Where The Women Entrepreneurs Are: Plaza At Preston Center

By Maria Halkias The Dallas Morning News.

The Plaza at Preston Center didn't set out to fill its space with smart, successful female entrepreneurs, but it didn't happen by accident, either.

More than 20 years ago, Mike Geisler, a partner at Venture Commercial Real Estate, started leasing the shopping center. But the big brands were turning him down because the center was too close to their stores in NorthPark Center.

"So we started collecting the best local retailers," Geisler said.

He found Betty Reiter, whose eponymous boutique has a client list that Neiman Marcus would envy. Before she opened her store at The Plaza, Reiter was working out of an office building on Douglas Avenue, putting together wardrobes for loyal customers from her years of working at Loretta Blum and Stanley Korshak.

Reiter opened her store in 1994 with a vibe that she calls cozy, with good feng shui and a red door.

"The pleasure of being a small business is that I can make all the decisions, and I can give an instant answer to our customers," said Reiter, who originally moved to the U.S. from Paris to work in the Yves St. Laurent boutique in New York.

Geisler also courted Carla Martinengo's store, which is one of the highest sales-per-square-foot women's boutiques in Texas.

Martinengo was on McKinney Avenue just south of Knox Street, "doing a phenomenal business," Geisler said.

Originally from Italy, Martinengo still goes to Europe six times a year and prides herself on discovering new designers. The business is like a baby, she said -- it's small and it grows. "It's not a glamorous job, but fashion is a passion for me. Just because you open the doors of your business, it's not going to happen."

Castle Gap Jewelry's founder, Maxine Bennett, is 95 years old and still comes to work every day with her daughter Beverly. Their customer list spans multiple generations within the same families.

100% leased Over the decades, those stores helped the center become a place where women can open stores and thrive.

The shopping center, which is owned by the Dallas Caruth family, is at the southeast corner of Preston Road and Northwest Highway in University Park -- Main Street for some of Dallas' best neighborhoods. It's 100 percent leased and largely occupied by locally owned stores.

Fifteen businesses are owned or co-owned by women. And they're constantly getting requests from landlords and brokers to open a second store, please.

Marsha Lindsey left a corporate executive job 10 years ago to open pet supply store Lucky Dog Barkery.

Geisler says he had to be won over by Lindsey and her idea. She wanted to re-create a childhood memory of the Fleetwood General Store that her uncle ran in rural Oklahoma. "Mike listened to me," she said. "Other centers in town blew me off."

Lindsey and others credit the center's staff for helping her turn her vision of a pet store decorated with antiques into reality. She's since expanded twice.

Now, instead of opening more stores, Lindsey is consulting with entrepreneurs in other cities to do what she did: Turn a love of pets into self-employment.

Janet Finegold, co-owner of The Biz/KidBiz, also left a corporate job that required her to be in New York two weeks a month with an 18-month-old, 5-year-old and 8-year-old at home in Dallas.

Ditto for Nisha Patel. She bought Apples to Zinnias four years ago, leaving a 10-year career in finance after her first child was born.

Many of the businesses support each other. Most of the fresh flower arrangements in The Plaza's stores and restaurants are from Apples to Zinnias. Businesses also use the shop to send their customers flowers, Patel said. "And having nationally known Sprinkles cupcakes in the center is huge for us because we deliver their cupcakes with our arrangements."

Patel comes from a retail background. Her mother just retired after 37 years of running Manju's, a popular clothing store for University of Texas coeds. (It was big news in Austin when the store lost its lease so the entire block could be taken over by Urban Outfitters.)

That's another recurring theme at The Plaza at Preston Center: Many of the female shop owners grew up with parents in retailing.

In addition to Castle Gap, there's Song Pardue, who owns Pickles & Ice Cream, a maternity boutique, and Shiona Nguyen, manager of Hanna Isul, a spa specializing in skin care.

Pardue didn't want to take over her mother's beauty supply store in Memphis, but after spending lots of Saturdays there working in the store as a teen, she always knew she wanted her own store.

"I love clothes, but I was too afraid to compete with Nordstrom," she said. Then, when she was pregnant with her first child and couldn't find clothes she liked, Pardue found her niche.

Her first store was in The Plaza, and it's still her best one, she said. There's one store in Nashville, and she also bought a company that franchised some locations. At one time, there were seven Pickles & Ice Creams, including one in Plano, but running a second store in the same market can be difficult, she said.

Mal Malouf Parsons also grew up in a retail family. Her parents had stores, and she previously had a store in Snider Plaza. After not running a store for three years, she opened her women's boutique five years ago in The Plaza. "I really missed it," she said. "We're all a lot of good, hard-working mom and pops in this center."

Nguyen, 25, is the youngest of the bunch. Her store is an offshoot of Hanna Isul, a Fort Worth spa her mother, Myong Chong, has owned since 1997.

Here's a tip for developers trying to talk small businesses into opening another location: Look for one with a younger generation ready to strike out on their own.

Chong was originally looking for a second location in Southlake that Nguyen could run. "But then she saw The Plaza at Preston Center and loved it," Geisler said.

Nguyen has a younger sister, but there are no plans for a third store yet.

Network of women All the women talk about the customer service they provide. Many live in the neighborhood and totally get their customers' lifestyles.

Jenn Ratan, co-owner of custom clothier Double R, says many of her customers are mothers of her children's friends or take the spin class she still finds time to teach. Double R started out making women's shirts and has expanded into other clothing and accessories, including monogrammed scarves and loafers.

When customers come in, she says, "I know what they have and what their girlfriends have."

The women also say it helps to have a network of women shop owners to bounce things off of.

Sara McDaniel worked in the wholesale side of the optical business for 20 years before she got the chance to buy out Occhiali Modern Optics from her employer Lisa Methvin in 2013. McDaniel took a pay cut to come work in the store and learn the business. "It was the best decision I ever made," she said. "Lisa took me under her wing."

Reiter and Lindsey have both offered valuable guidance, she said, "They look out for me. Marsha will call and say, 'How's your A/C? I have a guy if you need one.'"

Reiter steered McDaniel to Ratan for help dressing the part of a business owner with an upscale clientele. Ratan now makes Occhiali's store uniform: a custom-made, monogrammed black shirt dress that blends with her eyeglass shop's décor.

"This center is choosy about who the neighboring tenants are, and that makes a huge difference for all of us," Pardue said. "I feel very fortunate to be here."

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