I caught a break two years ago this month when I learned that the Tree and Vine would open a store in Knoxville. It was two years ago this month and a friend of mine happened to be in their Asheville store just as they signed the lease. I wrote the story but, honestly, I wondered how a store could survive in downtown Knoxville selling olive oil and balsamics. It seemed really specific, to me.
I recently met with co-owner Terri Karlsson of the Tree and Vine, 439 Union Avenue, to talk about the long journey that brought her and husband Paul to this point. It’s an interesting journey that has culminated with a successful and growing business.
After a career in the Navy, Paul, taking advantage of his MBA from William and Mary, accepted a position with IBM. Living in Portsmouth and Hampton Roads, Terri worked in Human Resources for a railroad for thirteen years. His position involved an increasing amount of travel and the two, looking for a change, moved to Charlotte, North Carolina for Paul to accept a position with Selectron.
Once there, Terri, who had sung with the Virginia Symphony Chorus, began to sing with a group in Charlotte and began writing grants for Hospice. Given her musical talents, the organization asked her to make a presentation on music therapy. After learning about it for the presentation, Terri became interested and entered a program which combined psychology, performance and therapy.
Always developing their interests, Paul had begun woodworking prior to being laid off by Selectron and he and Terri began remodeling work while he pursued a seminary degree. A family tragedy led them to purchase property in Brevard, North Carolina, just outside Asheville, with the intention of using it as a retreat. They ultimately decided to move there full time and moved their remodeling business to Brevard as well as operating a portion of their retreat as a bread and breakfast.
At this point in the conversation, I began adding up the changes and feeling exhausted just to consider the energy required. I also began wondering what happened to the olive oil business. Incredibly, Terri told me she’d never considered the business before walking into an olive oil and balsamic store in March of 2011 in Hilton Head. They opened the Tree and Vine in Asheville on June 14, 2011 – just six weeks after walking into that store.
During that frantic six weeks they considered a franchise and then a distributorship before deciding they really wanted to be independent. Looking around Asheville for the best location for their new store, they also realized that no one sold wine at Biltmore Village. The store there features Mediterranean wines which, of course, they are not currently allowed to sell in Tennessee because they are considered a grocery store.
They built the business from scratch, forming relationships with olive growers in Italy, building their own shelving and furniture, handling the technological and business demands and managing the store. Within six months they realized it was successful beyond anything they could have imagined and they also came to feel they could replicate that success elsewhere if they found the right location. They knew they would have the benefit of the economics of scale and wouldn’t have the learning curve their first store presented.
They began their search in coastal cities along the southern seaboard, but didn’t seem to find the right fit. Rents were too high or leases too restrictive. They made a trip to Nashville to look at some possible locations and they had another trip planned when fate intervened in the form of Tim Zitzman who was working with David Dewhirst to develop the New Union Shops in the south end of the Market Square Garage. He suggested they stop in Knoxville on their trip to Nashville.
The trip to Nashville didn’t offer the fit they were looking for, so they stopped in Knoxville on their way back to North Carolina. They arrived downtown on a dark, cold February night and were amazed to see how many people were out on Market Square. They immediately loved the urban revitalization and mixed use of the buildings. Impressed with the compact size of downtown, the amount of foot traffic, and the friendliness of the people they met, they signed a letter of intent to lease before leaving town.
After my initial skepticism, I walked into the store for the first time and immediately realized it would be a great success. I want all the new businesses downtown to thrive, but I don’t always have that confidence. I realized that not only were the olive oils and balsamics amazing, but they also offered cookware and utensils, other food products and olive oil based beauty products. They now offer Vienna Coffee and a range of teas. Almost immediately, it became more successful than the Asheville store.
Whereas the Asheville store is primarily supported by tourists, Terri suggests the base of support in Knoxville is more broad. She notes that the helpfulness and encouragement from the community, developers and media has been phenomenal. Out of town business professionals and downtown workers play a large role in the success of the store. Patrons either return to the store or begin ordering via the Internet if they are from other cities.
Neither Terri or Paul had a background in retail and she prefers to say they do not work in retail, but rather in a hospitality business. It is also an educational enterprise. As people enter the store they are welcomed warmly and as they begin to learn about olive oils and balsamics, they become faithful customers. That has certainly been my experience.
So, what is next? The couple continues to run the bed and breakfast and operate two stores. Terri is on the music staff at a church in North Carolina. She’s picked up a couple of vocal students in Knoxville. The two offer a culinary tour of Italy. Surely it’s time to pull back a bit and enjoy the fruits of their labors, right?
If you read this article you know that isn’t likely. The only thing that stays the same in their story is that they are always changing, looking for that next challenge. The only question is what form that new challenge will take and I look forward to seeing what that might be.