Behind The Brand: PLENTY Mercantile - Automobile Alley
Today, we're meeting with Toni Hoffman, Traci Walton, Chris England, and Brittney Matlock from PLENTY Mercantile, an eclectic retail + event space located in Automobile Alley, and learning about their story for the ages — how the fate of their concept was revealed at a team dinner the night before signing their lease, where they came up with the concept of PLENTY, and why they strive to be a business that focuses on the bigger picture.
Photographer: Ricky Nimmo
Content: Nelson Solomon
Matt: What were you doing before PLENTY Mercantile started?
Traci: (Laughs) Not retail.
Brittney: So none of really have a retail background that gave us a leg up because we weren’t really scared. When we would tell people we were going into retail, they would be like “Oh… have you been in retail before?” and we were like “not exactly” - but it was great because we weren’t scared of the normal pitfalls. We learned a lot of things the hard way, but when you learn that way, you don’t forget. (...) I had just graduated from Oklahoma State with degrees in Entrepreneurship and Sustainability, and these two (points at Chris and Traci) had gotten together and talked about this thing they wanted to do that had a retail component and an event space and we were going to host our own workshops and (before then) retail shops didn’t have event spaces. I didn’t really understand it, but they were really excited and I jumped on board.
Traci: I was homeschooling - I was finishing homeschooling. I pretty much wasn’t afraid of anything at that point!
Chris: She was ready to get running - like "what do you got?"
Traci: (Laughs) Yeah… I was not afraid after that. Chris, what were you doing?
Chris: I was — and still am — (working on) branding and design and communications, and this was kind of an add-on to that. I had actually worked for a group at the time, and went out on my own and had been out on my own for probably 4-5 years when (PLENTY) opened.
Traci: Toni, how did you happen upon PLENTY?
Toni: Oh my gosh, I came late to the game. I've only been here for - getting ready to be - 2 years. I came from the restaurant world, from way back when. And I started Sara Sara 9 years, going into our 10th year there, and I still do that. But I was kind of between restaurant gigs; I was on my way to work for a friend of mine that was getting ready to open a new concept and had brought me on with him when Chris called me and said “have you got any time?” and I said I actually do have a little bit of time. When I came in and it was in a retail spot, I thought "well I'm not quite sure what you wanted from me but I'll hang out for a little while" (...) But then I realized that there was a (...) rooftop event space. So I started putting the pieces together on what could happen here and how I could help. About six months into it or so -
Brittney: (Laughs) She said “I should probably tell you guys I'm not going to leave.”
Toni: I like you guys. I'm going to stay right here.
Matt: So, how did you all meet? You're [points to Brittney] (Traci’s) daughter, correct?
Matt: How did the rest of you guys meet?
Chris: I met Traci on the Chesapeake lawn during a Make-a-Wish event.
Chris: Yeah, I was working with Deep Fork Group at the time and working on their marketing and et cetera, and I met Traci there. She was a chair for the Make-A-Wish foundation, and was hosting an event on the lawn that Summer, and that's how I met Traci the first time. And then my wife worked with Dr. Walton - her husband - at a hospital in Edmond for almost 8 years. So after that impromptu meeting, we (went) to the same events and work things, and they're delightful people and love to entertain, so we went over to their home quite often. (...) She's probably one of the most delightful people you'll ever meet. She's just a great lady.
Matt: I've heard great things.
Traci: Come on guys.
Toni: Chris and I met at Sara Sara, when Chris was with Innovative down the street. My cousin and nephew had (owned) Pachinko Parlor, and he was doing a lot of their work. (Laughs) He would come in to Sara Sara very often and I'd call him the wrong name.
Chris: (Laughs) That’s okay. She doesn't do that anymore. She calls me other names.
Toni: And I really know everyone in town because I'm from here.
Brittney: She really does.
Traci: We call her the Mayor.
Toni: I do know everyone. Everyone - but I didn't know these two. We had never met before the day I came to do the interview with them. It was the first interview I've ever had (and) it was delightful.
Matt: It was the first interview you've ever had?
Toni: Yeah, I've never had an interview. I've always kind of gone through every position I've ever gotten through the backend of things. I went to work for Kurt Fleischfresser years and years and years ago and a friend of mine asked me to host for his spot while his Hostess was out of town. And by that time Kurt had gotten back, I had completely revamped his expo line, and I was in from then on. (Laughs) So, I've always gone and worked my way through and no one's ever interviewed me before. These guys were like "do you have a resume?" and I was like "Oh no — I don't have any of that."
Matt: How did you decide - out of all the districts in OKC and maybe not even just OKC - how did you decide on Automobile Alley of all places?
Chris: I would like to answer that question by saying we actually didn't start here. We had - probably safe to say - looked at 4 locations pretty seriously, and 2 vehemently we wanted, and we were late to the game on one. Both of us - ourselves and the other party - had put in letter of intents within 24 hours of each other. That other person, having received theirs first, got the building (which) was over by the Civic Center. (...) And a second building was in Deep Deuce, right on the corridor between Deep Deuce and Bricktown and Automobile Alley. Larry Waters - at the time - had owned the building and it was ground level Retail and Office Space. (It was) an older building that had been renovated and rehabbed, and he did a beautiful job with it. But for some reason... he was feeling like we weren’t the right fit, I guess. We had walked through this space [points to current day PLENTY] and it was a commercial business - furniture store. So, the facade was vertical blinds and Styrofoam and -
Traci: Turquoise paint.
Chris: Or mint green, if I recall. Anyways, there were not a whole lot of things that would that would draw you in other than the charm of the neighborhood. (...) Meg Salyer owned the building at the time, and she was super supportive and excited, and we were excited about the space too. (...) She was kind of our first buy in to the vision. Everyone - including our friends and family - it would get so frustrating to articulate to them what it was that we were trying to do, because they looked as lost at the end of it as they were at the beginning. And (...) you know, that's not necessarily comforting. So, when we walked the space, and Megan and Meg had taken time to visit with us, they were excited about the possibilities. (...) I remember we barely made it to the middle part of the building (when we asked) Meg (...) what the likelihood in going up was. (...) Looking at all these spaces, we knew we wanted some exterior accessibility for community engagement, whether it was green space, or rooftop - as it turned out to be. So, we always kind of had that vision in mind. When (Meg) had expressed her support and (after) realizing that, we knew we were in the right place. I think we made an offer and signed an agreement within a few weeks time after having walked the space for the very first time.
Brittney: Also, Chris had created our brand book (with) the feel of the store and the ideals of the store, and my mom has a ‘57 red Chevy pickup, (which) was on the cover of the book and we pulled up to look at that building in that truck, and we found out this was actually a Chevy dealership -
Chris: In 1927. And if any of that didn't seal the deal...
Brittney: The night before (we signed), we were trying to decide if we were going to sign for the building, because this was about three times as big as what we were looking for. We were looking for about 3000 square feet, and this building was 6800, plus we added 2000 to the Rooftop. (...) And (Traci) just said that we're just going to have to scale up by three times, (which) was a huge bite — we were trying to figure out if we should do it, (and) our family was out at a Chinese restaurant.
Traci: It was a Sunday, and I was at church in the morning.
Traci: Of course, praying.
Brittney: To give us a sign!
Traci: Is this what our family is supposed to do? Is this the right time?
Brittney: It was a big commitment.
Traci: They gave us all a fortune cookie at dinner, and no lie — everybody opened theirs and I opened mine and it said “Plenty.”
Matt: No way!
Traci: I still have it.
Toni: Isn't that amazing?
Matt: That's so crazy! That's a sign.
Traci: That is an absolute answer to my prayer.
Matt: Where did the concept for PLENTY come from?
Chris: We gave birth to it. I mean - I know that’s hard to say as a male, but we created it. Obviously we didn’t invent the concept of retail store. But the bottom line was that we knew that when we came into doing this, we had to do something extraordinarily different, and that difference was the way we source our product. Everything that we’ve offered in this store, from the time that we opened to today, has been given a set of criteria it has to meet before we bring it to the public, and that criteria is very self imposed, and we’re very strict with it. There’s a list of it — and Brittney can go into greater details, but ultimately it is some way redeemable — either through its manufacturing or its purpose or its origin or its makeup. You know, if it’s a sustainable material - perhaps it's made of bamboo, or it's made of recycled glass or recycled metal. Or perhaps it has been re-purposed — it was once a piece of equipment and now it’s a light fixture. There are things like that all over the store. It’s fun to see things in a wholly different way than they were intended, and I think that it’s also fun to see that when you purchase something, you can do it with a purpose. You can shop at (big box stores), but you don’t know how the people who made the product were treated — if they were treated fairly or (if they were) children. Even more so, if they were responsibly produced with our environment in mind. Is the packaging even necessary? You know, all of those things are things that we look at when we bring in product to the store. But ultimately, it’s product that has a greater purpose than its intention, I think.
Traci: I think too that we wanted to bring a business to the table that was transparent and advanced, just like our products. I mean, we put a lot of energy and time in developing a culture that we all want to be in, and I’m very proud of that.
Chris: And from a community standpoint, when we talk about the workshops or hosting events, we very much wanted to be a part of the community through those activities.
Brittney: Chris and Traci brought me into that conversation (...), and I was actually doing an internship in Boston for a sustainable analysis company for investors (at the time). So when they started talking about retail, I wasn’t really convinced that I was coming back to Oklahoma. But through that internship, I got to look into the retail industry, and I needed some fact that we could certainly make a difference and that coming back was the right thing for me to do. There were companies within the retail industry like (large corporate fashion brands) that were selling this look and lifestyle. The research that I was able to see showed (me) that it wasn’t the real deal, but now they’ve totally changed and they are matching up to the look of the product. But that showed us that that look was selling — that lifestyle was selling. So we knew that if we could back it up and make it economical for people, most people would choose the better option. And also, we know that business is the biggest tool on earth, and sustainability isn’t going to happen any other way except through business. It’s the biggest infrastructure in the world — people are driven by money, and if you can do good with your money, then might as well.
Matt: So are you trying to spur change within our local and big businesses, or are you just wanting to source items that benefit the world?
Traci: All of it.
Chris: We wanted to do a store that did good and ultimately (...) provided products and goods that were responsibly sourced. Opening a store has allowed us the opportunity to be philanthropic, and we partner with Water4, and generate substantial amounts of money and attention for charities just like that. There’s numerous others - we did an Oklahoma City Public Schools campaign over the Summer preceding the Fall opening of school this past year (...) We printed shirts, and all of the proceeds went directly to a featured public school, and we’d feature a new one every month. The idea is to ultimately create a conversation about being more responsible and being more thoughtful. One of my favorite things is “Love thy neighborhood.” We’ve printed in on t-shirts, and it’s been one of our brand statements, and the intention behind that message is literally love your neighborhood. Support your neighbors, buy local - if you go back in the day before there was mass transportation and you could get anywhere you wanted to literally in record time, people had to walk out in the backyard and buy milk from Farmer Joe down the street and buy eggs locally, and it was very localized. I think because our communities are now global, that local community is now diminished, but we’re trying to bring that back. I think that that’s experienced from the time the little yellow bell dings at the front, that’s a nostalgic feature we added, you know, very intentionally. We wanted to feel like you came to a place where you knew the people that you’re buying your goods from. A lot of these people are local - we have local craftsmen that make cutting boards, and they sell (very well). (...) A lot of the jewelry lines are representative of tribal women and children who are making these jewelry pieces and the money goes to these women, who previously had no work because in their cultures, they were brought up to fetch water and raise children - but now these women are self-sufficient, and can send their kids to get an education because they can afford to do so. I have to tell you (...) 5 years ago, that conversation was not on the forefront. When we went to market and we would ask purveyors of their goods question like how they were produced -
Toni: Where they were produced?
Brittney: They didn’t know any of it.
Chris: Is it responsibly sourced? (...) There was no answer to that question.
Brittney: And now they lead with it - it’s a selling point!
Chris: And there was a wider variety of product now to select from then there was 5 years ago. You know, we (used to) walk away from market going (laughs) ‘well… we got two or three things.’
Traci: We (also) want to be a good steward of the people that shop here. So, not only do we buy an advanced good by our buying choices from our vendors, we also represent the people that choose to shop with us, where we give back to our community - so it’s kind of a double-fold thing. We’re only able to do that because people walk through the door and purchase with us.
Matt: Chris + Toni - how did your experience in the Hospitality / Restaurant Industry prepare you for your current role at PLENTY?
Chris: Everything that we’ve done here is very intentional. I mean, some of it is organic and was not necessarily with much forethought - I think sometimes we get into the middle of it and figure it out as we go, but everything that we’ve done here has been very intentional. We designed the store to (involve all senses). When you come in, it’s the sights, the sounds, the smell and ultimately the intangible nuances like hospitality and belonging. But ultimately (...), we figure out what event we’re going to have what day and work backwards from there. We find a great, you know, chef to partner with, or maybe we’ll have an interactive class and find a local business to partner with on whatever that theme may be, and we just knock it out. We’ll have food and beverage and no one leaves wanting anything, I hope. I hope they’re full, and their spirit is full, and their stomach is full. I don’t know… it’s part of our makeup. Toni is the same way. I’m not speaking for her, but I think that’s just what we’re drawn to do, you’re drawn to -
Traci: It’s serving others. It’s just making people feel at home.
Toni: Especially with people that have come through the restaurant business, no matter what part of it you’ve been (in), whether you’ve been a dishwasher, or whether you’ve been a hostess, or whether you’ve been the GM of a big space - you get such a wide view of just about every aspect of it, you know, and realize how much customer service is important. You know, I used to like to think there was, but there’s really not much difference selling this telephone and plate of food that you present to someone. It’s all basically the same thing, as long as you believe in the product and have a smile on your face. Restaurant people are tough (and are) multi-taskers.
Matt: Whenever I ask other business owners what their favorite businesses are, PLENTY always seems to come to mind.
Brittney: That’s so awesome, because they’re all our favorites. I don’t know where your question is going, but that’s been the most impressive thing about starting a business in Oklahoma City, I was not prepared for the amount of support and comradery in the local business community. It’s not a competition, because I think every concept is so tied to the founders and the owners and the drivers of those concepts that you can’t really concept any concept in Oklahoma City, so you don’t have that type of competition, and I mean, it’s crazy the amount of support and friendship you get out of the city.
Toni: (As a business owner...), when people embrace something you’ve created, it’s flattering and humbling and mostly surprising. You can’t believe people are even saying that name that you came up with, let alone walking through the door and talking about it with others. I was in Seaside, Florida - of all places - one time, and was in a parking place, and you’ve ever been to Seaside, you know there’s no parking spaces, and when I was walking along, I stopped at a lady’s door and knocked on her car (window) and ‘I’m going to pull out right here if you’d like to have my parking space’ and she said “are you from Oklahoma City?” and I said ‘yes’ and she said “do you own Sara Sara Cupcakes?” and I said ‘yes’ and she pointed to the back and both of her girls had Sara Sara Cupcakes shirts on, and she said “and you just gave me your parking spot?” and I said ‘Oklahoma goes a long way.” (...) I wanted to say - ‘What?! Where did you get those shirts?!’ but it’s just surprising and shocking and so flattering and humbling, and you think ‘wow, what a huge responsibility.’
Matt: How did you craft the brand to be so favorable, not only in the eyes of business owners, but in the eyes of the city? There’s something special about this place — something that some other people... I don't want to say "don't have", but something they're missing. What makes this place special?
Traci: I think we’re just doing what’s true and what’s right and good and transparent -
Chris: And people innately want to belong - people want to belong. And I think when you walk these doors, there’s no judgement - we’re here to serve you, we do it with happiness, and a fulfillment because we all like being here. Like you said, “you seem to work well together.” We all respect each other, we all trust each other in our own little areas of expertise and background and experience, and we try not to intentionally step on each other’s toes, because we (...) have that trust. Brittney does her thing, and I trust that she’s going to make the call that she needs to make and make us all look great and satisfy the vision and the needs of the shop. I think ultimately that translates into the type of the team that we have representing the concept on the floor with the guests, and it translates with the guests when they come in. We love kids, and dogs, and old people, and - you name it. Everyone is welcome here, and I think that is felt. If you’re asking why that’s not experienced at every place across the board, it’s because a lot of people don’t necessarily realize that it’s those unseen elements that can go the furthest. The biggest thing is inclusion, and making people feel welcome, and involved -
Traci: And that’s first and foremost.
Chris: And I think if you can do that, all this other stuff is just icing on the cake.
Toni: And I think that it’s true that everybody at this table truly cares. It’s not about selling that journal out there - you care who bought and who it goes with. I mean, you truly care! I’ve seen the kids sell a piece, and go “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad that got great home” like (it was) a puppy. But it’s not! It was a piece of furniture. It’s huge honor to be a part of somebody’s life and a part of somebody’s remembrances and because we have the event space - some of the biggest days in their lives were part of weddings and engagements and baby showers and things that are truly impactful in people’s lifetimes that they remember where they were, they remember how they were treated - all of those things/ It’s wildly important to all of us that that experience is-
Chris: As perfect as it could be.
Brittney: We treat this like an extension of our home, so the guests that come everyday are guests in our home. We don’t even call them customers - we call them guests. We’re honored that they chose to come in here. (...) They’re coming down here on their own accord.
Matt: I really like and respect the fact that you guys put local and global community first. That shows that you’re focused on the bigger picture - bigger than retail. With that being said, what type of legacy do you guys want to leave on the city?
Chris: When we were talking about doing those so many years ago, and even before we opened, there was probably months and months of planning and conversation before it even came to looking for spaces, we were planning and (...) shaping the vision of what this would be. I think ultimately, it has kind of grown into its own thing. I don’t know that we had any expectation for it - I mean, everyone has their own ideas, I guess, of what it was going to be or what they hoped it would be. But I think we all went into it at least with an open enough mind (to think that) once we cast it out there, and we’ve gotten the support that we hoped would come, it would turn into what it needed to be, and I think we’ve all just trusted that. I’ve always said that we answer the needs of the shop - that this place will tell us what we need to do, and we’re just here to make it happen. I mean - I think it’s taken on a life beyond any of the group of us. (...) It’s allowed us a chance to be philanthropic, it’s allowed us a chance to support other businesses - both from a manufacturing standpoint but also likeminded businesses in our community, it’s allowed us to create jobs, it’s allowed us to bring attention to causes that we think are worthwhile, like clean water and education. And again, we get to share the things that we love in life, like entertaining, or hosting events, or serving people.
I don’t know - I mean, it’s all of those things. We had a clear vision of what we wanted it to be, but we were also open enough to accept it as it came along. I think the legacy is hopefully to provide a good environment, and provide good product, and hopefully make a difference in the community. If I may say this, (...) I feel like this has allowed us an opportunity to influence others in a positive way. You were asking about some of the places that we look to for inspiration - certainly SHOP GOOD and there were several local businesses that do things in a philanthropic and community-minded way, but there weren’t a whole lot of them at the time - at least on the forefront. What we’ve seen change in Oklahoma City in the last 5 years is this influx of innovation and people doing things in a different way. It’s fun to see places like Bleu Garten open, and you know, Sunshine Campbell (Perch'd) opened her retail space in a storage container. Those were innovative things that, previous to 2012, those weren’t happening regularly - maybe you find one offs here and there in the city. But it seems to be that younger people are staying here and feeling comfortable and leaving their innovation in Oklahoma City and leaving their passions here. I would like to say that we have been in some small way an influencer of innovation in the city - and we support that, and we want to be a part of that. It’s just fun to see it. I mean, workshops - there’s workshops everywhere now, and that’s great! We love the fact that people are getting tied into their communities and sharing their stories and sharing their passions. Again, not to stake claims on the innovations of workshops - but it was kind of the first of its type, at least in how we were delivering it. Anyways, so it’s fun to see how people in our community are influenced and inspired by others to do good things, and that’s — I hope — inspiration. Let’s leave that as the legacy, right?
Matt: What does the next 5 years hold for PLENTY Mercantile?
Matt: You’re opening a new location?
Toni: We’re opening a store in Edmond.
Brittney: 15th and Bryant in Spring Creek Plaza. It won’t have an event space - this will still be the mothership. It’s a little over 3000 square feet, and it’ll be set up like this store and we hope that the “feeling at home” vibe translates there. We know we have a lot of customers in Edmond that are just unable to get south, so we are hoping to go them.
Matt: When do you plan on opening that up?
Traci: July 1st.
Matt: Oh! It opens this year?
Brittney: Yes! Summer 2017.
Traci: If not before!
Brittney: We recently built a kitchen in the back corner (...) and we’re starting to cater our own small events, so hopefully that becomes a regular thing, and eventually maybe having full-on PLENTY planned events, because right now, we’re only the events space.
Traci: We’ll see our neighborhood continue to grow.
Chris: (Laughs) And that’s exciting! Because when we got here, you know, there was a little bit happening down this way and there was a little bit happening down this way, and there was nothing really in the middle.
Toni: Yeah, 9th Street - we were trying to figure out what 10 years ago what we were going to call 9th Street. There weren’t any districts - there was also was the Paseo. You know, the Plaza wasn’t a district, and nothing was….
Chris: (Laughs) We had Stockyards. Stockyards and Paseo.
Toni: And 9th Street was just an absolute disaster, and now, in that length of time, what has come to be in the city is just absolutely amazing. You know, there was very little locally owned restaurants, and very little locally owned boutiques, and all of those things have changed so much - it’s absolutely incredible just to see what has happened in the last few years, it’s just.. It’s amazing. The train stopped blowing (its horn) - huge!
Matt: What are your own favorite local businesses?
Toni: (Laughs) I know what mine are… I love Sara Sara -
Chris: (Laughs) PLENTY.
Toni: I love Empire, and a friend of mine owns DNA Galleries - it’s always been one of my favorites.
Traci: Collected Thread, SHOP GOOD, Blue 7. Blue 7 is amazing.
Brittney: Oh yeah — Blue 7 — they were the pioneers of local retail. They’re 12 years (old) I think, and Caleb is wonderful.
Traci: We would drive from Enid to go shop with Caleb.
Brittney: He said when PLENTY opened, he was like “those are my customers!” He just remembers people, and he was a great example for us in ownership and being present -
Traci: And open and inclusive.
Brittney: Chirps ‘n Cheers is wonderful - they’re buddies of ours.
Toni: Waffle Champion — we love them! You know, really, the props go to the people of the people of this generation of Oklahoma to have ventured out of their comfort zone to let us be a part of their lives. You know, I grew up in Edmond - and you went to Chili’s. You didn’t go to locally owned because you weren’t sure and you didn’t know what it looked like, and there might not be what you liked there. It’s the citizens here that have changed their tune and allowed us to be creative and let our guard down. I know my nephew - that has Empire and Wheeze The Juice - he’s a nut! You can quote me, he’s a nut! (But) he’s embraced by people who love his style and creativity, and he never could have done that here 10 years ago — he wouldn’t have been accepted that way. But now, he’s just been able to be himself and you know, it’s been such a great thing. People are awesome.