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COLUMN: Iverson’s Furniture celebrating 60 years in business

Iverson’s Furniture opened 60 years ago with a building and a sign that said “consignment.”

The actual furniture followed slowly … piece-by-piece … over time.

Today, the store on Bee Ridge Road just east of U.S. 41 is a hub for high-end, used homewares, but in 1957 it was just a dream for northern transplants Hal and Cheryl Iverson. Like so many of Sarasota’s newcomers, the Minnesota couple had vacationed in the area and fallen in love with the warm weather and sugary beaches. They borrowed $3,000 from a family member, loaded up a U-Haul and drove south with their three small children and the family dog. That seed money was the foundation for one of the most long-lived family-owned businesses in Sarasota.

And six decades later, they’re not packing up anytime soon.

Well, at least not their own place.

Today, Barry Wigglesworth, the Iversons’ grandson, manages the store and its collection. The business often takes on whole house loads of furniture, and his team sorts through what they can sell and what needs to be donated. They’ve picked up bizarre treasures such as a pair of wooden Civil War-era dice and a Russian lampshade worth thousands of dollars, but they clean out everything down to the contents of refrigerators. The overall goal for the store floor is quality, and Wigglesworth can afford to be choosy.

His mother, Mari Morton, shifted the store’s focus to high-end pieces when she took over the business in 1976. The staff at the time thought she’d drive Iverson’s into the ground, but quite the opposite happened. Morton expanded in 1981 and opened a second store on Clark Road.

Many of Sarasota’s residents are wealthy and well-traveled, she says, and there’s no shortage of treasures in this area or of people who are looking for them. Ninety percent of the pieces the mother-son team sees never make it to their showroom floor.

They pick up most of their stock from local estate sales, model homes, mainstream stores with excess inventory or from decorators and interior designers. While that local surplus of gently used furniture could, in theory, drive growth for the company, they’ve kept the business small. Today, Iverson’s has just seven full-time employees. Opening another store would mean thinning out the family’s time at each location, and Wigglesworth says being present is essential. He’s not looking to expand.

The family business has come a long way from that empty storefront 60 years ago, but that’s really no surprise to Wigglesworth. He credits the longevity to his mother and her passion for the business. Morton enjoys what she does, and even in her retirement, she’s still involved.

There’s something special, she says, about watching her customers find something they’ll treasure.

That’s kept the family business going all this time.

And it’s driving it into the next decade.

— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 

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COLUMN: Ashley Avery’s closing at Westfield Southgate

Shops like Ron Saba’s have become almost as much of a rarity as the pieces he sells.

As interest in fine crafts and collections has waned, so has the foot traffic the shop owner sees in his Ashley Avery’s store at Westfield Southgate. While the baby boomer generation still has an appreciation for high-end crystal and porcelain, the younger shoppers are more focused on gadgets, he says, and after 18 years in business, it’s time to say goodbye.

Saba, 74, was just beginning his “soft closing” when I stopped in to chat with him Monday morning. He’s leaving the doors open as he’s packing his boxes and he’ll still sell whatever hasn’t been put away. He’ll be there until the merchandise is gone or until he’s done moving. Whichever comes first.

The Ashley Avery’s chain was founded in 1983 and it had 41 other stores when Saba opened his franchise in 1999. The parent company went under a decade ago, but Saba held on to his store even as shoppers clung to their purse strings during the Great Recession.

Once the economy bounced back, Sarasota’s retail climate presented him with a new challenge. The Mall at University Town Center saturated the market and siphoned off foot traffic — and his national tenant neighbors — from what was once the epicenter of high-end retail in the area. In recent months, the construction outside Westfield Southgate has thwarted even more customers, he says.

Even once that construction turns into active new retail space, he’s not convinced it’ll bring back the kind of customer he needs to keep going.

Looking back on the early days of his business, it’s hard for him to believe that retail has come to this. Over the years, names like Lladro, Giuseppe Armani and Swarovski have filled his shelves.

In the early days, Ashley Avery’s hosted events, supported the local arts and brought world-renowned artists into the area. He hosted Tatiana Fabergé, whose family is known for the Fabergé eggs, at the Van Wezel in 2004. The exquisite eggs are made from Limoges porcelain, hand-carved gemstones, copper, gold-encrusted crystal and enamel. Their interiors feature miniature sculptures such as animals, cathedrals or carousels.

Saba worked with the Czech Republic embassy in New York to identify the finest crystal for his store’s collection. Moser, he says, is the Rolls-Royce of crystal, and he traveled to the company’s storefront and museum that dates to the 1800s.

When he was in Barcelona near the turn of the millennium, he found a bronze gladiator statue in a small antique store but that shop was so small it didn’t have materials to pack it. So Saba purchased some bubble wrap from a local hardware store, wrapped the statue like a mummy and carried it on the plane himself. That was before 9/11. He may have raised a few eyebrows bringing the gladiator onboard, but none of the concerns were for security reasons.

His pieces are full of stories, he says. But after nearly two decades of adventures, it’s time to bring the Ashley Avery’s story to an end.

When Saba opened the store in 1999 after a 30-year career in sales for Hearst Magazines, he was ready to run a quiet little store and enjoy a nice cabana on the beach.

As the retail climate has shifted, so has that dream.

Lately, he’s run the shop single-handedly, which is a big shift from the 10 employees he had in the store’s heyday. He hasn’t seen the beach in five years, he says.

Maybe once he finishes packing boxes and says goodbye, he’ll finally get back there.

— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 

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Rue21 closing local stores

Teen clothing retailer Rue21 is closing 400 stores nationwide, including its 2-year-old location at Westfield Sarasota Square.

The chain’s stores at Port Charlotte Town Center and Ellenton Premium Outlets also are on the chopping block.

The privately held, Pennsylvania-based company will have about 700 stores in 48 states when the closings are complete.

In a Facebook post, Rue21 called the decision to close the stores “difficult but necessary.” It’s unclear when the stores will close, but the chain already is advertising the clearance sales on its website.

Like many brick-and-mortar retailers, Rue21 has been battling declining mall traffic amid strong competition online. A number of national chains such as Macy’s, JCPenney, Staples, Payless ShoeSource, Staples, and Abercrombie and Fitch also have announced plans to cut back on their brick-and-mortar lineup this year. Meanwhile, players such as The Limited and Wet Seal have closed all of their stores nationwide.

The Rue21 opening in April 2015 at Westfield Sarasota Square marked the beginning of a new era for the family-focused shopping center on the south end of town. Since then, the mall has welcomed a number of similar, fast-fashion retailers such as A’GACI, H&M, F21 Red and Old Navy.

But the mall has also said farewell to a number of tenants in recent month as turbulence in the retail industry has increased.

Macy’s closed late last month, which robbed the mall of an anchor tenant. Dahlia’s, a locally owned boutique, was the latest in a string of retailers to pack its bags. Cotton On, Men’s Warehouse, Bijou Brigitte, New York Jewelers, and Marks and Morgan Jewelers also have closed there in recent months.

— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 

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BurgerFi celebrates Earth Day with “plantable burger”

BurgerFi is celebrating Earth Day on April 22 by giving its customers free “plantable burgers.”

The artisan burger chain at 257 N. Cattlemen Rd. will offer guests purchasing a burger a circular disk, or burger, they can plant at home to grow their own lettuce.

Additionally, guests who receive a “plantable burger” can enter for a chance to win a $100 BurgerFi gift card by uploading a photo of themselves planting their “burger” on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #growitforward tagging @burgerfi.

The burger chain, which launched in 2011, falls midway on the spectrum between traditional restaurants and fast-food chains. The restaurant is comparable to the Five Guys burger chain, combining the quick turnaround of counter ordering with better-quality ingredients.

The North Palm Beach-based company touts its use of hormone-free beef, its chairs made from “upcycled” Coca-Cola bottles and the fact that its signature sauce was designed in house. The menu also includes hot dogs, veggie burgers, custard, fries and onion rings.

— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 


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Kona Ice offering free shaved ice on Tuesday

Kona Ice on April 18 will be hosting its fourth annual National “Chill Out” Day at the Sarasota County Visitor Center at 1710 Main St.

The island-inspired truck will hand out free cups of tropical shaved ice and complimentary Hawaiian leis to all who stop by.

National “Chill Out” Day is one of the many ways Kona Ice is encouraging the nation to take a step back and relax.

Kona Ice has given more than $40 million back to neighborhood schools, organizations and teams since its inception in 2007. The brand’s iconic truck offers customers a one-of-a-kind experience, featuring the opportunity to create their own Kona Ice on the self-serve Flavorwave, while enjoying the soothing sights and sounds from the tropics. Currently, there are 800-plus franchise units in more than 45 states.
— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 
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Fitlife Foods headed for University Town Center area

Fitlife Foods, a health-centric prepared foods company, is opening its first store in the Sarasota region.

The Tampa-based company on April 27 will launch its 14th store in a 1,059-square-feet retail space at 5275 University Parkway at the northwest corner of Honore Avenue and University Parkway. That shopping center is also home to Kohl’s, The Fresh Market, Peltz Shoes, Buffalo Wild Wings and several other retailers.

Fitlife Foods specializes in healthy, carefully portioned premade meals. The grand opening scheduled for April 27 will offer guests a complimentary meal, wellness sessions, store tours and prize giveaways. The company has more than 65 menu items to choose from, according to a press release from the company. Popular items include chicken enchiladas, barbecue beef with mac and cheese and the gluten free chicken pizza supreme.

“Being able to bring all-natural, healthy meal options to the Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch and University Park communities is something we are proud of and look forward to doing in other cities down the road,” said David Osterweil, the founder of Fitlife Foods, in the statement.

Fitlife Foods’ menu prices range from $3 to $13 and feature gluten-free, vegetarian, paleo and low-carb options. The company also offers customers access to wellness coaches. The company has 10 locations throughout the Tampa area, two in Orlando and two others in south Florida.

— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 

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COLUMN: Goodwill weathers retail storm

Shoppers attend the grand opening of Goodwill Manasota’s new retail store at 3465 Cortez Road West on Thursday. [Herald-Tribune staff photo / Dan Wagner]

Goodwill Manasota just added 17,300-square-feet of retail space to its resale empire.

Lately, that kind of growth is a rare find in the industry.

But that’s fitting. Rare finds have always been part of Goodwill’s attraction.

The treasure hunt through the racks and the value-focused price tags on merchandise has made the nonprofit resale chain a thriving anomaly in the rapidly contracting brick-and-mortar market. As the e-commerce boom forces players such as Macy’s, Staples, Kmart and Sears to shutter stores throughout the country, our local Goodwill is growing.

The chain’s new store at 3465 Cortez Road West on Thursday had aisles of meagerly priced clothing and household items, but there also was an unopened bottle of Chanel perfume for $20 and a Tiffany-style lampshade worth more than $2,500 priced at $800.

Whether shoppers wanted to restock their dresser drawers or find an item worthy of PBS’s Antique Roadshow, the opportunity was there.

So were 80 people waiting outside the door for the store’s 9 a.m. grand opening.

Jess Sturtevant was first in the door. The Bradenton man buys and sells antiques and says he’s been shopping at Goodwills since he was in diapers. Two years ago he identified a rare 1911 lithograph at Goodwill Manasota’s last major grand opening in Lakewood Ranch after another shopper had already grabbed it. The buyer paid Goodwill $43 for the piece and then later auctioned it off for $5,150.

No wonder Sturtevant showed up two hours before the opening this time.

Several paces back, Hugh Richardson, a Canadian who is visiting Bradenton for three weeks, had taken the 50th spot in line. He planned to check out the electronics and the tools before moving on to the clothing. He frequents Goodwill, the Salvation Army and Washington-based Value Village when he’s up north. Consumers have fostered a throw-away society, he says, and he hates to see things go to waste. That and the chance to find something exciting is what brought him to that early morning line during his vacation.

And the retailer had more than braced for the crowd.

I talked with Donn Githens, Goodwill Manasota’s vice president of operations, the day before the opening. When the retailer launched its Lakewood Ranch store it saw 1,400 transactions that day and broke every other store’s grand opening record. He anticipated a similar turnout in Bradenton.

Githens had enough merchandise on hand to restock the floor two more times, if necessary. The Cortez Road store is expected to generate $3 million in revenue annually.

The demand is there, and that’s kept Githens busy in the past three years or so.

Since that record-breaking grand opening, his team also has launched a logistics center, two attended donations centers and three more stores. They’ve also got another project in the works at a former retail space at 5512 Manatee Ave. It’ll reopen as an art and books store in June.

But Goodwill groups aren’t immune to the rough retail climate, either. Just to the north of us, Goodwill Industries-Suncoast has frozen employee salaries at 19 of its stores because of budget difficulties, according to the Tampa Bay Times, and there have been similar reports at other groups throughout the country.

Our local organization, though, has managed the retail turbulence well. Githens told me Goodwill Manasota hasn’t had to do anything drastic, and his employees have seen an 11.25 percent increase in average hourly wages over the past two years.

He credits much of that success to the region’s generosity and its desire to support the organization’s mission. When someone donates clothing to sell at Goodwill it supports programs that help individuals with barriers to employment. The idea is to change people’s lives through work, he says.

Donations drive the growth. As long as they keep coming, he’ll watch for opportunities to open more stores.

That’s not something a lot of retailers can say nowadays.

But Goodwill is used to that.

Githens can say that that some of his shoppers dedicate entire days to hunting through each store in his four-county region.

Macy’s, Staples, Kmart and Sears probably can’t say that.

He can also say that in 2016 his stores placed 755 people in jobs and assisted 240 veterans back into the civilian workforce.

And that his stores invite nonprofits to use their meeting space at no charge.

And that the Louis Vuitton bag on his purse rack is priced at $4.99.

The mainstream retailers likely can’t say those things, either.

In this slow brick-and-mortar retail bleed-out, stores have to offer consumers things that the internet cannot.

The Goodwill Manasota stores can send shoppers on a treasure hunt, repurpose unwanted goods and prepare struggling individuals for the workforce.

It’s really no surprise that this chain is opening stores while major companies are closing them.

That 17,300-square-feet of new retail space isn’t the only thing that makes this retailer a rare find.

— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 

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Bebe shuttering stores, but not SRQ’s

The Mall at University Town Center may be keeping its Bebe store, but the company is gearing up for closings and layoffs at 13 other locations in the state.

Bebe Stores Inc., the parent company of women’s retailer Bebe, is among a collection of struggling retailers reorganizing and closing stores as e-commerce continues to lure consumers away from the brick-and-mortar market.

Rumors about the company’s plans to close all of its 170 stores first surfaced in March, and WARN notices filed with the state indicate Bebe’s plans to cut 133 employees across 13 locations. The Worker Adjustment and Retraining notification Act requires employers to provide notice 60 days in advance of qualifying plant closings and mass layoffs.

The closings affect stores in Boca Raton, Wellington, Aventura, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach Gardens, Pembroke Pines, Sunrise and Coral Gables.

The retailer’s store at the Mall at University Town Center was not listed among the documents, and it appears as though the store is staying open for the immediate future.

The Mall at University Town Center opened in October 2014 has said farewell to at least four retailers due to corporate closings: Boston Proper, Camicissima, BCBG Max Azria and Cache. At least 10 stores have closed at the mall since its grand opening in October 2014.

— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 

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COLUMN: Sprouts opening attracts large crowd

Photo courtesy of Sprouts Farmers Market.

Melodie Lewandowski thought she’d be one of two people in line Wednesday for the Sprouts Farmers Market grand opening.

Imagine her surprise when she had 75 people waiting in front of her at about 6:30 a.m.

The line outside Sprouts, in Pelican Plaza at U.S. 41 and Beneva Road, already had stretched in front of Total Wine & More by the time I caught up with Lewandowski about 10 minutes later.

When the doors opened at 7 a.m., she had more than 110 more people behind her and the crowd had snaked all the way to the Ulta Beauty entrance.

The 26,000-square-foot, organic-focused grocery is Sprouts’ second Sunshine State store and was one of the most anticipated retail openings in Southwest Florida in 2017.

Sprouts, typically thought of as a more affordable Whole Foods Market, is known for the freshness of a traditional farmers market with the hours and amenities of a modern grocery store. It’s one of a few health-centric chains moving into our market in the next year or so. Colorado-based Lucky’s Market will open this summer at Westfield Southgate and North Carolina-based Earth Fare is launching its first Southwest Florida store in Lakewood Ranch. Meanwhile, walls already are going up at University Parkway and Honore Avenue for the area’s second Whole Foods Market.

With all these “coming soon” signs in our area, it’s easy to think that maybe we’re oversaturating Sarasota and Manatee counties with these boutique grocers.

But the crowd at Sprouts on Wednesday told me differently.

There’s a national move toward healthier, more organic food, and that’s evident in the increasing supply of that category of food we’re seeing at more traditional players. Cheryl Nespor, who took the 44th spot in line when she arrived at 6:15 a.m., said she’s noticed that Publix, Wal-Mart and even Costco Wholesale have been upping their organic game in recent years.

Now that Sprouts is open, Nespor plans to split her shopping between there and the new Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market near Clark Road and Honore Avenue. She bases purchases on quality first and then whether it’s an organic product or not, and Sprouts is the first truly organic-focused grocer close to her home. She’d have to drive more than five miles north to get to the Whole Foods Market in downtown Sarasota or 10 miles to The Fresh Market in University Park to find a similar selection.

With that hike, it’s no wonder she’s been eyeing the new Sprouts since it’s logo first popped up in Pelican Plaza last summer, and she wasn’t the only one.

Store management told me that they had to turn away a number of would-be customers in the weeks leading up to the opening.

Lewandowski was among the customers peering through the window. She was excited on Wednesday for Sprouts’ $1 each specials on pineapple and cantaloupe and the asparagus at 98 cents a pound. The 20 percent off her entire purchase she got for being among the first 200 at the store didn’t hurt, either.

But there was more to it than the deals.

The south side of Sarasota really needed an organic grocer like this, Lewandowski told me. There’s nothing else like Sprouts there.

And the completely packed parking lot just a half-hour after the store opened told me plenty of shoppers agreed with her.

— Maggie Menderski, the Herald-Tribune’s retail and tourism reporter, can be reached at 941-361-4951 or at maggie.menderski@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaggieMenderski and Instagram @MaggieMenderski. Read What’s In Store in print on Tuesdays. 

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Pollo Tropical to open April 22

Pollo Tropical, a fast-casual chicken chain offering Caribbean-style fare, has scheduled its grand opening for April 22 at Sarasota Crossings. The “beach party” from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. will provide free quarter chicken meals for the first 100 guests plus music, prizes and games.

The Miami-based restaurant by Fiesta Restaurant Group, Inc. provides fresh (never frozen) citrus-marinated, flame-grilled chicken and roast pork dishes with tangy sauces and savory tropical side dishes.

The former shell service station has been replaced with a pleasing, modern eatery featuring pastel blues and greens; tables, booths and high tops to accommodate 98 guests. Ordering is at a counter (or the drive-up window or online), but the food is served table side. Catering services also are available.

In addition to the grilled chicken platters and mojo pork, there are wraps, sandwiches, “tropichops,” salads and kids meals, plus a special “saucing” bar with a dozen mild to spicy toppings such as guava barbecue, pineapple rum and curry mustard. Among the sides are the ubiquitous beans and (three) rices, fried yucca, tostones, sweet plantains and waffle fries, to name a few. Island-style desserts include guava confections, tres leches and flan.

Pollo Tropical’s healthy fare incorporates ingredients without added trans fats or hormones and offers five meals under 510 calories. Pollo Tropical, located at 5415 Fruitville Road, will be open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. For information call 941-296-6999 or visit online at pollotrpical.com.

— This piece originally appeared in the Herald-Tribune’s Food and Wine section. 

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