By John Schaffner
Sandy Springs’ CityWalk shopping center is the retail home of several establishments owned by women who have been in their respective businesses for years and have, or used to have, multiple locations.
This story profiles four such women and their businesses: Julie Routenberg of Potpourri, Melissa Murdock of Sandpiper, Patti Pennington of Belles Choses and Grace Choung of Kai the Medical Spa.
Three of the four worked with CityWalk management to lease their stores in what is called Boutique Row.
Routenberg recalls that the leasing agent for CityWalk was negotiating with her and asked whether she knew any other retailers who might be interested in moving there. “I suggested Melissa of Sandpiper, who didn’t have a second store at the time, and Murdock suggested the initial owner of Chelsea Parkes shoestore and helped bring in Grace of Kai the Medical Spa.”
Boutique Row developed from that nucleus.
Julie Routenberg started her apparel retail business, Potpourri, on Nov. 18, 1976, in a shop on the Old Square in Roswell, where she operated until 1989. That’s when she ventured into Sandy Springs with a store on Johnson Ferry Road in the Springs center.
Four years earlier Routenberg had opened her first Buckhead store on East Andrews Drive. In 1996 she moved that store to 3718 Roswell Road, a location she recently closed.
The Sandy Springs Potpourri moved to CityWalk in 2004 before the shops on Boutique Row were ready.
Because she had to move from Johnson Ferry early, the owner of CityWalk arranged for her to move temporarily into what was the construction office (now Paper Affair) until she could move into her permanent space in 2005.
With 33 years of retail apparel experience, Routenberg is a successful women’s retail pro. But she could have ended up as a lawyer instead.
Routenberg was working as a paralegal at a law firm and was considering going to law school at Emory. “I was going to get subsidized by my parents because I was divorced, and then I got cold feet. I had this 3-year-old, and how was I going to do all that?”
A woman from New York temporarily moved into her apartment complex with four kids, “and we became very close friends.”
Routenberg said the woman suggested opening a small retail store with antiques and needlepoint, and Routenberg suggested adding some clothes and calling it Potpourri. The friend found the space in Roswell. They took no salaries for a year, but “it was in the black from the minute we opened,” Routenberg said.
“Our target customers are age 40 and up, people who love fashion, love a sophisticated look, not wanting to look like their daughters, and who have some good disposable income,” she said, “because our price points can be higher, especially on our European collections.”
She said her customers will generally find her store, “although you have to be careful not to move too far out of your geographical area or you can lose them.”
Routenberg calls Sandy Springs “a strong market.” She said her store draws heavily from the 30328 ZIP code, from East Cobb, and from Buckhead’s 30327 and 30305 ZIP codes. “I feel like it is a wonderful market. I think it is a terrific northern suburb.”
She doesn’t feel she loses business to stores in the Perimeter Mall area. “There are very few small, independently owned stores that carry the level of merchandise that we have. I feel that we all are competitors now in this economic market. Somebody can buy a $300 pair of pants, go to Target and buy a $12 T-shirt and look like a million bucks when they put their jewelry on.”
Melissa Murdock’s Sandpiper women’s fashion boutique offers women under age 40 an edgier, younger alternative from the styles offered at neighboring Potpourri.
Murdock, who grew up in Chicago, where she worked in a department store called Wiebolts, “ended up having a manager who was probably 75 and I was a junior in high school. I got put in the sportswear department where she was, and she just sort of mentored me. So even when I went to college, I knew I wanted to be in retail.”
After college, Murdock said she “accidentally got married” and had to live in a small town in Kentucky, where she got a job at Sandpiper and met her partners.
“It was a little town, but it was amazing what they did in terms of fashion, going to New York and bringing it back.,” she said. “People were so receptive.”
When the marriage ended, she decided to leave Owensboro, Ky., and almost on a whim to open an Atlanta store.
They opened the store in Vinings, and in about two years her partners retired. “I bought them out,” she said. “They sold the one in Kentucky and now live in Florida.”
She went to Murray State University and studied finance marketing, “but really my education came from working on the front lines.”
She has two stores now. “I have a third one in me, and I know where I want to do it, but I want to wait until the dust settles a little bit.”
She said Sandpiper was the first store to open in the Vinings center and faced some of the same problems she has faced at CityWalk. “The neighborhood did not want us there. They did not want commercial businesses in their backyard.”
It took a while, but the stores proved themselves to be good neighbors. Now it is like a family,” she said. “It is like the same thing here. People didn’t like the architecture. Everybody had an opinion about who was in there, and people kind of quietly sold clothes, did what we were supposed to do and didn’t ruffle any feathers.
“Changing neighborhood culture takes time. It will happen here. Given everything else, I am feeling happy.”
She said Vinings has 21 years of relationships. “This store has three. Which store do you think is going to do better?” she said. “Eventually this store will do the same, because these girls are doing the same things we always did in Vinings. You just have to be patient and smart.”
She said CityWalk “sits in a little golden sweet spot which is under-retailed. In Atlanta, everything is over-retailed.”
Patti Pennington opened her first Belles Choses retail store in 2001 in 600 square feet on Foster Street, off Huff Road in West Midtown, where chickens and goats roamed amid fabric and interior design stores and near a restaurant named Bacchanalia.
“We had a little gift shop in that old, dilapidated building that had leaks in the roof,” Pennington said. “The conditions there were awful, but I was doing interior design, I was going to France, and I was buying antiques for my clients. I thought I might as well turn this into a retail shop and make it an easier place to ship to. I could open it up to more people, and I could buy more.”
She started with nothing but antiques, primarily furniture, but she also picked up things like pottery on her trips to France two or three times a year. “I started branching out and getting some new items, including some French children’s clothes.”
After about a year, she decided 600 square feet was not enough space, and the conditions were so bad in the building that she had to wear ski clothes and mittens during the winter. She decided that was no way to do retail. So she moved around the corner and down Huff Road to a 5,000-square-foot space.
In 2004 she opened a 2,000-square-foot store in the Vinings Jubilee center, “which was a good place for me to go at the time,” she said. “We had sort of morphed into all the other things that I carry — children’s clothes, bath and beauty, candles, you name it.”
Pennington explained her philosophy about retail: “Find out what the customer wants and try to give them that. Our goal should always be to make the customer happy. If you do that first, the money will follow.”
Sometime in late 2004 the CityWalk people approached Pennington to open her third store in CityWalk. She still had the Huff Road store. She thought three stores would be spreading herself too thin. When her Huff Road lease came up, she shut that store and moved to CityWalk.
It’s an area she has shopped all of her life, even though she lives in East Cobb. The CityWalk store “is only 10 minutes from my house, and it was sort of a natural for me.”
She recently closed her store in Vinings, leaving CityWalk as her only store. But she is in negotiations with a couple of other locations, primarily in East Cobb.
Before 2001, Pennington did interior design for about 14 years. “Way, way back before that, I used to work for Corporate Travel as an outside sales agent,” she said. “So I have always had an inclination for sales and always loved being around people.”
She said her dad was “dirt poor” growing up, “but he was able to become quite a wealthy man by the sweat of his brow — the American dream” — and he owned a large amount of land in East Cobb.
“We didn’t know we were wealthy because we were put in private schools and we thought everybody lived like that.” She had two passions growing up: her horses and her music. “That is all I thought about most of the time.”
She would like to have two stores again. “It wouldn’t break my heart if I couldn’t, but I like the idea of having two stores,” she said. “We definitely are a destination. We have some very loyal customers — some who have even followed us here from Huff Road.”
North Carolina native Grace Choung came to Atlanta by way of the West Coast to be closer to her niece and nephew after her older brother’s wife died from cancer. That move led to the start of Kai the Medical Spa. Choung opened the first location on Boutique Row in CityWalk in August 2005.
She and her two brothers, who live in Florida, talked about going into business together, but it didn’t happen because she was on the West Coast. She didn’t want to live in Florida, and Atlanta was the closest big city.
“I knew I was going to be running the business and they were going to be silent partners,” she said. She had been an entrepreneur but not in the medical spa industry. “We decided on this industry because of longevity. People are living so much longer, and they want to look better.”
When starting the business, Choung said she wanted a one-word name. Having lived in Hawaii for eight years, “I kept coming back to this word kai, which is Hawaiian. It means a body of water. Water is usually soothing, very relaxing. In Asian cultures kai means to make a healthy change.”
She was concerned whether people would know how to pronounce it. “The meaning is what it is about for me. It is about coming to a very relaxing environment. It is about making a change.”
When Choung lived in Hawaii, she was a sports manufacturer’s rep for the Pacific Rim, representing lines such as Wilson. “I love sports, so that was great.”
Then she worked for an international recruiting and staffing company, helping open an office in Hawaii, before moving to Seattle for the company. After a while in Seattle, she was ready for some sunshine and headed to San Diego, where she lived before Atlanta.
“With the economy being what it is, no one is doing great,” Choung said of her three Kai spas. “But compared to other people within this industry, I believe we are doing well. I think we have been fortunate.” Her three stores — Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Alpharetta — “are running about neck to neck” in terms of performance, she said. “But we have a really good following here in Sandy Springs.”
She has a lean staff of about 15 among the three stores.
She picked CityWalk for her first store because of the demographics. She didn’t want to be in Buckhead because “it is oversaturated.”
She said Sandy Springs “has a great community. I really like this area.”
The divorced entrepreneur said she loves what she’s doing,” such as being a Sandy Springs-Perimeter Chamber of Commerce ambassador. “I love getting involved with the community. I wish I could do more of that and less administrative work.”