Written by Janet Davies.
Photos by Johnny C.Y. Lam.
Kyle and Jenny Otsuka are celebrating five years in business at Zest, their stylish kitchen shop on Main Street Picton. “Looking at photos of our first few months, the walls look very bare!” says Jenny with a laugh. “We started slow because, being new to the community, we wanted to get a sense of what business would be like.” Actually, they were not totally new to The County. “We had the cottage here for a few years, and we had the sense that people here love food and cooking.” she says. “We started off slow. We stocked quality cookware and a small selection of knives and gadgets. As we talked to customers and heard what they wanted and needed, we filled in a lot more. Over time we also added items made right here in The County. For example, we have Emerson Pringle cutting boards, Kate Golding table linens, products from Kinsip Distillery, Honey Pie Hives and Herbals and Vicki’s Veggies hot sauces. We stock pottery tableware from Mena Dragonfly and Clayshapes. Kyle and I are always on the lookout for new and interesting things.” Kyle adds, “We’ll also direct visitors to neighbouring stores and local studios where they might find things they are looking for.”
They say if you manage to stay in business five years you’re doing something right. “We’ve been through a few seasons in The County to have a decent handle on the ups and downs,” says Jenny. “Managing inventory levels throughout the year is one of the biggest things in retail…making sure you have enough of the best stuff, but not too much when you don’t need it.” And challenges? They’ve had a few! “We opened in 2012 when the recession was still being felt. Last year was a difficult one with roads being dug up for the Picton reconstruction project; but there was good communication with the Municipality and we were able to prepare our business for it. There’s no denying The County is seasonal, BUT the season now starts much earlier in the Spring and extends way into the Fall which is great for us. And of course, The County is a great place to shop for unique Christmas gifts.”
BRINGING PEOPLE BACK. “We try to give people a reason to come back and see us again and again, whether they live here or are visiting,” says Jenny. “We are constantly looking for unique products to keep things interesting for our customers. And our in-house knife sharpening is a unique service to this area that our local customers really appreciate.”
GOOD ADVICE: Do they have suggestions for other businesses thinking of opening here? “Be responsive, listen to what people want, and pay attention to your local customers. We find people really want to support local businesses. If you make it easy for them to do that, they’ll be inclined to and that carries you through the slower months.” Jenny says. “We’re committed to being open year round. If somebody is making a special dish and they need something from us, they’re going to be frustrated if we’re closed. Through the winter we’re open every single weekend and usually three or four days midweek, too. Two part-time employees work with us year round, although their hours are reduced in winter.”
THE PRODUCTS: Zest stocks a lot of basic, affordable kitchen items, things people really use, not gimmicks but staples of a good kitchen. “We try to carry lines you won’t find at chain hardware stores,” says Kyle. “They’re all good brands, and then there are our great specialty items, too. Our philosophy is there are certain pieces of kitchen equipment you want to buy just once – so you want to buy right. Our cookware lines include All-Clad, Swiss Diamond, Scanpan, Lodge, Le Creuset and Staub cast iron. Customers have asked for Japanese knives, so we carry MAC, Miyabi, Kasumi and Kikuichi knives as well as our German lines, Wusthof and Henckels. Victorinox knives is a good line, too, it’s very popular and can be difficult to find.”
THE ROAD TO THE COUNTY: Way back in 2006 Jenny came to a wedding at Fields on West Lake and thought The County was a beautiful place. Some time later, she and Kyle came for a weekend break. “We went to this Sandbanks place we’d heard about and it was like magic. We loved it. We were planning our own wedding at the time. We were thinking of moving out of our small condo, growing up a bit and getting a real place with a garden. Well, after looking at Toronto real estate pages, we naturally wondered what we could afford here!” Kyle continued. “Back at work, a customer told me his aunt was a realtor in Prince Edward County, which led to a conversation, which led to us coming to look at properties. We forgot about buying in the city and bought a little cottage on West Lake. But we never expected to be able to move here. Not until we retired!” Kyle was the Toronto district sales manager for the waterworks division of a company called Wolseley. Jenny spent some time as a management consultant for Accenture and led various marketing teams at Koodo and Telus Mobility. When Kyle was offered an unexpected job transfer to Kingston, their vague dream of moving to The County and opening a shop suddenly sounded possible. They went for it. In 2011, they purchased a small heritage building at 192 Main Street that had been the Picton Cleaners for decades and originally a bakery. They partnered with Loyalist Contractors on a 5-month project to renovate the main floor retail space and also updated the rental unit above to help pay the bills. After two years of commuting to Toronto and subsequently to Kingston while helping Jenny in the store on the weekends, Kyle left secure employment to become his own boss.
The long and the short of it is that, far from retiring to get to The County, they took on a lot of work and love it. “We were happy enough in Toronto,” says Kyle. “We enjoyed our jobs; but when we visit the city, we seem to enjoy our visits even more, now that we call The County our home.” Jenny agrees. “Life is very different now compared to when we worked for corporations. Actually it was terrifying starting our own business from scratch! But our Main Street neighbours were very welcoming and encouraging. We always felt we could ask for help, and a little reassurance goes a long way, because we really didn’t know what was going to happen until we opened our doors.” Interestingly, the first customer who came through their door was a relative of the Walmsley family who had run the original dry cleaners there. She was visiting from Ottawa and told them all sorts of stories about her family and the old business at 192 Main Street. “It was nice,” says Jenny. “A good omen.”
EVOLUTION, SATISFACTION, REPUTATION: Why do they do what they do? Jenny answers promptly, “We both love people, having daily interaction with our customers and neighbours is our favourite part of the job; and we love anything to do with food and cooking.”
Partnering with Chef Scott Royce, Kyle also started a separate venture called Seasoned Events, a catering company. It’s a perfect partnership: Kyle handles the sales and service, Scott focuses on the food. “We specialize in weddings but we also hold pop-up dinners around The County,” says Kyle. “We have them in unusual places, like wineries, barns and other places you don’t normally go to dine. We bring everything with us, a full kitchen, complete dining room service and present five courses, usually paired with wines.”
Jenny sums up her pleasure and satisfaction in running Zest. “I enjoy helping people find what they want. I like sharing information about products they might not know about. And we won’t recommend anything we can’t stand behind. Trust and reputation are important to us. They’re important to retail business anywhere, but especially when your customers are neighbours, too.”
For startups or businesses looking to expand or re-locate to The County, you can fill out this Business Inquiry Questionnaire, and the Community Development Department will respond in 48 hours.