Chris [00:00:03] So Renee thanks for coming on. Welcome to the Worcester Real Estate Show.
Renee [00:00:07] Thanks for having me.
Chris [00:00:08] So for those listening. Renee I’ve been friends a long time. And if you’ve been in Worcester the last few years you definitely know who she is and what the Queen’s Cup is and her whole story. And I always enjoy talking to you Renee because I think your story is incredible and what you’ve been able to do is awesome. The reason I want to talk to you today is I want to get a sense of you as an entrepreneur in Worcester right now. What is that experience like? Where are we as a city – economic development wise… and small business wise? What are we doing that’s working? What are the some of the things that we could do better? And the reason you have a column in the Worcester Business Journal and for those who haven’t read it I highly recommend you do you. More than most business owners… you appear to be unafraid to really speak your mind.
Renee [00:01:08] Yeah.
Chris [00:01:09] What’s been going on in the city? It feels like Worcester’s finally having his moment. But, there still remains some obstacles in the city for entrepreneurs. So where do you think we are?
Renee [00:01:37] I mean I think we’re really in a great space and there’s definitely so much going on. And I’m lucky to be on the WBDC board. So I get to learn about all the construction and everything that’s going on to make the city better. I think everyone’s mindset is very positive and everyone wants to move forward. I mean obviously with that there are drawbacks. I’m lucky to be on Water Street. With the new Worcester Red Sox coming. Luckily, all the construction going on isn’t as bad on Water Street as it is on Green Street and all the other places.
Chris [00:02:13] Sure.
Renee [00:02:14] So you know with construction there’s definitely woes you know and and that’s part of life. Obviously you move forward there’s some stuff that happens. But I’ve seen some friends go through. Some challenges you know like. Sales down like 20 percent. I mean……
Chris [00:02:34] Is it the construction that’s impacting foot traffic….and impacting parking accessibility?
Renee [00:02:40] Definitely parking. I wrote an article about how it can be challenging. Now mind you I have a lot of people come in and out of my building so they’re definitely finding places to park.
Chris [00:02:56] Sure.
Renee [00:02:57] But I think you know some of my friends in the Crompton building with the Worcester Public Market construction. You know that it didn’t take super long but it definitely took away a parking lot that know was able to park 70 or 100 cars But hopefully Worcester Public Market will bring more people to our area. There’s a parking lot there now. But to go through a year of that I’m sure that was really difficult on them. And now with the new stadium coming we lost another parking lot that so many people could park in. And now there’s a new parking lot across Kelly Square but I don’t know how many brave souls are willing to walk thru Kelly Square
Chris [00:03:42] Not right now. Not until not until they redo that intersection. I wouldn’t walk through there right now.
Renee [00:03:51] Yeah I mean I had to walk through there like maybe a month ago at night. It was a little scary. Just kind of hope for the best.
But you know what I felt like what you said you know my column is very like I’m very open and most people won’t be that way and that’s fine. I’ve definitely gotten some backlash but I’ve gotten way more support than that. So it is what it is. But with the article I wrote in regards to the construction and like it’s really scary to be a business owner right now. Things got done because of that article. So I don’t have any regrets.
Chris [00:04:22] Right. And that’s that’s. That I think is an important piece of the story. Could you start the article by saying. It’s a scary time to be a business owner. For the first time in seven years. I’m afraid. For my future and my business.
Renee [00:04:41] Yeah.
Chris [00:04:42] Which I think caught a lot of people by surprise because. Your story has been this incredible trajectory from the tiny little store you had to Millbury to taking the leap to come to Worcester. You’ve created a great name. And well-deserved and you get a lot of notoriety…..again deserved. And then you came out and said. Yes. There’s a lot of excitement going on.
But let’s not forget about these issues because we’re having a real impact. . I’m super excited for all the changes. But with the changes come challenges…… like when my lease is up….. am I going to be able to afford the market pricing? I hope so. I love my (current) building.
Chris [00:06:53] Right.
Renee [00:06:55] You know how am I going to deal with my customers who maybe get told on the weekend because they accidentally park somewhere they weren’t supposed to? . Where am I going to have all these customers come on the holiday when I’m not really supposed to have parking in certain times? I can only speak for myself. But I’m friends with a lot of business owners who don’t. want to come out and say this.
Chris [00:07:19] So were there Canal District business owners saying “thank you: for saying this”… and encouraging you to speak up?
Renee [00:07:32] I’ve gotten so many messages from people saying “thank you”… from businesses that you don’t see in the paper all the time. There’s a group of us that are always around and that’s fine because we put our lives out there… we put our business out there. We deserve that. But there’s also businesses that have been around for a long time who are popular who have been around for a long time. So maybe they’re not like out in the open like we are. And they’re thanking me and stuff too. And I didn’t do it for that. But you know I’ve seen some things happen and I couldn’t help but say “Wow” you know I’m nervous about this. I’m nervous about minimum wage going up to 15 dollars an hour.
Chris [00:08:13] Yes.
Renee [00:08:13] When the average cake decorator makes 15 dollars an hour. You know what is this going to do for my busines… and now we’re gonna have the paid family medical. I mean like these are all great things, but…
Chris [00:08:24] Sure.
Renee [00:08:24] But for me selfishly I’m not sure.
Chris [00:08:27] They all seem well intended. Yeah it’s just like it’s just like the Triple A Red Sox coming into Worcester. It’s well intended for sure….we’ll have a lot of great benefits….. but let’s not act like there aren’t trade-offs.
Renee [00:08:45] Of course.
Chris [00:08:46] Same thing with paid family leave increasing the minimum wage. The intentions seem pure. I’m sure it will help a lot of folks but let’s not forget. Those could have tradeoffs. And I think in reading that article. It sounds like in the short time we’ve put a lot of pressure on small business.
Renee [00:09:09] Yes. It’s like within three years. And you know and it’s just when I write these articles it’s just normally something happens and that’s my way of. That’s my coping mechanism to write. And you know it’s fine not everyone agreed with that a lot of it was like some of the feedback I heard was like oh woe is me. And I’m not that type of person. So I don’t take it I don’t take it personally. You know it’s fine. But I’ve worked really really really hard for seven years to have a business to employ people…… to employ mothers and fathers and students and athletes. And I’ve worked really hard and I would hate for it to kind of crumble because I don’t know if we can make it through all of this.
Chris [00:09:50] And you mentioned you when you have to renew your lease. There are a lot of costs that landlords pass on to tenants, especially with retail leases. You have to pay triple their expenses. Another I big thing for businesses in Worcester is the commercial tax rate which is almost double the residential rate.
Renee [00:10:14] And I wasn’t even aware of that until I went to Haiti with someone who owns a commercial property.
Chris [00:10:20] Yeah.
Renee [00:10:20] And you know I was just saying like oh these are some of the things I’ve seen happen to my friends or you know I don’t know what’s gonna happen to me and she’s like You know it’s not like all of us landlords are just super greedy it is our taxes are twice as much as what you would normally pay. And I get it. You know I don’t. I don’t think people are out to get me or get other people you know everyone needs to make money. You know, I totally get it. I just hope. I can survive it.
Chris [00:10:45] Some of these some of these things a really important part of the conversation. Recently, I had a Sherri Pitcher who is a Vice President at Fidelity Bank, who also voiced her concern about the business tax rate. She believes that if we can decrease some costs on landlords that will probably pass through as a decrease cost for small businesses in the city.
Renee [00:11:28] And I think there’s so many people that want to invest in our city too.
There should be some type of break for them.
Chris [00:11:58] So you mentioned you had some positive results because of the article.
What has some of that been like?
Renee [00:12:03] Lieutenant Ggovernor Karen Polito immediately reached out, she read the article. She immediately reached out to one of my friends who owns a business…and wanted to help. My friend expressed some of the concerns… such as walking across Kelly Square… and about parking woes and stuff. As a result, within an hour Karen had the head of Mass DOT involved.
Chris [00:12:45] That’s awesome
Renee [00:12:46] To me that meant like everything. Every time I met with Karen she’s like super supportive of my business. And I just thought that was really great that she felt compelled to reach out to another business owner and check in and have somebody else come and visit it. And I think that’s great. I know that some people in the city weren’t happy with me but I was able to meet with Ed Augustus you know he educated me to some things that I wasn’t aware of and I was able to tell him you know these are some things that I’ve seen these are real life things and you know it’s not just me coming out and being a brat You know it’s just this is real stuff. And he listened to me and I had a meeting with him within a week. So I thought that that was positive too.
Chris [00:13:45] What you said (in your WBJ article) was not about politics… it’s about collaboration between city and businesses. I think. this City does a pretty good job of that. But I think what you’ve brought to light is there’s always an opportunity to discuss a couple more things and work on a couple more things.
Renee [00:14:07] For sure. Because I mean at the end of the day we all want to be successful. We want our businesses to do well. When I go home and I have 20 people that need to be paid. That’s a lot of mouths to feed besides them. You know I employ moms and dads and people that need to provide for a family. And. I want to succeed and that’s what I worked hard for it and you know I didn’t do it to just do it by myself. And. You know when I think it’s great that people will have medical insurance and all like I didn’t have medical insurance until I got married. A year before I got married I had the flu and bronchitis and pneumonia all in one year and had to pay out of pocket.
Chris [00:14:48] Which is not cheap.
Renee [00:14:49] Same with the minimum wage rising, I know you can’t raise a family off of thirteen dollars. You know I totally get it….. but do I think that a high school kid….like when I was younger at Scales at Millbury I definitely didn’t deserve $8.50 or whatever I made.
Chris [00:15:08] I totally agree when I was my first job was working at Cold Stone in the Black Stone Valley mall and my first summer I was making $6.50 And I was just washing dishes and I thought wow this is great.
Renee [00:15:22] Yeah.
Chris [00:15:22] Great money you know I’m 14 and I’m making good money. And then one year my pay got bumped up to like $8.00 And then like $8.25. And I. I didn’t complain but I thought like. I don’t know if I’m really worth $8.25.
Renee [00:15:44] And it’s funny because like now you know sometimes you employ younger kids who feel like they should be making 15 dollars an hour But you know I get it. Like I understand where the people that are putting these into practice. I understand where they’re coming from…but as a small business owner now…..it’s a little bit different for me.
Chris [00:16:08] Of course but at the same time one of the things I’ve been most impressed with you is you take a very conscious approach to your business. For you it’s not about making the most money on each cupcake. It’s about how can you create a business that’s going to thrive. How can you create an environment for your employees to grow. And how can you help your employees take care of some of their needs as well. A lot of small businesses. That’s that’s a. That is an afterthought because it is so hard.
Renee [00:16:42] Right.
Chris [00:16:42] There are so many obstacles for you to take some of those things on as a small business.
Renee [00:16:47] Oh my god – yeah
Chris [00:16:48] It’s pretty Admirable.
Renee [00:16:48] Yesterday, with a couple of my workers….. one girl’s bike gets stolen ……and another girl’s car got broken into. I’m like calling people on the phone at night just checking in. You know I just how I grew up. My parents would give their shirt off their back to anyone and. I think it’s important to take care of the people that work for you.
Chris [00:17:07] And you have….. before paid family leave even became law in Massachusetts. You’ve taken some of that on.
Renee [00:17:14] I know. yeah. I offered the health insurance to me that was one of the most exciting things I’ve been able to do because. I mean I didn’t have it till I got married you know. So like I thought that as an employer being able to offer that as a small business is so was so cool.
Chris [00:17:31] It’s rare.
Renee [00:17:32] It’s rare because it costs a lot of money.
Chris [00:17:34] Of course.
Renee [00:17:36] But I know the people that take advantage of it at work are people that I value.
Chris [00:17:41] yep.
Renee [00:17:41] And care about. And I think it’s a core group of employees that lead the business when you’re not there. I. do whatever I can for them to make sure that they’re happy.
Chris [00:17:54] To transition the topic a bit…… You moving to Worcester definitely has been a great move.
Renee [00:18:03] Yeah for sure.
Chris [00:18:05] It’s helped you grow. Like I said this impressive trajectory. It’s put you in a place to do some really exciting things.
Renee [00:18:14] Yeah.
Chris [00:18:14] You recently you went to Haiti.
Renee [00:18:15] Yes.
Chris [00:18:16] What was that like.
Renee [00:18:17] Really life changing. The things that we have here. And you know just everyday like drinking water or having electricity or. Having multiple outfits to change into.
Chris [00:18:36] Those running sewage.
Renee [00:18:38] Yeah. It’s like somebody’s having to pick up your trash having trash bags. It’s really eye-opening but I think what is so amazing is that unlike the Gengel family was able to take such a tragedy in their life.
Chris [00:18:52] And this is the folks involved with the organization, Be Like Brit
Renee [00:18:56] Yes. So this is on Brit’s parents. She died in the earthquake and.they were able to take like a dream that she had of opening an orphanage and create. I Everything is done with intention…… out of the love that they have for their daughter. They’ve employed so many people in Haiti. It’s just incredible. They’ve given so much life to these young kids who may not have had it. And everything is done with intention. You know I always say to people you can go two ways in life when something happens to you or if you’ve grown up a certain way you can go the same way or you can make something positive out of it and like to lose your daughter.
At first they were told that she was still alive and they flew to Florida together and then they realized it wasn’t her and then to find out that she had passed away.
Chris [00:20:03] Gut wrenching.
Renee [00:20:03] I mean most people wouldn’t get out of bed.
Chris [00:20:06] Right.
Renee [00:20:07] Such strength! When we went (to Haiti), one of the girls that we met was Brit’s roomie in college and best friend and she was in Haiti with her. And to see Cheryl Lambert’s mom and her interact was like something that not everyone gets to experience and they go there.
Chris [00:20:32] Right.
Renee [00:20:32] And they were able to joke about the fact that. Brit was being lazy the day of the earthquake.
Chris [00:20:38] Sure.
Renee [00:20:39] And she was like…you go shower I’m going to lay here. So her friends showered and left the hotel and then the earthquake happened and like to see that they were able to just kind of joke around. It was Brit being Brit. Just amazing.
Chris [00:20:54] Yeah.
Renee [00:20:55] I’m excited to go back. It was really like depressing though when I got back home as soon as I got my car I just cried like I wasn’t normal for a few days because it’s such a culture shock.
Chris [00:21:06] Yeah and it, that sort of helps us remember how lucky we are. And the problems we have here are good problems.
Renee [00:21:16] Yeah. And I mean it doesn’t take away from like what people are going through but it definitely gives you a different. perspective. You know it just life happens. That’s kind of my new thing now. The things that we think are such a big deal or not a big deal right. It’s just really not that big of a deal.
We just need to be, people to each other. That’s a huge thing, especially in customer service. You know sometimes. We see it all the time that you don’t get treated the same if you’re behind the counter. And some, how someone would treat me isn’t necessarily how they would treat one of my employees. And I think I’ve been in business long enough where I just won’t tolerate it. Like if you know if there’s an issue….. give us a chance to resolve it.
Chris [00:22:35] Five years from now. Where do you hope to be?
Renee [00:22:37] Oh God I don’t know. Those questions always get me. I don’t know. I hope to still be where we are. . And I want to keep the same quality if not better. There’s not really much more we can do where we are. But I think I’ve always kept the same goal and vision of. Fresh, hand-crafted cupcakes… made with love.
Chris [00:23:32] Well. Whether you’re building a house in Haiti or selling cupcakes here in the city. You are bound to have a positive impact
Renee [00:23:40] I hope so. Thank you.
Chris [00:23:42] I can’t wait See what else is in store.