Progress always involves risk; you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.
– F.W. Dupee, American literary critic, essayist, and English professor
Jen Komaromi was raised in a family that has been in the automobile tire business for three generations – in fact, since its invention. Her grandfather had managed a rubber factory in the Philippines post World War II. Her father was an international sales representative for Firestone, with Africa and Southeast Asia as his territories. (Komaromi was born in Liberia before her family relocated to Hong Kong.) Her father didn’t enjoy working for someone else and after starting a company with a group of former employees, he built up his own distributorship and sold tires wholesale and retail in the Sacramento area. Not surprisingly, owning a family business was not a goal of Jen’s because she had witnessed firsthand its many challenges. The entrepreneurial desire was hardwired, however, and surfaced when she worked at a café and bakery in Tahoe while also holding down a job in the forest service. Jen worked mostly by herself, standing up the restaurant’s newly opened bakery. During this time, she discovered her natural ability to sell things and help people out. “I really enjoyed it,” she said. “That was the very first taste [of wanting to run a business].”
The Beginning of Jenny K
When Jen moved to the Bay Area, she got a job with a Berkeley-based wholesale jewelry manufacturer that produced pewter charms. The gift industry intrigued her because it was full of innovation and mostly comprised small mom-and-pop-type outfits. “I loved it right away, and I’ve been in it ever since,” she said. In 2001, she decided to work on her own as a sales representative and upon the suggestion of a co-worker named her rep group Jenny K, which was an easy company name for her customers to remember. Jen sold manufacturers’ merchandise to retail stores – as small as her current store and as large as Cost Plus and Red Envelope – and landed key accounts that comprised a healthy percentage of the company’s business. While she thoroughly enjoyed the wholesale world, gas prices were rising and the industry as a whole became more challenging.
At the same time, Jen had developed a website and was soon filling product orders for this growing part of her business, which prompted her to convert her wholesale website to a retail site. When the paperwork and inventory of her online business began overtaking her house, her husband Kevin O’Neal suggested she find an office. The small space she found within her price range, which is two doors down from where she currently resides, had a storefront, which made it ideal to display her goods. The time she put into the store took away from being a sales representative, and she eventually threw her energy full time into Jenny K as a retail store (6921 Stockton Avenue, El Cerrito, 510.528.5350). Given her love of traveling, Jen was reluctant to give up her wholesale business and imagines going back to it one day, but she says she “finally embraced retail.”
Learning from the family business, following her instincts
Jen credits her staying power to her father’s “eternal optimism,” which she says is a necessity of owning a business. She remembers her growing-up years of living frugally and witnessing her parents struggle. “Because of that, I’m willing to make the sacrifices, whereas not everybody is willing to do that,” she said. Not that being in wholesale didn’t have its moments of difficulties – Jen recalled the early days of being a sales rep when she called her father in tears and he coached her through the rough times. “He trained me to be a salesperson,” she said.
The idea to operate both a gift store and a café – Kevin runs their Well Grounded Tea & Coffee Bar (6925 Stockton Avenue, 510.528.4709), which opened in 2005 after Jenny K was established – came to her early on when she was a sales rep. Jen observed that one of her best customers in Scotts Valley, whose gift shop was next door to a Starbuck’s, was always busy. “I saw how successful that concept was,” she said. The other inspiration was the Cracker Barrel chain, which operates in the south. The model incorporates a gift shop and café, with patrons having to walk through the gift shop to get to the food. The gift store chain is the most successful in the nation in terms of sales volume, Jen pointed out. While Cracker Barrel’s theme is country, she wanted to create a California version of the chain store.
Jen and Kevin pitched the idea of a café to group of people, but when no offers surfaced, they decided to do it themselves. “My husband is crazy enough to go along with my ideas,” she said, laughing. At the time, Kevin had a full-time job, but he soon quit to run the café side of the business. For many couples, the thought of working so closely together in a business venture is overwhelming, but Jen said, “We’ve been able to make it work.” It helps that their traits are complementary; whereas Jen comes up with ideas, Kevin follows through and gets the job done. “We balance each other out,” she said. “I couldn’t really do the business without him, and he couldn’t really do it without me.”
When they first started, it took a while to play off of each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses, but they soon found their working relationship groove. Jen is quick to point out that if the retail store and café had started somewhere else other than El Cerrito, their business likely would have failed. “The community really embraced us, and forgave us for our faults,” she explained. “We are really learning how to do it all. We’re growing into our business.”
One thing Jen hasn’t had to learn is finding and offering high-quality products at a price point that local customers will support. Having grown up with parents and grandparents who collected antiques and art, Jen had long honed her sense of timeless style and an eye for distinctive products. For quality and environmental reasons, her store is devoid of tchotchkes. “I don’t want to create more garbage in the world or sell things people don’t want that end up in landfills,” she said. Jen has applied her green philosophy to both businesses. She likes to stock consumable products – her soap line is, in fact, her biggest selling product – and chooses goods that everyone can use. Using organic ingredients in the café distinguishes Well Grounded from other cafés, but it also honors Jen’s and the community’s commitment to being green and supporting organic lifestyles. El Cerrito has a long history of recycling and supporting green practices, and its newly redesigned recycling center received the highest rating for green building.
Jenny K in 2013 and beyond
Currently in the midst of a renovation that includes the addition of a bathroom and café seating along the big picture window at the front of the store, Jenny K will be completed in time for the Stockton Avenue May Art Stroll, an event Jen and her husband established six years ago. The stroll, which has been in hiatus the last two years, will be making a comeback this year.
With all the extra space to fill, Jen is expanding her product lines and range. The store boasts an upstairs “play space” that will soon be home for classes for older kids and adults, while the main level will be available for hosting birthday parties. Jenny K “tested” a paper airplane class in the fall, and its success has prompted her to plan a series of classes based on the Klutz craft kits. The first set of classes will debut in April.
Expect more fundraising and other community events to take place now that Jenny K has more room. This past November, Jenny K held a week-long fundraiser for Portola Middle School, with 20 percent of the purchases being donated to the school. The fundraiser, which raised more than $700, culminated in a Friday evening soiree with wine and hors d’oeuvres and a jewelry trunk show with two local jewelry designers. “We’ve always been supportive of the community,” Jen said. When she and Kevin first came to El Cerrito, they were involved in helping to restore the Cerrito Theater. One of the big benefits of owning a business, according to Jen, is how much they can give back to the community. “It’s definitely one of our goals,” she said, of helping to create that sense of community in El Cerrito.
Jenny K has been on Stockton Avenue since 2004. For now, the retail business works well for Jen, who has a son in kindergartener and a three-year-old daughter – both of whom can often be found “helping” Komaromi in her store and café. “It [the store and café] enables us to have a business where we can be here for our kids,” she explained, as she watches her kids race through the store and up the stairs to the play area. As a national sales manager in wholesale, she was on the road 30 percent of the time, traveling around the country, which is not conducive to raising a young family. Once her daughter is in elementary school, however, Jen wants to find a location that is more densely populated and would enable the gift store and café to truly be integrated and exist on a “grander scale.” For now, Jenny K and Well Grounded Tea & Coffee Bar are bustling and welcoming fixtures for the locals, especially on weekend mornings.