Kati Lovvorn with Urban Emporium

Kati Lovvorn with Urban Emporium

On this week's podcast, Marcus sat down with Kati Lovvorn with Urban Emporium. From learning the retail industry in West Palm Beach and New Orleans, she brings her knowledge to Downtown Mobile to help incubate small businesses. Grab a coffee and listen in or read about Kati's story!


Kati: My name is Kati Lovvorn, and I'm the store director at Urban Emporium.

Marcus: Yay.

Kati: Woohoo!

Marcus: No, it's great to have you on the podcast. I know we talked about this beforehand. We've had Carol on, and you all are kind of part of the Downtown Mobile Alliance, but not really. So, when I was in the store the other day getting a Mother's Day present, because I shop local, people-

Kati: Yeah!

Marcus: ... it occurred to me that we had not talked to you, and I was glad to hear that you were coming on. So, thank you for being here.

Kati: Yes. Thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here.

Marcus: Yeah. Absolutely. Well, you know how this goes, because you listen. So, tell us the story of Kati. Where did you grow up? Where'd you go to high school? Where'd you go to college, if you went? Because not everybody on the podcast has been. Give us some of the backstory. Tell us who you are.

Kati: So, I'm from here, born and raised Mobile, Alabama.

Marcus: Yay.

Kati: And I went to McGill-Toolen for high school, which was great. Then I actually went to the University of Southern Mississippi for college. So, that was a change, because not a lot of people from here went there. It's actually really popular for people from here to go there now.

Marcus: Interesting.

Kati: But met a lot of great friends there. Moved around a little bit. After I graduated college, I moved straight to West Palm Beach, Florida, like the day I graduated college, which was kind of crazy. But I was a fashion merchandising and marketing major, so I wanted to work on Rodeo Drive, but I didn't want to go all the way to California, so-

Marcus: So, West Palm Beach was as close-

Kati: Yeah. So, they have Worth Avenue, which is like a mini Rodeo, so I was like, "Let me get in on that." And I had a good friend that lived there. So, I did that for a while, and I ended up working at Nordstrom down there, which was a great experience for corporate retail. I had never worked in corporate retail before. And let me tell you, it is a different world from local. And learned a lot of lessons in that, and kind of learned that it wasn't for me. So, I moved to New Orleans after that. I came home for I think four or five days, and it was Memorial Day weekend, and I went to New Orleans, and then I was like, "Yeah, I'm gonna move here now, too." So, I packed up a bag and lived there for about a year.

Kati: I worked for a small business there. It was a boutique. The owner, she was just the most amazing person ever, and she was so great about teaching me about business. She was a struggling small-business owner. She had just started her company. She was under five years old. And those are the really hard years to make it happen. So, you-

Marcus: Amen.

Kati: ... everybody says, "If you make it to five years, you will make it." But it's a struggle to get there. And you go through highs and lows and getting your name out there. And she was great. And she taught me how to do some buying and all the ins and outs of retail. And she really got me excited about small business I guess is how that all started.

Marcus: That's cool. So, what was more valuable to you, the experience that you had in work or the experience that you, the knowledge, not necessarily the experience, because college experience is something different, but the knowledge that you got when you were in college?

Kati: I'd say the experience was way more because you're talking about out of college ...

Marcus: Yeah.

Kati: ... in college? Yeah. So, in college, obviously it's a book that you're learning from, so you don't really get prepared for real-life situations or how hard it really is. And even in college, I worked for a small-business owner, too, in a boutique there. So, the experience is better. You learn the struggle. Everyone thinks it's so easy to go open a small ... They're like, "I'm gonna open a business." And it's like, it's really not that easy. And I guess I got to learn that at a really young age. And that's actually what made me wait a very long time to open my own small business because the struggle is real. And I learned it firsthand.

Kati: So, I got a chance to ride on other people's coattails I guess and learn from their mistakes and their hardships to figure out the best way for me to make it work.

Marcus: And it's cool that you got the experience at a corporate retailer to know that that, even moving up in that world wasn't for you, because for instance, we deal a lot with technology. So, we just had somebody in. We wish him well, but we had somebody leave because he had aspirations of working on much larger, bigger projects. And quite honestly, I come from much larger, bigger projects. I mean I worked for contractors that did projects for the DOD and Department of State and all ... It doesn't get much bigger than that.

Marcus: But that is not, I don't enjoy that at all because you're really just a cog inside of a huge wheel, whereas what I love about what we do now is that I'm impacting other business owners and I'm getting to do a lot of what you're getting to do, which is really help other people achieve their dreams and their goals as well. So, that's cool.

Kati: Yeah. It was a different world. And you know then, right, you learn so quickly that it's just not for you.

Marcus: Yeah.

Kati: Working for small-business owners, you just become family. You're part of the team. Their successes are your successes. And you get excited about different things. It's a whole different story because in a corporation, you don't really matter a lot of times. And your opinions or your thoughts and all that kind of stuff is pushed to the wayside because they have a plan. They have a plan 18 months out. And-

Marcus: Or longer.

Kati: Yeah. So, small business it's fun because you can fly by the seat of your pants. It's like, "There's an event coming up? Let's do it. Let's pack up a bag and go."

Marcus: It's like even small things, the Nappies were just released today, and we were nominated for two awards.

Kati: Fantastic!

Marcus: I know. So, I stop and I ... That thing is, we haven't talked about it internally, but that's kind of a big deal.

Kati: It is, yeah.

Marcus: We've never been nominated for a Nappie before. We've not done a whole lot of business here locally, so it's kind of cool to see ... I don't know. Anyway, this isn't about me, so we're gonna stop.

Kati: It's exciting, though.

Marcus: But it's exciting. As a small-business owner, it is, it's very exciting.

Kati: Yeah.

Marcus: Now, what was your first job? And are there any lessons that you still remember taking from them?

Kati: I think my first job, because I kind of got a heads-up about this before, it was either working at my dad's office filing papers or a lifeguard. And I don't remember which was first because I kind of did them at the same time. And I don't even know. Lessons to learn, do what you're told at those kind of jobs. You're 16, and you're pushing papers around. But I did learn, I think organization skills was probably one of the best things that I learned. I didn't realize how important is it to be organized until you're filing house plans and papers and stuff like that all together. And if you don't put them in the right place, it's gonna-

Marcus: Or in the right order even, yeah.

Kati: ... yeah, it's gonna be a problem for somebody. But, yeah, and then lifeguarding, that was just a lot of fun, and meet some cool people and don't drown.

Marcus: Yeah, and people's lives in your hands. Now, you mentioned starting your own business. Why don't you tell people a little bit about that.

Kati: I've been with Urban Emporium almost four years now. It'll be four years in August. And when I first started there, I was just so excited to move back to Mobile and have an opportunity to work in the fashion industry in a different way because I kind of always struggled back and forth with, "Am I gonna be able to live in my hometown that I absolutely love and do what I absolutely love to do? Or am I gonna have to suck it up and move somewhere else? Because this is my career. This is what I chose to go to school for, and I love it."

Kati: And then through a friend, through the grapevine, I heard about Urban Emporium, and I'd been in a couple of times but didn't really know what it was or the concept about it. And interviewed for the job, and it was awesome. And then just I didn't realize how much good that they did and how many different people they reached out to and how many businesses they were helping. So, over the years, I've learned so much being a part of the organization that I finally decided to be ... I think I've learned so much now that I'm like, "Okay, I think I can do my own business now." I've been wanting to do this since I was 17. I'm like, "Hey, you can do it now."

Kati: So, I finally decided to take the leap. And it was hard. I did even working with small-business owners every day and sharing the advice and all of the things that I've learned over my years in my career in fashion, and it's kind of easy to teach it, but then when you're actually doing what you're teaching, it's hard.

Marcus: It's hard.

Kati: Yeah. It again, I was prepared for the wake-up call and I was prepared that how hard it is to run a small business, but then it still got me.

Marcus: Yeah. It is a bit of a different bird. It's funny because even Blue Fish has been in existence for over 10 years, but as a marketing company, it was oftentimes like the cobbler's kids have no shoes. And it wasn't until probably about a little over two years ago or so, three years ago, because we started the podcast about three years ago, where we started putting a little bit more effort into those kinds of things. But it is, small-business owners are really focused on serving their clients, and oftentimes, it sounds like that's what you got tapped into.

Kati: Yeah.

Marcus: It was like, "Well, I'm busy serving the Urban Emporium clients and putting that over my own desires, but-

Kati: Yeah. Because I mean and I still do that today because the Urban Emporium has to succeed for retail to be able to [come 00:10:44] a real thing downtown. And we have succeeded. We've been in operation for it'll be six years in October. And it started at first as a proof of concept that retail could live in downtown. And now, it's snowballed into this amazing landmark in downtown for shopping and retail. And we love that. So, without that, my business wouldn't exist. So, it's just one of those things that I truly love working with all of our tenants and our consignors and artists and everybody that are involved in it. And I want them to succeed because I want the shop to succeed, too.

Kati: It's like Urban Emporium wouldn't be there without them, so-

Marcus: Well, let's go back.

Kati: ... it's one without the other.

Marcus: Describe ... I don't know, have we said what Urban Emporium actually is?

Kati: No. I could do that.

Marcus: Yeah. Let's do that because I think many people probably don't even know what it is.

Kati: Yeah. Every day, I meet people that don't know what we are. So, Urban Emporium is a 501c3 nonprofit, and we're started to revitalize retail in downtown Mobile. So, the Downtown Alliance actually came up with the concept and started us as a nonprofit wing of the organization and to fill a need in downtown. After everything moved out West, there wasn't really much left down here. And then with companies moving back down here and more and more visitors trying to come to town and the CBD is obviously done huge things to bring more and more people into town-

Marcus: Tourism and stuff like that. Yeah.

Kati: Yeah. So, they actually, with other downtowns across the country, they went and visited all these different places and got the idea from a PieLab. So, it was this incubator that all these different chefs and cooks were in, and they were all making desserts under one roof and selling their product. So, that's kind of where they got the idea. So, they took that and ran with it and created this whole retail concept with it. And there aren't very many retail incubators across the United States, but it's cool. And it has changed 100% from day one the plan. We have a 4,000-square-foot store. It was originally designed for six retailers. And now we have 32 retailers in there.

Marcus: I was just gonna ask, yeah, how many people are represented?

Kati: Yeah. It's totally different. We were just started to support entrepreneurs, local, start-up businesses, maybe even businesses that are in other locations that want to be in downtown now, because a lot of people we've had some people recently from the mall come down. We've got people from West Mobile that are down here because it's such a different consumer that you can reach so many different people. Being in West Mobile doesn't mean that everybody's getting to you. And being down here doesn't mean everyone's getting to you. But down here, there's just a feel about downtown and the people that come down here. It's just fun.

Marcus: Well, I know that the chamber has spent some time in Charleston.

Kati: Yep.

Marcus: And I imagine the Downtown Mobile Alliance has also looked at what Charleston has as well. And I can't for the life of me remember the street, because we were just in Charleston in February for a conference. I was. And there's a street there, and it's either King Street or something along those lines. And literally it was just store after store after store. And they shut it down I think it was we were there on a Sunday if I remember correctly or a Saturday. They had shut down the street. And we just happened on it. We went to Husk, which was a dream come true. This is where Jared inserts angels singing, stuff like that, because it was literally a gastro experience like no other.

Marcus: But anyway, and we were just walking around downtown. And all the sudden, we saw all these people. All the restaurants had brought tables out into the street. And there were stores all over the place. And I think if I was to look into the future, Dauphin Street becomes that.

Kati: I would love that.

Marcus: And there's no more traffic, and there's just retail shops and restaurants, yeah.

Kati: Cobblestone streets and tables and people everywhere.

Marcus: Yeah, and I think that would just be very cool. So, you guys were kind of the stake in the ground of, "Hey, this can be a reality." Now, one of the things that we're flirting around is that you said 32 different retailers. The idea here is that people that don't necessarily have retail experience or that may not need a big enough presence to own or to lease a 1,500-square-foot or bigger space, which is about as small as you're gonna find in downtown, that they can come to you and apply to be part of the Urban Emporium. And then you'll get into some of the semantics later, but then they can have their stuff there.

Marcus: So, you walk in and you may have soap that's made by somebody and jewelry that's made by another person. And one of our previous guests, the Mobtown Merchants, has their t-shirts there.

Kati: Absolutely.

Marcus: And you were saying Mobile Bay Company has some hats and shirts and stuff like that. So, it's just a mix of different products.

Kati: Yeah. We've got as small as a wood turner that has pins and delicate candlesticks and things like that to as big as 200-square-foot retailers in there. So, the size [crosstalk 00:16:20]-

Marcus: There's even a dog food-

Kati: There is. [crosstalk 00:16:21]-

Marcus: It was funny, I made a joke with the woman that was working the counter that day where there was a dog biscuit or something like that. I think it said, "Eat me," or something along those lines. And I like .. She was like, "No!" And I was like, "I'm kidding. I know that this is all-"

Kati: Kids lick them all the time. We're not surprised by anything that happens. We've got a lot of people that've come in and licked them and taken a bite out of them. And they don't taste that bad. They just don't have sugar in them.

Marcus: Yuck. So gross. But I just think it's a really unique and really cool idea. But I have to go back because you've not told us what your business is. So, what is your business in the Urban Emporium?

Kati: My mom and I started our business a year ago March. So, we just had our one-year anniversary. We didn't even do anything to celebrate. I don't know. It just passed and didn't even realize it. And it's called The Broke Croker. And it's basically we started out because starting a small business, we didn't want to take out a loan or anything. So, we kind of just did it out of pocket. So, without a lot of startup capital, you have to get creative with what you're gonna do. And my dad does a lot of handmade furniture, frames, tables, really cool stuff from refurbished wood from the bay and the delta.

Marcus: Very cool.

Kati: So, we started out with a lot of stuff like that, local fill type stuff and some jewelry and cards and just a few gifts. And then now, we've grown into clothing, accessories, gifts, candle, a little bit of everything. So, it's kind of like a mini Urban Emporium because I've ... My favorite thing about Urban Emporium is how we have so much to offer. There's literally something for everyone. So, when I started my small business, I was like, "I want something for everybody, too." You can't get so narrowed down with, "I'm just gonna do this," or, "I'm just gonna do this." And it's such an ever-changing business that you really have to just fly by the seat of your pants and do what you're feeling.

Kati: So, we've gotten some really crazy stuff and just kind of run with it. And it's-

Marcus: Well, I love that it's there because I think, if I remember correctly, it may have been Valentine's Day or something along those lines, I went in and got something for my wife. Mother's Day was just recently, was able to pick up a piece of jewelry for her. I bought a t-shirt from Mobtown Merch there. I think it was the "Defend the Delta" one, you know what I mean? I always like stopping in and seeing what you have all have because it is such a hodgepodge of different things. It's not just a women's boutique. They have guys' stuff there. They have pet stuff there. They have kids' stuff there. It's all kinds of things.

Marcus: And I do like the idea that from what I understand, most of the people that are in there are local businesses.

Kati: Everyone is a local business. A lot of the people, and [they're 00:19:09] make their own items, so they're handmade artisan items. But the people that don't hand-make their items also go to market and do things. But it's all local businesses. So, we don't have anything chain in our store. So, that's great because everything you come in it's gonna have a local feel.

Marcus: Yep. Shop local-local.

Kati: Yeah.

Marcus: All right. If you were talking to someone that wanted to get started in running their own business, what's the one bit of wisdom that you would impart to them?

Kati: Do your research. Just make sure it's something you really want to do because ...

Marcus: Because it's gonna suck?

Kati: Yeah. It's hard. It's not gonna be fun like you think it is in the beginning. It is so super stressful. And if you have a partner, you're gonna fight, you're gonna get mad at each other. You're gonna not be able to handle some days. There are a lot of tears in starting a business. And that is just straight-up, 100% honesty. I think I cried more this past year than I've ever cried in my life. And it's just it comes with it, and some happy tears, some sad tears, some stress. But in the end of the day, every day, I knew I wanted to do it. It was like, "Okay, I learned something new today. Keep going. Take it down, learn a lesson, and keep going."

Marcus: We hear oftentimes, especially when it comes to political things, like, "Small business is the engine that blah, blah, blah drives America blah." And the truth is that really when you look at Mobile, it is a small- and medium-size business. If I remember correctly, the classic definition of a small business is 100 employees or less.

Kati: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Marcus: So, the vast majority of businesses in this area would fall into that classification.

Kati: Oh, my God, they probably have less than 10.

Marcus: Yeah. Most of them are gonna be 20 people or less, right?

Kati: Yeah.

Marcus: So, really, small businesses are the engine that drives Mobile.

Kati: Absolutely.

Marcus: So, the more that we can do to foster that through mechanisms like Urban Emporium and then also the more that we can do through the chamber to educate people on how they can take that business and accelerate their growth and stuff like that, I just think that that's extremely valuable. So, you guys play an extremely important part in that.

Kati: Yeah. And we've got a business consultant on staff. She's here every Wednesday. Being a 501c3, to hit all of our qualifications of what we are, we offer education classes. We have the business consultant on staff. And her major role is to really help people that are brand new starting out develop their business plan. So, it's a very simplified, three-page business plan. You fill out this little questionnaire, like, "Who are you? Who's your market?" What you're trying to do. And she really helps you put that together. And then once you've got six months or a year under your belt, she meets with you again to really go over your numbers, because our retailers in our store are selling as much square foot as the mall or a Nordstrom or a Saks or something. I mean they're up there with major retailers. And it's just on a small scale.

Kati: So, there's such an opportunity and a need for it. And we can't make it if people don't support it. So, it takes the whole community to get behind small businesses. And we try to just be a flagship of a supporter to say, "Hey, you can do it." And if you start it and you decide in a year it's not what you wanted to do, you tried it out at minimal risk. And that's what we're here for. It's like it's-

Marcus: Just try signing a lease for a year.

Kati: Yeah. Figure out if it's really what you want to do. So, we're a good jumping point for that, too. And we help you along the way so you don't fall hard or have any major setbacks. You don't have to do rent, staffing because we handle all the staffing, the bills, all that kind of good stuff. And, like you mentioned earlier, it's really hard to find an appropriate-sized storefront in downtown for a small retail business. So, that's a struggle that we've been dealing with and trying to work with property owners and stuff like that because the sweet spot is 1,200 square feet for a retailer that's graduating out of our store. They've gotta be able to operate at minimal cost for what they're doing.

Marcus: Especially the average cost per square foot right now is $15 per square foot in downtown Mobile. So, it's getting a little bit ridiculous. And if something doesn't change, then it'll mean that those-

Kati: It's gonna push people out. Yeah.

Marcus: ... yeah, those smaller retailers won't be able to afford to be down here. Now, if you were to look to the business world, is there someone that you oftentimes go to that motivates you or that you look up to?

Kati: I love Rachel Zoe. She is so, she's my fashion idol.

Marcus: I'm surprised. I actually know who that is.

Kati: Yes. She's amazing! How could you not?

Marcus: I get a cookie right? Yeah.

Kati: Yeah. I think when I was young, I wanted to be a stylist, so I followed her very closely, and I still do today, because she's turned ... She started as a stylist when she was a kid. And now she's turned it into a multi-million-dollar empire. She's amazing. And she worked really hard for what she has. And she's just, she's somebody that I'm like, "She did it. Why can't I do it?" So, I like to look to her for inspiration and girl power.

Marcus: That is cool. Are there any books, podcasts, people, or organizations that have been helpful in moving your forward? And the Downtown Mobile Alliance does not count.

Kati: Oh, my goodness. Yes. So, when I was in college, I was in a sorority. I was a Phi Mu. And that really shaped me as a young adult I think to ... We did a lot of community service and did different things in the community. And it really taught me how to reach out and get outside of your box and don't just sit at home and not do anything. So, I'd say they, and the friends that I made there, definitely motivated me, and we encourage each other to do better things and to keep going forward. And I'm actually a board member on the Girl Scouts of South Alabama. And that organization does so much for young girls everywhere. And they're great. It's a great thing to be a part of that organization. They've done a lot.

Marcus: Yeah, that's cool, because I know that, especially for minorities and for women, having somebody that's actually doing those kinds of things paints a path to a different future. So, that's really cool. What's the most important thing that you've learned about running a business?

Kati: It's hard. I mean it is hard. And it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen. It's worth it, but I think that's something that people sugarcoat and that's something that I've tried with our tenants and our potential tenants is to not sugarcoat that for them because it's tough. And you need a lot of support and help being in a small business and being in a community. And I think we're lucky that Mobile is, downtown Mobile especially, is so supportive of it. The mayor, he's come by and done ... We do our continued education stuff we do. He came and did a talk one night. And it was just great to have him come out and show his support for the community. And just that people, everybody down here believes in it, and it makes the hardness a little easier-

Marcus: Easier?

Kati: ... to swallow.

Marcus: Yeah. Well, I mean going back to this, it has to be a little bit satisfying to know that there are a number of shops that are popping up downtown.

Kati: Absolutely.

Marcus: And that would not have happened without the existence of the Urban Emporium.

Kati: Yeah. It's great every day. Covered Boutique is a graduate of us. Very early on, she was a pioneer in going out and doing it on her own. And she's worked really hard. And then [Cable's 00:28:08] popped up along with Urban Stiles and several other small shops along the way. And it's inspiring. I'm so happy because several of those places have had no affiliation with us at all. And it makes me just smile so big to know that people are seeing us and seeing that it can happen. And they're like, "I'm gonna take the risk and do it." And-

Marcus: They're betting on it.

Kati: Absolutely. And it's just so great to see more and more people taking the risk to do it because it's so great. And there's such an untapped market for it down here. There's room for everyone. And that's something that I really want people to know, too. There's room for everybody. We need it. We want it. The people need it and want ... It's just-

Marcus: It's gonna be a different downtown in five years. We'll look back at this podcast and we'll be able to ... Because you just named most of the retailers. So, in five years, we have to come back-

Kati: I have to come back and listen to it.

Marcus: ... and we'll have to listen to this, and we'll probably be amazed at the number of retailers that are in downtown, because right now it's mostly focused on restaurants and businesses.

Kati: It is, yeah.

Marcus: But I can totally see that this, especially as the weekends with the market that takes places down here and with the art walk and stuff like that-

Kati: The cruise ship, yeah.

Marcus: ... cruise ship. I know a lot of us are pushing for Mobile to become a destination for tourism. All that's gonna really drive this need for retailers to be down here. It's not just something that we want. It needs to happen.

Kati: Yeah. And with all the breaking ground on the new living downtown is amazing. That's gonna drive it right there alone. I am so excited about that because with more and more people down here, it's just brings more, it's just the more the better.

Marcus: It's $185 million of investment in living.

Kati: It's pretty amazing.

Marcus: Let's just pause for a second, folks. If you're listening to this, $185 million of renovation is happening in downtown Mobile right now. So-

Kati: Get in early.

Marcus: ... get in. I just bought my building. What are you doing? So, tell people where they can find out more information.

Kati: Our website, urbanemporiummobile.com. We've got it's just a little information. We've got our tenants listed, and there's a contact page where you can find an application. If you're a potential tenant and you're interested in starting your own business, definitely reach out and give me a call. I'd love to talk to you. And Instagram and Facebook you can follow us there. And you can come stop in the store and see us. That's my favorite thing.

Marcus: They are across from the Downtown Mobile Alliance, which is next door to the offices for the Mobile Symphony.

Kati: yes.

Marcus: Well, it's the Saenger Theatre Mobile Symphony offices, which is ... Okay, for all you listeners, it's near Loda Beir Garten.

Kati: Yeah. It's right next door to Brickyard.

Marcus: I'm trying to give all the-

Kati: We have a hot-pink awning and now we have a hot pink fence in the back patio, so you cannot miss us either way.

Marcus: That's too funny. Well, I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up, any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share?

Kati: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be a part of this. And I just want to share my love for downtown. And it's come such a long way since I've been down here. And I'm ready to see it keep rolling.

Marcus: Awesome. Well, it's been a pleasure.

Kati: Thank you.

Marcus: I appreciate year willingness to sit with me and share your journey. It's been great talking with you, Kati.

Kati: Thanks. You, too.

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