In many places these days, business largely is done from behind a computer screen and in an office, yet many South Sound small business owners prefer a more hands-on approach to work. Knowing this, we got out from behind our own desks and found five local professionals whose tools of the trade don’t (usually) include a keyboard.
Lost Peacock Creamery – Olympia
When Matthew Tuller and his wife, Rachael Taylor-Tuller, sell their handmade cheese at local farmers markets, sometimes they are asked whether their cheese is made from peacock milk. An impossible feat, considering peacocks aren’t mammals and therefore don’t produce milk. Instead, the milk used in Lost Peacock Creamery’s cheese is produced by the more than 4-dozen goats that roam the couple’s Olympia farm.
The farm’s avian namesake has a different origin. As the story goes, a white peacock was spotted along the fence line one day more than two years ago as Taylor-Tuller was on the phone with her husband. The couple already had a few peacocks of their own, but this new visitor wasn’t theirs. It was completely white, and it never left.
“And so the lost peacock was found,” Tuller said. “That corresponded with (how) I met Rachael. We were kind of both lost, and we found each other — that’s how I saw it.”
The creamery is a family operation, with the couple’s parents (and even their 1-year-old son) lending a hand to milk the goats twice daily, allowing Tuller to make new batches of cheese every three to four days.
“We made $41,000 at the farmers markets last year, but we spent $37,000 feeding animals.”
To augment their income, Tuller works one day a week as an emergency room nurse, and Taylor-Tuller dedicates a few hours a day to online marketing work.
“We made $41,000 at the farmers markets last year, but we spent $37,000 feeding animals,” Taylor-Tuller said.
Agritourism also contributes to the farm’s revenue. By offering events like goat yoga, goat cuddling, cheese-making classes, and goat-milking experiences, Taylor-Tuller hopes the farm will get closer to becoming self-sustainable.
Running the creamery, raising two children under 5, and working part-time may be exhausting, but Taylor-Tuller said it’s a happy undertaking. “We’re both so passionate about this farm and making it succeed, we just feel really lucky to have this farm in a place where people really can appreciate it.”
birdloft – Tacoma
Jeff Libby and Adrienne Wicks met in 2009 at the University of Washington, where both were pursuing master’s degrees in architecture. Though the two, who are now married, aspired to work for large architecture firms, they found the class they most enjoyed was furniture building, taught by a curmudgeonly older professor who smoked Camel straights.
“That was one of our favorite studios even though it was furniture and not buildings, so it was a bit of foreshadowing; we just didn’t know it at the time,” Libby said, his voice echoing around the almost-finished building that soon would replace the couple’s basement and garage as the new workshop and showroom for their reclaimed furniture business, birdloft.
Eight years ago, the economy still was recovering from a recession when Libby and Wicks applied for internships but found the job market impassable. Many seasoned architects had been laid off to cut costs; new graduates couldn’t gain a foothold in the industry. Instead, the couple elected to do some home-design build jobs to pay the rent.
“I said, ‘You have to make some things out of this wood if we are going to keep it.’”
“Jeff started salvaging stuff,” Wicks said. “We were taking out these stairs and the treads were just so gorgeous, and we couldn’t just throw this wood away, so he amassed a collection.” The collection grew with every job until it outgrew the couple’s apartment on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. It got so bad, in fact, that Libby said piles of it could be seen in the background of a wedding photograph taken outside their home’s back door. “I said, ‘You have to make some things out of this wood if we are going to keep it,’” Wicks recalled. So, he did, building bookshelves, tables of all varieties, and nightstands.
Thanks to Instagram and Etsy, the furniture has become so popular that the duo abandoned Seattle for a larger and less cost-prohibitive home in Tacoma.
Today, with a new child growing almost as fast as their business, they decided to buy a building along busy South 12th Street in Central Tacoma and turn it into their new workshop. They are optimistic that business will continue to grow despite the additional overhead of operating the workshop. Libby said if he and Wicks could make it through the early years, they could weather any storm together as they had done in the past.
“There was no danger of us getting rich,” Libby said of the business’ returns in the early years. “I think it was more stressful than I remember, because I remember all the good times.”
Gibson’s Custom Meats – Olympia
Chuck Gibson spent more than 30 years as a grocery manager at Swanson’s grocery store in Aberdeen, yet he rarely donned a white apron or wielded a sharp knife unless a meat department employee was out. The steaks, fillets, burgers, and roasts he sold to customers, he said, were cut days earlier by meat department staff, vacuum-packed, and placed on a shelf.
Today, the apron and knife more closely align with Gibson’s second career as the owner and operator of Gibson’s Custom Meats in Olympia.
“One day, I just got to the point where (I realized) I was 48 years old and needed to make a change — I’d been doing it since I was 15,” Gibson said, leaning over a glass display case of cured jerky and cheeses between a bacon-themed lunch box and a displayed hat that reads “PETA: People Eating Tasty Animals”.
“We have at least four or five customers a day that are brand new that tell us their neighbor or friend recommended us.”
Gibson prides himself on his ability to offer a wide variety of meats that appeal to local eclectic eaters and displaced military members alike. There’s scrapple, boudin, snack bones, ox tail, pheasant, quail, deer, elk, kangaroo, buffalo, boar, antelope, and python.
Even more impressive is Gibson’s daily foot traffic. After purchasing the store from its former owner in 2016, Gibson said, about 50 percent of the store’s clientele is the retained customer base, while the other 50 percent arrived at his door through purely organic means.
“We have at least four or five customers a day that are brand new that tell us their neighbor or friend recommended us,” Gibson said.
Though some might say that boutique butcher shops like Gibson’s are relics, buoyed by fads like the recent bone broth trend, Gibson disagreed.
“I think more and more people want to go back to that time (when butcher shops were prominent), but it’s just hard because big businesses have a chokehold on you,” he said. “When you go to a grocery store, (the meat) is packed up, it’s usually in a family pack, and you have to buy what is there. When you come in here and you want a steak cut in half, we’ll cut it in half. You want bigger, we’ll make it bigger. It’s that personal touch.”
Gadget Genie – Federal Way
Joe Ham has always been a fixer. He was the kid on the block that everyone brought their broken VCR or Super Nintendo consoles to for repairs. Today, being a fixer means Ham performs intricate and complicated surgery on iPhones and other similar devices.
“My family didn’t have a lot of money, so whenever I found a broken toy, I’d take it home, take it apart, see what’s wrong with it, then I’d play with it,” Ham said. But this pastime, was always just a hobby and nothing more.
Ham attempted a stint at ITT Technical Institute, but dropped out before he could finish the program. To make ends meet, he worked a series of menial jobs before he decided to return to what he was good at: repairing electronics. Ham set up a workspace in his garage and papered Federal Way with fliers and business cards for the new business, Micro Recovery Repairs, stopping anywhere electronics were made, sold, or repaired. That’s when he drew the attention of local businessman Norm Chung, the owner of 10 local MetroPCS stores.
“My family didn’t have a lot of money, so whenever I found a broken toy, I’d take it home, take it apart, see what’s wrong with it, then I’d play with it.”
“When Joe first came in, he was very ambitious and I liked his energy,” Chung said of the first meeting. Ham was looking for work, and Chung was looking for talent to center a new repair business around. The two became fast friends, Chung even set Ham up in the back of one of his stores. Thus, Gadget Genie was born.
Ham said he can fix just about anything. The most common patients to grace his operating table are shattered iPhone screens, but he has performed surgery on some strange items, too. One was an antiquated illuminated picture frame from Italy. Another was a (relatively) small component from a large radio cellphone tower. But Ham’s favorite patients are those that require forensic data recovery.
For these, Ham pulls from the week-long training he received at the New York-based iPad Rehab school. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’ll be family pictures, pictures of kids, and they didn’t back it up,” Ham said. “It’s like recovering people’s memories; it’s very satisfying in that way.”
In recent months, Gadget Genie has slowly scaled by accepting nationwide repair jobs. Chung and Ham hope to solidify their foundation as a local repair shop before scaling further. But once they do, Chung believes Gadget Genie will really take off.
“Given my web and e-commerce background, we want to basically create a portal for repair shops where we can maybe help them with marketing and send them leads,” he said.
Heather Cornelius Ceramics – Tacoma
Heather Cornelius’ Tacoma row house is full of the wildly varied and brightly colored treasures that one might expect to find in the home of an artist. An arresting painting beckons to be stared at. An elegant vase adorns the dining room table. A series of mismatched, yet pleasingly decorated, mugs lines a kitchen shelf.
Every shockingly vibrant item mirrors the occupant’s vivacious and fun-loving personality. Despite this warm and inviting home, it’s the chilly garage out back, past the coop where her chickens Beyoncé and Jay-Z reside, that Cornelius is completely herself. This is her ceramics studio, where she creates her wares and her art.
The owner of Etsy Store HCCeramics first discovered pottery at age 10, when she witnessed a production potter make mugs at Freighthouse Square. Instantly, she knew she wanted to give pottery a try. But it wasn’t until late in her college career at Pacific Lutheran University that she finally got the opportunity.
“Going into pottery and starting to throw on the wheel for the first time, I had this very visceral moment where I looked at my hands and I was like, ‘This is what these are going to do until I die. That’s it. Game over,’” she said.
She sold her 1977 Chevy Camaro to fund her new ceramics studio. She’d need a wheel, a kiln, and a steady supply of clay and glaze.
“Going into pottery and starting to throw on the wheel for the first time, I had this very visceral moment where I looked at my hands and I was like, ‘This is what these are going to do until I die.’”
Upon graduation, she did whatever she could to keep herself around clay. She taught ceramics at Stadium High School and worked in the Museum of Glass’ Hot Shop. Meanwhile, she created art for exhibitions, or mugs and other items for her Etsy shop HCceramics.
Cornelius also partnered with another local ceramicist ahead of the 2017 Women’s March to create wildly popular, yet strangely empowering vagina mugs, which earned a deluge of orders.
Things haven’t always come that easily. At 17, Cornelius was a single, teenage mother. But through hard work, she earned a full scholarship from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Today, the artist’s biggest challenge is taking her business to the next level. She hopes within the next few years to be a fully self-sustainable artist and business-woman. For now, she augments her income by teaching ceramics classes at Green River College, which she said gives her the drive she needs to continue moving her business forward.
“You get those (students) that come in, and they are just hungry (to learn) and I remember that; I remember being that hungry,” she said. “It brings you back, and it keeps you fresh.”