For Andrew and Kathleen Widner, opening a small business in Kalamazoo seemed like the next step in their lives.
“We were seeing Downtown Kalamazoo growing and were really inspired by that,” says Kathleen Widner. “We started thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to be a part of positive things happening there?’”
With backgrounds in finance and marketing and public relations, respectively, the long-time residents of Kalamazoo possessed the groundwork to be successful business owners. For additional guidance, they connected with the Small Business Development Center at Western Michigan University and Downtown Kalamazoo Inc.’s retail incubator program.
These community programs helped the Widners create a business plan—but not for the store they had originally imagined.
“We had first noticed that there wasn’t a dedicated dessert place downtown,” Kathleen Widner explains. “That was the initial idea: just ice cream.”
When it was suggested that they partner ice cream with something not so seasonal, the Widners realized they could bring a spirit shop to the community. The idea for The Spirit of Kalamazoo was born, and the store opened in 2011.
Today, the store offers “All Things Kalamazoo”, including T-shirts, hats, mugs, cups, and magnets that represent Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo College, and, of course, Kalamazoo, in general. The shop also carries Michigan-themed merchandise, and twenty-four flavors of Plainwell Ice Cream available in cups, cones, milkshakes, and sundaes.
Kathleen Widner says that among her favorite products are the tongue-in-cheek T-shirts with original sayings, such as ‘Just Another Animal in the Zoo.’
“And, obviously, I love the ice cream,” she adds.
A Supportive Community
Other than temperamental Michigan weather causing some interference with ice cream sales, the Widners say that their experience starting a business in Kalamazoo has been overwhelmingly positive.
“We’re really grateful to the community for the success that we’ve had, and we appreciate all of the people that helped get us here,” says Kathleen. “Kalamazoo is very progressive. The community wants to support local, small businesses and see them succeed.”
Returning the Favor
Though the Widners originally saw opening a business as a financial investment, The Spirit of Kalamazoo has also become a way that they can start reinvesting in the community that supports them.
“It’s a small thing, but we have a tip jar by our cash register that isn’t actually for tips. We donate the money to a different cause every couple of months.”
They have donated to dozens of organizations, including Kalamazoo Can, the American Cancer Society, the Kalamazoo Animal Clinic, and Youth Opportunities Unlimited. When 269 MAGAZINE spoke with Kathleen Widner, the collection from the tip jar was dedicated to the construction campaign for the remaining thirteen miles of the Kalamazoo River Valley Trail.
“We try to donate to causes that speak to us,” explains Kathleen. “We feel that the trail is a great community-wide cause, something that is available for everyone to enjoy.”
The Widners remain very involved in the day-to-day operations of the store. Kathleen is onsite four days a week and works a fifth day offsite. Andrew maintains a day job, but he enjoys his weekly shift at the shop.
“We’re hands on,” says Kathleen. “We work the cash register, scoop ice cream, clean the floor, restock shelves, serve customers—anything that needs to be done.”
For the Widners, the best part of business ownership is the relationships they’ve made with their employees, other downtown business owners, and with customers.
“Our focus is serving the customers, and we’ve gotten to know a lot of them really well. We wouldn’t be here without them,” says Kathleen.
The Widners’ dedication to their customers has proven fruitful. In 2016, the Spirit of Kalamazoo officially made the move from Portage Street to the Kalamazoo Mall, and is now located in the heart of the town that it represents.
In the future, the Widners would like to see further growth, but mostly “we’re trying to keep doing what we do, and do it even better. I think the store is just a happy place to be, and we want that to continue to be the focus.”