing ever succeeds because they didn’t think I would.
“And,” she laughed. “I showed them.” It’s not as if she hadn’t been in the business world before. She used her Michigan State University degree in English and journalism as assistant editor of a trade publication in Chicago. She also is accustomed to dealing with the public both as a former leader of Lamaze classes and as a tennis instructor.
She said that the pace of business during Naked Plates’ first year greatly exceeded her expectations and the numbers have remained steady ever since. And part of the reason it hasn’t grown substantially could be that her store has given to others the same ideas that she imported from San Francisco.
“I was the first in Michigan,” she said, “and now I think there are about 30 studios like mine.” She laughs and says she wishes she had been in a position to sell franchises, but it was enough of a challenge to get Naked Plates established.
Business was down a bit last year, she said, but this year is better. “A lot of people this summer said they weren’t taking trips.”
She said the factor that particularly appealed to her about the business and which she believes brings people back again and again is something she observed in the San Francisco studio.
“While I was working in that studio, I watched a mom and dad and three kids painting together. I was so impressed with the interaction of those five people for an hour and a half.
“I thought, ‘If they were home, one would at the computer, one would be watching TV …’ People don’t talk with each other any more. But something like this provides entertainment for them.”
In fact, she said she considers the studio more of a form of entertainment than a crafts retail outlet and that her strongest competitors probably are movie theaters and places like Chuck E. Cheese.
“Very often we get families coming in together, or people will get together a group of friends to come to the studio.
“Sometimes we’ll have parents bring the kids in to do something for grandparents,” she said, “ and then the next week, the grandparents will come in with the kids to make something for the parents. The kids are trying to keep the whole thing secret and whispering to me, ‘Shhhh! Don’t tell!’
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s such a positive experience for me. People choose to be here because they want to be. I love that. I’ve made so many lifelong friends here during the past six years because people come in and you get to talking with them …”
A great many of the people coming into the studio are those who are participating in the “Soup’s On for All” promotion.
“They approached us,” said.
“I had been open probably four or five months and someone from God’s Kitchen approached me. They had an idea for a fundraiser: Everybody that attended the event would be given a bowl as a thank you. And they wanted the bowls painted by members of the community to get people involved.
“And they said they wanted about 1,000 of them.
“So I said, ‘OK, let me think about this.’ And I started figuring, ‘How many kiln loads is that? How much glaze?’ And I was totally overwhelmed. There was absolutely no way I could afford to do that, but I decided to give it a try.
“And we did it for five years and it’s going to happen again this year.
“I charge my cost of the bowl and the paints they’re going to use, and I donate all the glaze and firing and manpower.”
Considering that the company’s kiln generates an electrical bill of $900 a month, she said “Soup’s” cost to Naked Plates probably is about $5,000 or $6,000 each year.
“But I benefit three ways,” she said. “I am helping the community. I always have felt very strongly about giving back. Second, I’m generating business, I’m sure, from all the people who come in here to paint soup bowls. And the biggest bonus is that it just makes me feel good to help; it makes me feel good about myself.”
She said her goal with the enterprise is not to get rich. “My goal is to be able to make my house payments, feed my kids and take a couple of vacations a year. If I can do that, then I’m a happy camper.”
She devotes her time at home to her 16-year-old daughter and keeping in touch with her 18-year-old son who is a freshman at her alma mater.
She also has a work in progress — the manuscript of a novel about a girl growing up in the Virgin Islands, transplanted to Michigan, thence to MSU, then to the big city.
“I really haven’t had much time to work on it the past couple of years,” she said. “But I love writing and I’m going to keep up with it.”