By Allison Zisko
Winning a James Beard Award is a fabulous honor on its own; having it lead to increased traffic in your tabletop store is the sweetest icing on the cake.
Sam Watts, president and CEO of Milwaukee specialty store George Watts & Son, which includes the award-winning Tea Shop, is enjoying the attention and increased publicity his family-owned business is receiving after having accepted the America’s Classic Award from the James Beard Foundation in New York last month. The America’s Classic Award recognizes locally owned restaurants with “timeless appeal,” serving “quality food that reflects the character of their community,” according to the Foundation. The George Watts Tea Shop, located on the second floor above an expansive tabletop floor, fits the bill perfectly. It has served as a Milwaukee institution to generations, many of whom come to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, bridal and baby showers, or simply a great meal under the direction of executive chef Jason Stevens.
The recognition has reminded many Milwaukee residents of the treasure in their midst; it has also drawn many newcomers.
“It’s nice to be recognized with the elite,” said Watts in the days after receiving the award. “I think the prestige is not lost in Milwaukee. A lot of people recognize it. They feel they are part of the award, and they should. This is a tremendous award. We are so honored. It’s been great for business, especially in these hard times.”
In the first month surrounding the announcement of the award, Tea Shop revenue spiked 40 percent, according to Watts, while tabletop sales increased as well, though not by the same percentage. The Tea Shop, which welcomes 100 to 200 people through its doors each day, “has been a boon to sales in the tabletop arena,” Watts said.
The store generates roughly $2.5 to $3 million annually; the Tea Shop traditionally accounts for $350,000 of that, Watts said, and he hopes to break the $400,000 plateau this year. “Both businesses are very seasonal and their high income months do vary a little,” he added. “All in all though, it’s plain to see that when the store is doing well, the Tea Shop is doing well. They go hand in hand.”
The tabletop floor has been undergoing a transformation since Watts, a fifth-generation family member, took the helm about four years ago. Long-known for being a high-end, luxury store, the 140-year-old retailer is revered by a loyal clientele, “but we weren’t meeting everyone’s needs,” Watts said. There are still a lot of people who are willing to pay handsomely for beautiful pieces, he said, “but not everyone wants an $850 salad bowl.” Watts’ goal since becoming CEO has been to tailor the assortment to appeal to a broader range of customers. He and his staff identified the luxury brands they wanted to retain, pared back items and then began to layer in vendors “with great design and quality, but more affordable prices.” Some of those vendors include Simon Pearce, Nambé, Juliska, Nuance and Two’s Company. These brands sit well with the likes of Steuben, Herend, Royal Crown Derby and Christofle.
This blending of brands gave the merchandising team at George Watts a creative jolt and sparked interest among not only new, younger shoppers but established ones as well, Watts said. They are helped by a top-notch merchandising strategy. “The presentation and layout of the store is specifically done to give people ideas of what they want to do at home,” Watts said.
In terms of social networking, “we are everywhere,” according to Watts—Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare—holding special contests and email campaigns and Tweeting specials and events. “We really invested the time and energy in that arena,” Watts said. “In every format and venue, we are out there in the digital world.” The store currently operates two websites—one for e-commerce, one for bridal registries—but plans to merge them.
After going through the same dry period as other specialty stores across the country (George Watts got more competitive by extending store hours, and leaner by reducing its staff while using technological tools more efficiently in ordering), Watts’ sales strategy is measured and realistic. “Our goal is to improve each month on the last month. You can’t look at the numbers from 1999, it’s not the same business.
“When the Tea Shop is up, you see the store going up. It’s a great omen for us, heading into the bridal season.” And, being a fourth quarter-driven business and one that prides itself on superior customer service and product and price guarantees, the best may be yet to come. “This is great—we are building momentum,” Watts said. “The outlook is not as grim as it was two or three years ago. The outlook is positive, and now with the restaurant [winning a prestigious award], the sky’s the limit.”