From small beginnings come great things. While they're not often seen as places to start trends, small towns can be incubators for new ideas by providing entrepreneurs with community support and a place to startup with little--if any--competition. So while new concepts may have little staying power in a trend-obsessed place like Manhattan, small towns can be the perfect breeding ground for the right idea.
For sisters Stephanie and Laurie Marra, that idea was an oxygen bar. The bars first appeared in Japan then began popping up in hipster cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas in the late '90s. After a night of gambling at Caesar's Palace, the New Jersey-born sisters came across an oxygen bar and felt compelled to give it a try. Experiencing the positive health benefits of breathing up to 92 percent pure oxygen convinced the sisters, who had been searching for a business idea, to take a gamble on the concept.
"We wanted to open our own business for years," Stephanie says. "There were negatives to everything that we came up with and this didn't seem to have a negative."
In 2003, Stephanie and Laurie started O2Fresh!, an oxygen bar and aromatherapy shop now based in Newport, Kentucky. Stephanie says the key to the startup's success was being in the right place at the right time. Located in the heart of Newport's bustling entertainment district, the bar attracts many of Cincinnati's convention-goers and sightseers that visit the small town. Yet the business also has benefited from locals spreading the word about oxygen's appeal.
"People want to know they're on the next big thing," says Stephanie, who believes oxygen is still emerging as a trend in some parts of the country. "We're not, say, in L.A., where there are other [oxygen bars]. We have no competition." And oxygen is also part of healthy living, which never goes out of style.
Karen Wieseler also decided to capitalize on the healthy lifestyle craze when she started Body Guard in 1989, a restaurant, health store and full salon serving the small farm community of Yankton, South Dakota. The restaurant's menu caters to vegetarians, vegans and macrobiotic dieters. "People are always dieting or they come in wanting [something] for a diet, or they read a book that says they need this or that," Wieseler says. "If we don't have it, we order every week so we can have it within a couple of days."
The specialized menu is a way for Wieseler to offer diners something that surrounding restaurants lack. And she serves weight watchers and health-conscious eaters with the personal touch of a small-town restaurant. In fact, she knows almost every person that walks through her doors and says most customers hear about Body Guard through word-of-mouth, although she still advertises on the local radio and in the newspaper.
Like O2Fresh!, the business's prime location--downstream from Gavins Point Dam--brings in out-of-town traffic and hungry travelers looking for a healthy way to satisfy their appetites, especially during Yankton's annual Riverboat Days celebration.
While both the Marra sisters and Wieseler brought existing health trends to their areas, Beth Liautaud of Aunt B's Pet Resort and Spa in Deforest, Wisconsin, started one of the early bed-and-biscuit luxury pet resorts, which have become popular in the last few years.
Before starting Aunt B's in 2000, Liautaud traveled the country in search of the best pet lodgings. She even went to Hollywood to see where celebrities took their dogs. Yet she didn't encounter a pet spa experience quite like the one she created for Aunt B's. "[Competitors] try to duplicate the beauty and the structure of Aunt B's, but what they cannot duplicate is the incredible energy and karma that's in my place," she says.
Helping create that energy is a 12-acre lot, complete with a wooded, five-acre Sniffin' Park, where dogs can run free for the day, Marley's Swimming Hole and the Poochie Jacuzzi. Owners can be assured that their pets will get the royal treatment, including a full-body massage, a private play session, dinner and a movie, and gourmet treats.
Being located off a major interstate has attracted press and people passing by the town. "Because I was so passionate about this career, I knew I could make it work anywhere," says Liautaud. "But this turned out to be the best location I could have ever had."
As these entrepreneurs prove, starting a business in a small town can eliminate the dog-eat-dog mentality and allow the owners to focus on their products and services. And being passionate about their businesses has helped them prevent their ventures from becoming short-lived fads.
"What we carry is all of our favorite things that we've used over the years," says Stephanie. "We can't really sell it if we don't know about it, so these are all of the things that we love."