We all shop in Maple Grove, but what is it like on the other side of the counter? We talked with three Maple Grove business owners who, as it turns out, hold similar views on what it means to be entrepreneurial and to serve our community.
Andy LeVahn never planned on being a plumber. He was headed into art education when he helped out in the family business and realized he actually liked it. His grandfather started the endeavor 90 years ago and LeVahn Brothers Plumbing and Hardware has been a familiar name for generations of area homeowners.
She was busy keeping hospital records when her sister-in-law pointed to her artistic background and knack for working with people, and lured Maria Donato away from accounting books and into arranging bouquets. Maria was grafted in to the business at the original Donato’s Floral in Crystal. Soon she was opening a location in Maple Grove and now, 25 years later, Maria is the woman who beautifies every occasion, becoming a part of many births, confirmations, graduations, weddings, and funerals—a sort of personal florist to Maple Grove families. Fifteen years managing retail clothing shops taught Liz Schiller a thing or two. She knew the ins and outs of the customer and style and merchandising and the finer points of display. She was itching to run her own show and set out three years ago to make her dream into a reality. Her unique boutique in The Shoppes at Arbor Lake is called Juniper and if you want fun female fashion, you’ll find a lot of it here.
I arrive at the coffee shop early in an attempt to claim some real estate in a back corner where my interview recorder won’t pick up extraneous ambient noise. I hate scribbling on a pad of paper during interviews when I’d rather listen and having a real conversation. Away from the din, a guy is buried in his laptop at the back table, where the bustling morning crowd has yet to park themselves in the few remaining empty chairs. I ask if he minds if I talk with a couple of other people over the empty space at his table. He may have staked a claim but seems generous enough.
I order a hot beverage and wait for Andy LeVahn, Maria Donato and Liz Schiller. The guy next to me taps away. The time ticks away. I have second thoughts about perhaps misrepresenting what would be taking place at the table. “I’ve asked a couple people to join me for an interview. It might get loud. It might get heated. Are you sure you don’t mind?” I clarify the situation. “No,” he doesn’t mind.
Two of the three arrive. The meeting time has been a three-week negotiation. The one thing about business owners is that they may have freedom to set their schedules, but less freedom to say “no” when someone needs them on a business matter. Two out of three ain’t bad and I’ve got a short window for these two.
The long winter was hard for Schiller and LeVahn. “I looked at sales figures at this time last year,” says Schilller. "They were two times higher, " LeVahn chimes in, “I’m selling things I don’t want to sell right now. I’m selling shovels and I want to be selling grills!”
A later meeting with Maria also reveals the stay-at-home persuasion of the dreary beginning of spring this year. Luckily Valentine’s Day compels giving, “but men usually call in their orders,” says Donato.
Weather aside, these three entrepreneurs agree that there is something magical about being in business in this area. “Maple Grove is the place to shop,” Donato says. The location brings with it a certain amount of built-in traffic.
LeVahn Brothers was the first store in the shopping strip along Bass Lake Road east of Hwy 494 and remains the only original tenant. They aren’t in the heart of downtown and “ most patrons don’t know if they are standing in Plymouth or in Maple Grove when they are in our store,” says LeVahn, but being in proximity of Maple Grove is enough. Even after all these years, “people often don’t realize we are here and ‘discover’ us in their neighborhood,” he says. When you need plumbing or hardware, LeVahn comes onto the radar.
Donato’s was in the same strip mall at one time before moving on to Main Street next to Panera for more than 10 years and then into the group of buildings in the southwest corner of 694 and Hemlock, where a loyal customer base was eager to follow. Although Donato’s is known mostly by “word of mouth” they still get walk-ins, whereas Schiller says that after three years in business, 50 percent of people who wander in look surprised and ask how long Juniper has been open.
Some 20 percent of customers at Juniper drop in often, sometimes weekly, to see what’s new. Schiller is keen on building community. “I try to get to know everyone who walks through the door,” she says. She also holds knitting sessions in the shop. An unconventional way of building relationships—as women knit together, they create deeper connections with Juniper and with one another.
Donato’s connection with customers has ongoing history. “I’m the owner and I’m hands-on,” she explains. Chances are she knows your name when you walk in and she gets a hug on your way out. Since Donato’s moved into wholesale flowers they’ve become a unique place for brides to put together their own bouquets, with the optional assistance of a house designer, the bride’s mom, a few bridesmaids and sometimes the groom.
Although women are the primary customer at Juniper and Donato’s, Levahn’s has female clientele, too. “There are a lot more women than you think stopping in looking for answers,” says Andy LeVahn. “Guys think they know. Husbands will send their wife in to pick up parts as a cover to have a question answered when they don’t know.”
Schiller says that when a guy walks in the door at Juniper he usually says “my wife was in here and saw…”. When a guy walks into or calls Donato’s, he usually doesn’t know exactly what he wants and Maria is more than happy to help him be successful at picking just the right thing.
These owners understand well that it is the personal attention that sets them apart from larger stores. “Independents care more,” Schiller says. LaVahn agrees, “I strive to give the same shopping experience to someone who is buying 35 cents worth of something as someone buying a gas grill. We offer service.”
“You have to understand how to give a little,” says Donato. “Don’t mark up everything. Have a special to get people into the store. This is a place where they know they will be taken care of.” Whether they’ve been around for 3 years or 90 years, these local businesses understand that a great product is fine, but a product that comes with a relationship has real value.
I’ve promised to only take 45 minutes of their time and my time is up. I thank them for adjusting their hectic schedules for a bit of coffee and honest talk. I pack up my things as they walk away, talking amongst themselves, and I thank the original squatter at the table. He tells me that when he worked in Maple Grove he always shopped here too. He’s just been given insight into what it’s like to be on the other side of the register. “Yeah, that was a very interesting conversation,” he puts words to exactly what I’ve been thinking, “Very interesting.” //
12483 Elm Creek Blvd
The Shoppes at Arbor Lakes
7351 Kirkwood Ln N., Ste. #118
LeVahn Brothers Hardware and Plumbing
12700 Bass Lake Rd.levahnbros.com