The Ann celebrates 8 couples
who do business family style
Stories by Kyle Poplin | Photos by Benjamin Weatherston
Chris and Chelse Schults
Business: Fashion Stylist
Retail is changing and Chris and Chelse Schults are at the forefront with their “search engine for fashion.”
Called Fashion Stylist, their online business carries the latest fashions from popular stores and brands, plus “editor-curated collections” and a blog with style tips from Chelse.
Chris admits he doesn’t know much about style and Chelse claims to know next to nothing about technology. Together they make a good team.
Chelse said she’s always loved fashion. “I learned to sew when I was 8 with my grandmother,” she says. “I’m very, very visual.” She formerly lived in Los Angeles, where she worked with fashion designers and helped dress clients. So, does she have the perfect outfit for every occasion? “That’s the idea,” she laughs.
Chris, meanwhile, was involved in a variety of Internet-based businesses over the past 15 years.
They married and went into business together in 2010. Their plan is pretty simple: “Chris builds the site and I run it,” Chelse said.
The first version of Fashion Stylist was a drag-and-drop shopping platform that they said looked a lot like the current Pinterest, and it wasn’t very successful. Their business has evolved, to the point that since 2012 it’s been their sole source of income.
They could live and locate their business anywhere, but they chose Ann Arbor because Chelse’s family is in the area, and she’s an Eastern Michigan graduate. Plus, they were able to participate, via shared desk space, in Ann Arbor’s Tech Brewery, a collection of tech entrepreneurs organized by Dug Song and Doug Smith in 2009. “There was a lot of energy with a lot of people collaborating,” Chris remembers about the Brewery. “It kept you accountable.”
Fashion Stylist is now at Michigan Innovation Headquarters, or MI-HQ, a 90,000-square-foot “co-work facility” on Ann Arbor’s West Side.
While Chris and Chelse are passionate about their business, it’s not their “passion project.” That would be their website a2adoption.com, dedicated to bringing awareness to open adoption (in which birth and adoptive parents meet and share information and access) and removing stigmas.
“We believe that every pregnant woman or couple has the right to free counseling and knowledge about every resource possible to raise their children,” their website says. “When that is not enough or more options are needed, we believe in open adoption. Every expectant mother deserves a choice for herself and her child.”
The Schultses know whereof they speak. They have a 1-year-old adopted son, Knox, and plan to adopt again.
So Chris and Chelse not only live and work together, they share a project outside work. Oh, and did we mention that they’ve run five half-marathons together? Is all that togetherness just a bit much sometimes? Chelse says it’s not: “We’ve always worked together since we got married. We don’t know what it would look like not to work together.” And they’re not interested in finding out.
• • •
Lee and Donna Perry
Business: Avalyn Garden Bed and Breakfast
Lee and Donna Perry have a different version of retirement than most people. It involves a full-time job.
Lee spent most of his life as an obstetrician-gynecologist. Donna worked as a teacher and, for six years, as Lee’s office manager. A few years ago they knew it was time to start a new phase, but they didn’t want to be bored — “We’re not idle people,” Lee explains — or live in a boring place.
The “where” was easy. Even though they met while attending Michigan State, they both loved Ann Arbor and wanted to live here. “We always liked coming to Ann Arbor,” Lee says. “Every time we visited it was like opening a new book to read.”
Then came the “what.” Lee says it came down to running a bicycle shop or a bed and breakfast. That makes Donna laugh, because she had no intention of ever running a bike shop. So they bought a huge home on Washtenaw Avenue in 2010 and set about turning it into a B&B. It opened in 2012 and they’ve never looked back.
They didn’t start out with a detailed business plan. Their aim was “to be able to live for free,” Lee says, with the B&B covering their house expenses. Mission accomplished; they stay as busy as they want to. As Lee says, “People find all sorts of reasons to come to Ann Arbor.”
At first, just before they opened, they had some reservations about people they didn’t know hanging out in their home. But that didn’t last long. Their first guest stayed for a month and they became such good friends that they still exchange Christmas cards. At the end of the day, Lee says, “People are nice.”
Donna says she and Lee both just naturally assumed roles in the business, with no discussion. “It’s so automatic, who does what. … It’s a great retirement venture.”
Lee adds: “It’s been great for our marriage, to be working together. It unifies our goals and keeps us working in the same direction.”
They’ve got three children — a son, age 40, and two daughters, 37 and 33 — and four granddaughters, including Ava and Kaelyn, the namesakes of the Avalyn Garden Bed and Breakfast. The house officially has four bedrooms for rent, but there’s a “secret” fourth suite that the children and grandchildren have dibs on. The Perrys only rent it if no family’s going to be in town.
Lee was in the Air Force for years, and he and Donna have moved all over the United States. “We have never been like those people who were afraid to move to new areas,” Donna said. “The lesson we took from that is we can be happy anywhere.”
That laid-back attitude permeates her business philosophy: Don’t over-plan, she says, “Just have a vision of what your future will be like and take advantage of opportunities along the way.”
• • •
Mark and Cheryl Urban
Business: Urban Jewelers
If any couple can claim to be experts on the local retail scene, it’s Mark and Cheryl Urban.
Mark’s father opened Urban Jewelers in 1968 on Main Street, just down from its current location. In 1972 the store moved to the Plymouth Road Mall, at the corner of Plymouth and Huron Parkway, and in 1988 returned to Main Street in its current location. Mark’s been working there full time since 1974. He and Cheryl married in 1982 and she started working at the store in 1984.
The business is completely different today than it was in Mark’s father’s era. “Time seemed to move a little slower back then,” Mark said. Parts were delivered by mail, he said, and it often took weeks to complete major pieces, meaning people had to think ahead for their big jewelry purchases. “Now you can get your order filled overnight,” Cheryl said.
“Lots of imported goods are flooding the market today,” Mark said. “It’s made everything ultra-competitive. Margins are really tight.”
Customers have changed, too. “Nine times out of 10, before they come in here, they’ve done research online,” Mark said. And marketing is more difficult than ever. Urban Jewelers once got its message out through billboards (which were much less expensive), newspaper ads and direct mail. These days, it’s primarily via social media, which is “a bad fit,” according to Mark.
“We’re part of a dying breed,” Mark says.
So why isn’t Urban Jewelers dying? Maybe it’s because they offer what the Internet can’t: custom jewelry, relationships and the ability for customers to touch and feel what they’re buying.
Cheryl puts it this way: “With jewelry, two things can look alike but they don’t feel alike. And most of the people we connect with, they want to have a personal interaction.”
Plus, Urban Jewelers might have the most stable workforce in the region. The newest employee on the staff of five has been working at Urban for 30 years.
Mark and Cheryl still love their jobs. Cheryl likes that “people come in and trust us to fulfill whatever’s in their mind’s eye. … It’s a happy business. People smile here.”
Mark, a master goldsmith, loves the creativity. “We make wearable art,” he said. “That’s the rewarding part.”
While they agree that downtown Ann Arbor could stand an influx of new retailers, they love doing business in the city. People like to visit — “they’re Ann Arbor-aware,” as Mark puts it — and locals appreciate art and the design aspect of Urban Jewelers. Even though he’s seen downtown go through a variety of cycles, “up, down and all around,” Mark says the city has proven to be virtually recession-proof over the years, thanks to the university.
And throughout it all, he still adores being in business with Cheryl. “You get to work with your best friend and then you get to go home with your wife.”
• • •
Shantaurean Pinkney and Melanie Williams
Business: Take a Break Quick Catering
“Think of your grandmother’s cooking … if your grandmother was in her 20s. I like to make comfort food trendy.” That’s how Melanie Williams describes her style in the kitchen.
She’s always cooked. She does it for a living, with the recently launched Take a Break Quick Catering, and she does it for fun and even for therapy. “I never get tired of cooking,” she says. “If it’s my birthday, I cook. I only get upset if I run out of ideas and get stuck in a rut.”
Her partner in life and in the business is Shantaurean Pinkney. They met 11 years ago when they both worked at a Red Robin restaurant in Cleveland. She was a hostess and he was a busboy, and there was a distinct lack of magic in the beginning. “In a work uniform, everybody looks so blah,” Melanie said. But they eventually went on a date and they’ve been together ever since. They’re currently engaged — Shantaurean says he’s got a big announcement in the works for their November anniversary — and they have a 4-year-old son.
Shantaurean was a kitchen manager for 10 years and knows a few recipes himself, but he doesn’t cook much anymore. “When I met her, that’s when I gave up my cooking days,” he said.
The catering service is just getting off the ground, but the format has been developing for years. “We don’t have a set menu,” Melanie says. “I don’t want to come to you with my idea. I want to make your idea better.”
They want to remain flexible, and are open to the idea of on-site cooking. “I like to be able to cook and teach at the same time,” Melanie said.
She says she found her true calling years ago. “My grandmother raved about her lemon squares her whole life,” she recalls. “One day I told her I liked her lemon squares, but they weren’t tart enough. She asked me if I could do better, so I made some and she liked them and she’s never made them again. She asks me to make them.” These days, she says her top three dishes are, in order, shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, and crabcake Eggs Benedict.
When you meet Melanie and Shantaurean, two things are immediately obvious: there’s a lot of mutual respect between them, and Melanie does most of the talking. She recognizes her propensity to chat and claims her fiance is “the only one that can shut me up.” He merely chuckles at the impossibility of that concept.
“She’s a very determined person,” he says. “You can’t put a task in front of her that she won’t try to finish.”
“He keeps me grounded,” she says. “Honestly, I could not work with anyone else day to day.”
And she plans to keep cooking forever: “I’ll probably have to make a spread for my funeral.”
• • •
Scott and Theresa Thomas
Business: Hotel Hickman Chuckwagon BBQ
Scott and Theresa Thomas turned a hobby into a source of income. And then they turned it into their retirement plan.
It started many years ago. “I can remember watching cowboy movies with my dad,” Scott says. “I was always fascinated by the cowboy lifestyle.”
So fascinated that, in adulthood, he became a cowboy reenactor, and convinced Theresa to join him. They acquired some Texas longhorn cattle, a few mules and a chuckwagon — not to mention cowboy hats and boots and other paraphernalia — and started spending weekends hanging out with like-minded Wild West fanatics.
Scott says that when he’s wearing his western garb, children occasionally ask him if he’s a real cowboy. “I tell them I raised Texas longhorns and can hitch up a team of mules, so I’m close.”
They kept their real jobs. Scott’s worked in restaurants, construction and as a truck driver; Theresa worked many years in maintenance for Ann Arbor schools. Then one day they were asked to cook a chuckwagon meal for a birthday party, and something clicked. That gig turned into a part-time catering business and eventually, in 2012, into a restaurant: Hotel Hickman Chuckwagon BBQ in Dexter. It’s basically a cooking facility plus a retail building, separated by a pavilion.
Why Hotel Hickman? The Thomases live on Hickman Road in Ann Arbor. Theresa, from Livonia, is the youngest of 12 children, and Scott, from Ohio, was one of five kids. Their home on Hickman had so many visitors that they all started calling it a hotel.
There’s a clear division of labor at the restaurant. Scott cooks and Theresa — with occasional help from daughter Ashley — works in the retail building. That separation, according to Scott, makes for a happy marriage. “She has her building and I have mine,” he laughs. “We get along fine as long she she stays in her building.” And Theresa years ago discovered a way to make sure she never had to slave over an oven, or campfire: “I learned that if I burned things, he’d cook.”
They specialize in barbecue, obviously, and sometimes cook like cowboys with cast iron cookware. Their No. 1 seller is Texas-style beef brisket, and they’re proud of their hand-ground sausage made “with a 100-year-old grinder that gives you Popeye muscles,” Theresa said.
The catering business is going strong along with the restaurant, so even though the Thomases are retirement age, they’re happily working harder than ever, “doing all we can to keep up with the demands,” Scott said. It’s funny, he adds, that he got out of the restaurant business years ago “because you had to work weekends and holidays, and now here I am working weekends and holidays.”
The difference is that he and Theresa are working for themselves. “This is my retirement plan,” Scott said. “We’re investing in ourselves. And I think it’s going to work out fine.”
• • •
Linda Lombardini and Sandi Smith
Business: Trillium Real Estate
Sandi Smith and Linda Lombardini are comfortable. They’re at ease in their real estate business, in their marriage and in their adopted hometown.
These two former Realtors of the Year became business partners in 1993, life partners in 1995 and opened Trillium Real Estate on Braun Court in Ann Arbor in 2001. They were married Oct. 5, 2013.
Their roles at Trillium are clear. Sandi handles the administration and is the broker in charge of the 10 agents who work there. Linda, meanwhile, says definitively, “I don’t do any of the administrative stuff. I’m the people person.”
Sandi’s pretty good at “people” too, though, having served as the Ward 1 representative on the Ann Arbor City Council from 2008 to 2012, and on the Downtown Development Authority — which she chaired, at one point — since 2004. Interestingly, Sandi and Linda’s son, Jason Frenzel, is now running for the Ward 1 City Council seat in the Democratic primary set for August.
Both Sandi and Linda are past presidents of the Jim Toy Community Center, which provides “information, education, social events and advocacy by and for the queer and ally community in the Washtenaw County area.” Jim Toy was the first “publically out” person in Michigan, in 1970.
These are pretty good times in local real estate; in fact, they’re among the best of times. Both Sandi and Linda remember 2006 as being a good year for sales, followed by “a long, slow slide from 2008 to 2010.” But the good times have returned: “There’s lots of cash in the market,” Sandi says. The agency is growing, but just how much it will expand is up for debate. Asked how many agents they might eventually employ, Sandi says, “I would be happy at 25.” To which Linda says, “I’m thinking 12.”
How do Sandi and Linda balance office and home? It’s simple, they say. Linda works upstairs at Trillium and spends a lot of time out of the office during the day, while Sandi works primarily in a first-floor office. More important, however, is their philosophy. “Real estate is a way of life. Marriage is a way of life,” Sandi said. “It’s so easy when you find the right person and the right career.”
They have that same ease about Ann Arbor. “The town’s progressive enough that our relationship was never a concern,” Sandi said. “This community is so accepting. Even in 2011, people were accepting of our relationship.”
And, from their perspective, Ann Arbor’s the perfect size, too. They recently attended the Sonic Lunch downtown where Laith Al-Saadi performed, and Sandi said they saw “50 people you knew and gave hugs to.” To which Linda added, “But there were also 5,000 people there you didn’t know. So this city’s the perfect size.”
• • •
Steve Hall and Abby Olitzky
Steve Hall and Abby Olitzky met cute.
They worked a few blocks from each other in San Francisco. Steve’s a native of Ann Arbor and Abby was familiar with Zingerman’s and its renowned rye bread and wanted to know more. Steve wowed her with the fact that he once worked at Zingerman’s — leaving out the part about how he helped fill mail orders during the holiday rush and didn’t know much about making bread, much less rye. Ultimately, they connected. “Our first few dates were these epic food adventures,” Steve says; 10-hour quests for the perfect meal.
Within six months of meeting each other they were already dreaming about opening a restaurant together. The plan was to do it in Detroit, with its young, adventurous vibe. But along the way, Abby, a native San Franciscan, fell in love with Ann Arbor. “I’ve made more friends here than I ever have in my life,” she says. She especially loves that Ann Arbor is so walkable and that people seem to recognize and reward passion. The plan evolved; they decided to help bring the hip vibe of Detroit to Ann Arbor’s food scene.
It first materialized as a pop-up restaurant and catering service, Central Provisions. After a couple years, Steve and Abby decided to take the leap and in October they opened Spencer on East Liberty, a cheese and wine bar and restaurant. Oh, and they got engaged. The problem is, they haven’t had time to get married. They’re equal parts mad about each other and about their mutual dream.
Abby — who attended the Institute of Culinary Education in New York — is the chef. Steve — one of the nation’s top cheesemongers — is the “sounding board.” Spencer’s speciality is, well, being special. The menu changes every two weeks and is based on what’s available at the farmer’s market and from local farms. It’s a different concept from most restaurants, which tend to serve their specialty dishes for years and even generations. But those who eat at Spencer understand what they’re in for. “We have the best customers,” Steve said. “They come all the time.”
The restaurant business is tough — “It’s really hard to run a restaurant well,” Abby said, “but it’s easy to run it into the ground” — and that can be hard on a relationship. Abby and Steve have different days off, for instance, and don’t get to spend a lot of time together outside the restaurant. But they have a bond that couples who don’t work together might not understand.
“When you choose a business partner who’s not your life partner, that’s easy to get rid of,” Abby said. “There’s a lot more respect (in working together). We lift each other up when we need that. We value and love what each other do here. I felt like I was already married to Steve when we started this business, more so than being married.”
• • •
Thayrone and Linda Hughes
Thayrone is a former hippie who voted for the Democrat in every presidential election through Al Gore in 2000. He admits, “I even voted for Jimmy Carter, man!”
That will come as a shock to anyone who listens to the show he hosts every weekday from 3 to 6 p.m. on talk radio station WAAM-AM 1600. Or, as he calls it, “Southeast Michigan’s conservative flamethrower.”
He started evolving into a conservative — or going from “black and white to technicolor” — in the early 1990s, when he first heard Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. He made the total break from Team Liberal in 2003.
Thayrone, now 68, has played in rock bands most of his life, most recently with The Witch Doctors. His radio career started in the early ’80s at WEMU, where he hosted a music show. It was fairly ordinary until 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Thayrone was infuriated that Ann Arbor hosted a candlelight vigil for Iraqis, so he opened his show with an impassioned speech in support of American soldiers, the mission in Iraq and George Bush. He was fired the next morning.
That made him famous for a while. He appeared on all the conservative shows — Bill O’Reilly, Tony Snow, etc. — to talk about his firing. He eventually landed a show at Clear Channel. And in the middle of all this, he was dating and eventually married Linda Hughes.
Through all his music and talk show performances, his primary means of support was his job as an accountant at the University of Michigan, but he was eventually RIF’d (fired). So it was radio or nothing for Thayrone and Linda, who, despite a lack of sales training, had started selling Thayrone’s radio show to sponsors.
In 2008, despite her lack of a sales background, Linda was named general manager of WAAM. “You don’t drink and you don’t steal,” Thayrone says. “Those are the only two requirements to run a radio station.”
Then, in 2011, they had a chance to buy WAAM. They took it. “We’re on a mission, man,” Thayrone said. “Believe it or not, we’re trying to save this country.”
Their station is all talk — very conservative talk — and they say it’s a good local fit. “Ann Arbor’s not a straight-up communist town,” Thayrone said. “It’s surrounded by farmers. It’s just happens to be home to a bunch of inexperienced children” — otherwise known as U-M students. Linda adds, “Most business owners here are somewhat conservative. And the talk show audience is very loyal.”
Linda says she’s just as conservative as Thayrone: “I agree with just about everything he says. I just phrase it differently.”
And she doesn’t talk nearly as much as Thayrone. “He’s a radio show all the time,” Linda says. So, does she ever feel the need to tell him to be quiet? “Only at night when we’re watching Fox News on television.”