Playing store in Grass Valley
Had she realized what kind of challenge lay before her, Rita Burns might have remained a lawyer instead of purchasing a retail business in downtown Grass Valley in 1996.
But Burns is the adventurous type who’s not afraid of change, so she bought Tess’ Gift and Card Shop at 145 Mill St., better known nine years later as Tess’ Kitchen Store.
“I wanted to play store,” she said recently. “I didn’t know how difficult it was going to be. Luckily, I inherited some good employees, and they stayed with me.”
Burns now has a thriving enterprise that carries more than 1,000 household and kitchen items, is well-known for her support of downtown Grass Valley, and has gained a following for the off-beat, humorous advertising she runs.
But none of that came easily – the business didn’t break even until 2000 and didn’t become profitable until she completely changed the business she purchased. “I didn’t have enough sense to be scared,” she said.
The store Burns purchased sold china, crystal and flatware aimed at newlyweds, as well as greeting cards, stationery and related items.
Burns sensed that young couples were losing interest in such niceties, so she started a process of changing the store’s product mix. “I looked at the numbers, and housewares were what sold consistently,” she said.
She slowly cleared room at the back of the 2,600 square foot store for houseware and kitchen items. By 2001, that’s all the store was selling.
“We cater to locals; we don’t buy for tourists,” Burns said. “I basically try to get the best quality at the best price … If you get good basic, quality items, they consistently sell.”
She attends three trade shows a year and reads industry publications to stay current on the latest trends. She also solicits ideas from her employees and listens to her customers before deciding what to stock.
“If I made all of the buying decisions, I’d have a store that looks like me,” she said.
Burns prefers timeless items over the trendy ones, but admits to trying to stay current on what’s new. “I watch the Food Network so I know what cooks are using, because I have customers who will ask about them.”
She views the store as a destination that people will go out of their way to patronize, one of the reasons she dropped “great” from the store’s name.
“You can see ‘kitchen store’ on the sign from the street,” Burns said. “That’s what I want people to remember.”
Burns also tries to make her store memorable through her advertising, which uses puns and word play to promote her wares. She said the style wasn’t intentional – it just happened.
She recalled that one of her first newspaper ads featured a spoon cradle. The headline read, “I rest my spoon.” Another ad promoting kitchen timers proclaimed, “For a good timer, call Tess’.”
Burns has taken the same approach in her radio advertising, and the spots have turned her into a minor local celebrity.
“Because of those ads, people come into the store looking for me,” she said. “They’ve heard my voice, and they just want to see me.”
But she also believes that people have to be drawn to the downtown area if businesses are to succeed, so she has been active in the Grass Valley Downtown Association since buying the business.
She has served on the association’s board and as president, a position that usually burns out the office holder, but she is still active on the promotion committee.
“She’s like an angel for downtown,” said Howard Levine, executive director of the association. “Having one of her is like having a lucky charm.”
Burns is particularly interested in promoting the Grass Valley Downtown Car Show, the event that first attracted her to Grass Valley in 1996.
She spent most of her adult life in the Los Angeles area, working for the same law firm for 27 years. She started out as a paralegal, spent four years in night school getting her law degree, and then specialized in contract and securities law.
But she reassessed her situation after her husband died. “What I had was a job, and I was looking for something else,” she said.
So she took a leave of absence from the law firm and moved to Sacramento, where her siblings lived. Burns started scouting businesses within a 100 mile radius of the capital city, visiting Folsom, Chico and other communities.
Then she heard about the car show in Grass Valley, and decided to enter her 1957 Ford Thunderbird. In the process, she found her future home.
“I loved the downtown, the history of the area,” she said. She gave up the idea of opening a book store and bought Tess’, named for Tess Hocking, who opened the Golden Poppy Luncheonette in the building in 1931.
Now that her business is doing well, Burns is ready for the next challenge. “I get excited wondering what will happen in the next five years,” she said. “I welcome change.”
The business now known as Tess’ Kitchen Store hasn’t actually been owned by “Tess” for decades.
Tess Hocking opened the Golden Poppy Luncheonette in the building in 1931. When Rita Burns bought the shop nine years ago, it was Tess’ Gift and Card Shop, a name she eventually changed to Tess’ Great Kitchen Place. Last fall, she officially changed the name to Tess’ Kitchen Store.
Burns said it was always important to keep the name Tess because it was part of the building’s landmark status.
“It’s a historical place,” Burns said. “Everybody knows about Tess’.”
Actually, the first person to call the shop Tess’ was the original owner’s son, making for an irony of sorts.
“The only owner who didn’t call it Tess’ was Tess,” Burns said.
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