Lessons on Opening a Brick-and-Mortar From My New Favorite Maker, Darke Pines


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This post is sponsored by Intuit QuickBooks Self-Employed. It’s partners like them that allow me to meet interesting people and share my story. Please do show them that you appreciate their support with your time and attention (and a click, if it’s your thing).

Someone recently told me, “You have a bias for action, Maggie.” We both sort of giggled a bit about it.

In the moment, we were speaking about the hundreds of women who work in food in our little city (Boston) and I declared that I want to surround myself with people who are in the thick of it, people who are active vs. passive, people who are making their [food-and-drink-filled] dreams happen tiny step by tiny step. What was amusing in the moment has stuck with me weeks later.

I suppose I have a bias for action.

You see, I believe that in order to achieve, in order to make all the things happen, you must surround yourself with other achievers. Achievers are individuals with a propensity to keep doing, keep moving, and keep making. They don’t stand still and permit the grass to grow around their feet; they learn quickly and grow steadily. They make all the little things and the big things happen simply because it’s within their nature to do so–plus, they work super hard.

This is why I felt compelled to tell you the story of Darke Pines (we’ll get to it in just a moment) because I find it critical to learn from those who are fighting the good fight to achieve their dreams.

I, too, am working super hard to make my dream happen. I’m hoping to open a mixed-use food retail space. (In this post, I included photos from one of the tiny commercial spaces that has inspired me through all its incarnations as a food shop. It’s currently called Siena Farms and it’s in the south end of Boston. All you long-term Boston residents will remember it originally as Plum Produce.)

Finding the actual space has been the hardest part but I am not stopping. And while I hunt, I also plan product inventory, design layouts, come up with cooking class menus, figure out what might be on the cafe menu, taste all sorts of coffees for the perfect blend, sample products, and write cookbooks (my next one releases in early 2019).

I also meet with other makers like Darke Pines who make me want to keep doing, keep moving, and keep making.

Lessons on Opening a Brick-and-Mortar From My New Favorite Maker, Darke Pines

I flock to those who want to make something way tangible in-real-life.

I am especially tender-hearted for those trying to open brick-and-mortar spaces because it’s a hard path, especially with how cities are changing. What worked in a typical neighborhood twenty years ago isn’t a sure-fire success these days. In fact, most retail shops are closing down and the ones that are opening employ a unique blend of community, future-forward design, smarts, and an ability to learn fast (you know, achievers).

Like cowgirls and cowboys in an entirely new frontier, one that’s dying in some ways and being reinvented in others, shop owners go against the norms in order to make something very new in their neighborhoods. They’re the sort of people who eventually stop listening to all their friends who urge them to keep their days jobs, earn a nice living, and nurture a hobby. They’re renegades who do it because it, whatever *it* is for them, matters.

Erica and Will Messmer are renegades who don’t have time for hobbies.

They’re the wife and husband team behind Darke Pines butcher shop, a new kind of butcher that, after months of planning, financing, and a successfully-funded Kickstarter campaign, just opened in Jersey City, New Jersey. And they’re my new favorite makers.

This little story is done in collaboration with one of their partners, Intuit QuickBooks Self-Employed. (Intuit QuickBooks Self-Employed supported the Darke Pines Kickstarter campaign and is dedicated to helping entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.) I’m pretty excited that I got to spend time getting to know Erica and Will. In fact, their story has inspired me in about a thousand different ways.

You see, I grew up in New Jersey and I remember Jersey City as not being so food-forward twenty-some years ago. But today, Erica and Will have created a food heart of the neighborhood filled with locally-sourced, responsibly raised beef, lamb, pork, and chicken. They’re the only meat supplier serving the downtown and their special type of bravery is the sort of action that makes me feel good about my life choices and, more than anything, makes me want to keep going.

Lessons on Opening a Brick-and-Mortar From My New Favorite Maker, Darke Pines

At Darke Pines, Erica and Will have already asked all the questions for you.

I don’t eat a ton of meat these days but when I do, it’s the kind that Darke Pines sells. Their meat is 100% grass fed and pastured. The chickens are free range. Everything they sell is hormone and antibiotic free, and sourced from local small farms within a couple hundred miles of the shop (typically, upstate New York). They’ve asked all the questions so you don’t have to.

Darke Pines is the best kind of butcher, a whole animal butcher–they bring in one cow, one pig, and one lamb at a time–and their master butcher, Aydan Ellman, breaks the animals down in real time, so customers can see the care and respect given to these animals even after the end of life.

Erica and Will have visited the farms, the grounds where their animals are raised for human consumption (which means they’ll eventually be slaughtered). But as they described, you’d be surprised to see how much emotion their partner farmers have for their animals.

Will says, “They really want to know that their animals are treated okay throughout the entire process” and that really resonated with me. I’m the sort of consumer who drives nearly three hours a couple times per year to buy beef directly from my farmer. We catch up on his life, fill our freezer, and carefully portion it all out over many months.

For Erica and Will, it’s not just about selling the end product (though the two-month old shop does plenty of that, having exceeded early projections). For them, they feel like they’re a part of this much larger food ecosystem. They’ve created this community that both supports farmers and how they want to do business as well as the neighborhood who wants to give their families high quality food.

When Erica and Will had their first date two-and-half years ago, they realized they were both pretty passionate about food.

Like so many of the future food makers I’ve met and worked with, they’re both way entrepreneurial in nature. Each had toyed with the idea of opening food businesses in the past. Erica, who was and still is a personal assistant to C-suite executives by day, got her hospitality training working for Omni Hotels & Resorts across the south. Her boss encouraged her to get out of Texas, perhaps visit one of the coasts, and when she walked into a Williamsburg, Brooklyn bakery, she knew she was going to stay.

“I never thought I’d open a butcher shop,” Erica explains. In fact, she hoped to open a bakery some day–she’s a fan of cake and icing and pie (you know, our kind of people). But as Erica learned about the food chain and how tiny farms can have such a huge impact on the industry as a whole–she thought a butcher shop was a more important initiative. Plus, Will’s grandfather had been a butcher and, inspired by a butcher shop near his office, he felt the endeavor just made sense.

“My earliest memories of my grandfather were at Darke Pines [a pine-tree-filled estate in Ohio] where he cooked and ate all the things I was weirded out by,” Will says. What grossed him out as a kid, like his grandfather eating all the odd parts of the lobster or headcheese, now attracted him in a very comforting way. As he grew up, he was drawn to all the odd parts. He adds, “I find a sense of nostalgia and comfort in those parts now.”

I get it. As I get older, I crave all the foods that surrounded me as a kid, even the kinds I rejected absolutely back then. These days, instead of super fancy food, you’ll find me at a pizza joint enjoying an easy and astringent vinegar-dressed salad, the sort on every family table in the 1980s. And while I couldn’t stand all the funky seafood bits back then, I want squid or octopus everyday of my life now, lightly cooked with lemon or chili flakes.

I think what I most relate to, however, is how hard it was to bring Darke Pines to life. Remember, maker life is haaaaaaard.

Lessons on Opening a Brick-and-Mortar From My New Favorite Maker, Darke Pines

Without experience running a butcher shop, Erica and Will had to consistently reevaluate how to open.

During the development stage, they worked with a life and business coach to write the business plan and talk through all the challenges of opening a food shop. Friends and family contributed but they passed on the investor path (“If you don’t have to take someone’s money, don’t,” says Will.)

Once they found a space, they applied for a loan with a large bank. After six months of forms and talks and more forms, the bank turned them down, citing they didn’t have hands-on experience. The reevaluation they went through was gut-checking and helpful. Erica thought, “Let’s try to do it for a lot less.” And, they did.

Through the Kickstarter campaign, Darke Pines raised $25,000 to add to their resources for the build out. They opened only two months ago and while they’re ahead of projections, that also means that they’re spending more. “It’s exciting. Everyone’s excited, including our community. But we still have to make sure the foundation and fundamentals really work,” Erica says.

I can only hope to be ahead of projections when I open Eat Boutique but then they mention all the corners that get cut when you grow too fast. You have to address them at some point and they’ll be doing that soon. Erica noted, “We just had a conversation about taking a breath. We need to go back and fix some of the things that have been bothering us.”

The Darke Pines duo is learning all the lessons the hard way, and those lessons are the most valuable.

They worked long hours and faced a lot of stumbling blocks during open. Erica and Will certainly feel like they should have hired more people to help them along the way. But now they know what it takes and perhaps achieving the rest of their vision will be a little easier just by knowing. Will adds, “We see Darke Pines as an overarching brand that spans butcher shop, bakery, grocery, all operating within the same model and supporting each other. And still sourcing from local farms.”

I’ve been looking for the right space for my concept for nearly 18 months now and while that’s painful, I have this feeling it will be worthwhile in the end. Erica sums up what I think I might feel and just listening to her pushes me on. “For some people, it’s just a butcher shop. For us, it’s a place that you want to be,” Erica says.

She sees her family in every part of the space, like her Mom who traveled to do the signage. “When I look around, I see her and it’s more meaningful; it makes all of it worth it in some way,” she adds. The start-up phase was hard and they’ll never do it again but, Erica also mentions, that they’ll also never have the opportunity to do it again. And there’s something so true in that message.

My start-up phase is hard, especially in an expensive city like Boston. I feel like I’ve made all the mistakes. But at the same time, I’ve made all the mistakes and won’t make them again. I’m doing my best to “work smarter, not harder” (per Erica) and “take it a day at a time” (per Will).

“You’re not going to be able to do it all in a day,” Will says. And it’s statements like that remind me of how far I’ve actually come.

Lessons on Opening a Brick-and-Mortar From My New Favorite Maker, Darke Pines

I want to open Eat Boutique tomorrow or asap.

But the time and the mistakes are going to make the final product way worth it. It’s also giving me the opportunity to constantly reevaluate, to challenge myself to do more with less, and to sharpen my focus without bias. I may have a bias for action, but I’ll only do what’s best for the final product.

I’m watching Erica and Will’s journey very closely, sending them good luck vibes as well as soaking in all the lessons. Because it’s the lessons, the hard-won lessons, that make it worth it. If you’re ever down in New Jersey, I hope you’ll check out Darke Pines. Regardless, I hope you consider consuming the type of meat they share whenever you do consume meat.

Are you about to embark on a new venture? Can you relate to the Darke Pines story? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Thank you to Erica and Will Messmer at Darke Pines for spending time with me. Good luck as you continue to build your shop, your empire, and your life!

Photos by Gabi Valladares

Eat Boutique was an award-winning shop and story-driven recipe site created by Maggie Battista – an author, business guide and alignment seeker. After hosting retail markets for 25,000+ guests, Maggie now supports entrepreneurs as they create values-based businesses through We Are Magic StudioFollow Maggie Battista on Instagram.