By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
COVINGTON – Owning your own business—it’s still the American dream.
But more and more, the struggle between the “big box,” national stores coming into small communities—putting pressure on local, small businesses—raises the question of how the little guy can make it.
In St. Tammany Parish, that scenario has been seen many times in the past decade, particularly highlighted by mega-retailers such as Walmart moving into Mandeville or Covington. But through it all, many small businesses not only make it, but are thriving, and the Covington Business Association (CBA) is an organization that is providing support and insight to business owners about how to get it done.
“It’s the atmosphere of a shopping area or a store that brings people here,” CBA President Tom DiCerbo said. “And it’s the job of the small business owner to create something special in their store.
“Many people, if given the choice, would give their money to the local businesses, but they want something special—they want an atmosphere that is different. It’s the reason people and money go anywhere,” he added.
DiCerbo is a good example of the small businessman who has done that with The French Mix store at 228 Lee Lane in downtown Covington. With his wife, Jennifer, they opened the home décor store in September, 2008, eventually making it their full-time business as they both left promising careers in other professions. As head of the CBA, he is one of many in that group giving suggestions to others about becoming unique as a local business.
“It took about two to three years and we saw that we could actually make a living doing it,” DiCerbo said. “But the reason we became small business owners is because, like many others, my wife liked the idea of owning a business and being in charge of our future.”
Downtown Covington and downtown Mandeville are two examples of many small, local business people fighting the trend towards shopping at the mall, or with the big box stores. But in both areas of west St. Tammany, there are many businesses doing very well, thank you. And DiCerbo believes he has some idea about what makes the difference.
“Take Lee Lane in Covington for instance,” he said. “We have some great businesses that are special, with a great atmosphere, and together it has made the Lee Lane area somewhat unique, with many of the owners there doing well.”
DiCerbo said that businesses such as Matt Voelkel of Studio MV and Coffee Rani, headed by Anne Jemison and Angelle Darling, are good examples to follow in Lee Lane, on the edge of the historic downtown district. Also in downtown Covington, Bella Cucina and Tripolo Gallery have brought their own unique style as local businesses, just a few of many that have created that atmosphere in Covington.
“The restaurants in downtown Covington are better than ever before and in the last six years, we have more art stores. These places have created an ambiance about the town, and it makes people want to come,” he said.
DiCerbo said the Covington Business Association, originally known as the Covington Association of Retailers (CARE), is growing, now up to 130 members. He sees many business owners who want to be a part of growing the downtown area, and supporting local businesses. Together as a group, particularly with the networking that occurs in their monthly meetings, the owners and managers of local businesses share ideas and help others succeed.
“I care about Covington and joining the group helps make Covington better,” he said. “All of us in the group support each other and the centralization of downtown, and the group together, helps us.”
The interesting story about DiCerbo and his wife is that they could have picked any number of avenues to make a living as they were both succeeding nicely in their previous careers.
DiCerbo grew up in New York, the youngest of five boys in the family, and seemed to have an adventuresome spirit from the start of his adult life as he elected to go south, attending LSU simply because he wanted to see more of the country.
“When I graduated from LSU with a business major, I actually wanted to travel for a couple of years so I started in New Orleans and never seemed to leave,” he said with a laugh. “I was enjoying the city from about 1997 to 2003 and in the midst of it, met my wife in 1998 and married in 2002.”
His wife was working as a pharmaceutical rep, but both had grown up in rural areas and wanted to see what was across Lake Pontchartrain, an area they had never gone even though living in New Orleans many years.
“We got in the car one day and drove across the lake and liked what we saw on the North Shore,” he recalls. “We built a house in Covington and have never left.”
DiCerbo was having success in the real estate business, buying and selling property before he and the wife began talking about a way for her to not travel so much.
“She liked the idea of retail and always had a passion for home décor. Personally, I was scared of the idea of retail,” he said. “But we opened our store and Jen has become a great interior designer. The store has done well.”
As with any small business, he said it took about two years to begin making money, and as they did, Jennifer became more experienced and trained as an interior designer, a new profession she enjoys.
“By 2012 we were very sure we could do this for a living and even though we are still figuring it out today, it’s a process with every business to constantly think about how you can make it better,” he said.
DiCerbo said he has watched the shoppers come from Baton Rouge and New Orleans to downtown Covington. And the successful businesses are the ones that create something different and special.
“Enough people care about shopping local, but it’s about making stores with a special feel—something they won’t get at the mall,” he said. “There are many Covington stores like that.
“I’m no different when I shop,” he added. “I want to see places that are different than mine. That’s what makes me go to other stores.”
For more information on the CBA, go to covingtonbusinessassociation.org, or attend their next meeting (held monthly) that will be held at the Mellow Mushroom, 1645 Hwy. 190 in Covington, set for Wednesday, March 12 at 5:30.