Entrepreneur Honors her Grandparents and Fulfils her Ambition at “Caramel”

By Shaena HenryHoward University News Service

In May 2006, Sarah Watkins fulfilled her childhood dream when she opened Caramel, a boutique on U Street, but Watkins has learned that owning a small business is not always so sweet.

On a Friday afternoon only two customers have walked into Caramel four hours after the boutique has opened. Since the business is not generating enough income to hire employees, Watkins is more than the owner. From opening deliveries to ringing up merchandise, she manages Caramel alone.

“It is important to put your ideas on paper and take a hard look at it,” Watkins said. “Your expectations have to be reasonable and you have to understand that your financial gains are not going to be instant.”

Two steps down on the corner of 16th and U Street, low lights and serene music make the customer feel miles away from the flurry outside. White walls are highlighted by paintings and photography of nature, surrealism, and architecture by local artists. Caramel, named after her grandfather’s favorite candy, offers apparel and accessories that have a classic style with a contemporary twist. The boutique carries specialty clothing lines such as Wendy Hil, a vintage-chic collection of flirty, yet sophisticated fashions for women. Report Collection, Caramel’s most popular men’s line, offers high quality denims, leathers, and suits with a European fit. Watkins travels to trade shows in New York each season to select the items that she will sell in Caramel.

“In the beginning, I had to go with my gut and hope for the best,” she said. “Now, I listen to what the customer wants and that’s how I make my decisions.”

Watkins, 37, said she was inspired to open her own business by her grandparents, who owned local grocery stores in her hometown, Ithaca, N.Y. After taking a weekend job at Nana, another U Street boutique, she learned more about owning and operating a small business from the owner, Jackie Flanagan. When Watkins expressed her interest in owning her own business, Flanagan helped her write a business plan and contact an accountant.

“I don’t think of her [Flanagan] or any other stores as competition,” Watkins said. “We offer different merchandise and more stores in the area help bring in more people.” Flanagan said that since she opened Nana in 2003 she has learned that there are three sins a boutique owner can commit. “The first mistake is thinking it’s easy and the second is not having a passion for it because it takes so much time,” Flanagan said. “The third mistake is being undercapitalized and not having enough money to make it through the seasons that aren’t great.

When sales are slow at Caramel, Watkins applies her background in managing educational programs and fundraising for non-profit organizations to her boutique. In December, fifty people attended a fundraising event at Caramel with Greater DC Cares. Ten percent of the sales went toward the Loaves and Fishes meal program.

Watkins said she hopes that hosting social events will bring her closer to the U Street community and serve as a form of advertising for Caramel.

“I want to become more well-known in the neighborhood,” Watkins said. “These events invite people from the neighborhood to come into the store and see what is there.”

SCORE, a division of the U.S. Small Business Administration, offers free counseling and mentoring to new small business owners like Watkins. The Washington, D.C. chapter of SCORE serves small businesses in the District, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, and Northern Virginia.

Ann K. Dobbs, a counselor for the Washington, D.C. chapter since 1992, was a small business owner in retail for 50 years. Dobbs said that new owners often underestimate the work level and do not take control of their businesses.

“You have to make sure you know what’s going on and location is key. If they have to look for you, it’s no good,” Dobbs said. “Check your competition. If the competition up the street is selling the same thing half price, then something is wrong.”

As the one year anniversary of Caramel approaches, Watkins continues to make sacrifices for her boutique. Tapping into her saving has put her further into debt than she anticipated. While maintaining her job at the American Councils for International Education, working at Caramel four days a week leaves her no free time. However, Watkins said that the support of her family and friends gradually taught her to relax.

“In the beginning, it was very stressful and I was very nervous” Watkins said. “I found that once I came to enjoy it, people responded better and I got what I wanted out of it. I achieved a goal I set for myself and I feel like I’m more a part of the community.”