The necessity of little luxuries

Brittany Moffat

Catherine Cartwright-Jones’s store Empire combines a

When she looked at Kent, Catherine Cartwright-Jones saw something missing in the city’s economic structure. The stores lining the streets of downtown all followed the same type of business plan, with the same type of goals.

Cartwright-Jones had an idea for a different kind of business, one she thought would be different but still successful. When a retail space opened on Main Street, she finally had an opportunity.

Empire, which opened Friday, is the tangible storefront of a pre-existing and successful online business Cartwright-Jones has run for several years. The business, which bills itself as an “emporium of henna, chocolate and pleasurable necessities,” carries organic, fair trade and handmade luxury items.

The space, which was the home of the funky and eclectic store Lasso the Moon, has been renovated in the last two months. The interior is simply decorated. The hardwood floors have been left mostly bare with a few Persian rugs scattered about, a few small tables and chairs and the display cases and shelves for the products.

Empire has 15 full-time employees, and Cartwright-Jones’ said they do not answer only to her bottom line. They are her equals, and they have their own incentives for doing their work well. She said she considers them their own entities, each an entrepreneur in his or her own right.

“They define their own jobs,” she said.

The henna artists who provide their services bill Cartwright-Jones every so many weeks based on the number of hours they have worked, but they have no minimum number of customers they have to serve or the amount of sales they have to make. The craftspeople who make the hand-milled soaps, organic body care products and all-natural hair dyes are allowed to set their own prices and to decide how their merchandise is presented on the shelves.

Todd Horvath, the fiance of Cartwright-Jones’ daughter, and the owner of House of Bittersweet: Chocolates and Pastries, determines which sweets and pastries he makes for Empire. Horvath, who has professional culinary training but also a strong interest in art, left the Beachwood restaurant where he worked as a pastry chef because he wanted to be his own boss. She describes his work as “the intersection of food and art.”

Still, in Northeast Ohio where even stores following the standard business model have had difficulty surviving, Cartwright-Jones feels confident that Empire will make it. She said where many stores are set up like an assembly line, where customers enter in one door and exit through another, and the company tries to extract as much money as possible between the two, she wants people to enjoy shopping in her store.

That’s part of the reason why her store doesn’t have merchandise everywhere. That’s also why, starting this winter, Empire will host live musicians and poetry slams. She said she knows how difficult it can be as a student and how often students can feel lonely or sad, and that’s why she wanted something where students could stop by as often as they want just to see the koi pond in her front window.

Cartwright-Jones’ affinity for students is also why her store offers an inventive, if not surprising, incentive for people to visit: Customers can receive something free every time they visit. She said it wouldn’t be something big – a free chocolate sample or some henna body art.

Empire’s employees know this is an unusual approach. Leah Tonon and Beth Ann Sadowski, both former employees of Lasso the Moon and current Empire employees11/19, said they knew people would be surprised by the store’s offer of a small, free item with every visit. Tonon said part of the problem with a store like Lasso the Moon was that customers would come in, look around and then leave without making a purchase because they felt the products were out of their everyday budget. Both Tonon and Sadowski said they knew while people would be drawn in by the free offer, customers would be happily surprised to find how affordable Empire’s products are. Chocolates are 75 cents a piece. A customer can buy four pieces for $3, an unusual price for handmade gourmet chocolates, Sadowski said.

Cartwright-Jones said she has some ideas of how she would like her business to grow, but she is happy for now to continue with the business model that made her online business do so “indecently well.” Her business philosophy – that stores have to make money but shouldn’t at the expense of other people’s creativity – reflects her explanation of a “pleasurable necessity.”

“It is necessary to eat. It is pleasurable to eat chocolate,” she said.

Contact all correspondent Brittany Moffat at [email protected].