Olivia Newton-John, Mickey Rourke and Vince Di Meglio all turned their longing for familiar things into thriving small businesses ranging from an Australian milk bar to a New York-style cheesecake bakery.
All three figured that if they were homesick for the sights, tastes and smells of their hometowns, then others in Los Angeles and elsewhere must miss those old favorites as well. In fact, small business experts point to a number of successful retail and food businesses that had their origins in the ethnic and cultural tastes of their owners.
Singer Newton-John and her best friend, Pat Farrar, said they were pining for their native Australia when they decided to open Koala Blue, a boutique-eatery on Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. Six years later, Koala Blue, named after Australia’s most cuddly creature, operates nine stores and licenses about 20 others nationwide.
Boxer-turned-actor Mickey Rourke and a friend created a miniature soda fountain and candy store in the back of a Beverly Hills shopping plaza because they were homesick for New York. Mickey & Joey’s, named after owners Rourke and hairdresser Giuseppe Franco, stays open until 2 a.m. most nights.
Barely big enough to seat three at the counter, the tiny shop on North Canon Drive is decorated with Harley Davidson memorabilia--another Rourke passion.
Rourke declined to be interviewed, but Franco said the store reminds them of the candy stores they used to hang around in when they lived in New York. But the prices are more Beverly Hills--an egg cream cost $2. (A New York classic, egg creams are concocted from ice-cold milk, ice-cold seltzer and chocolate syrup.)
Like Rourke, Vince (Vinnie) Di Meglio is trying to bring a taste of New York to Southern California. He works seven days a week at his N. Y. Cheesecake Co. in Costa Mesa.
About 15 years ago, Di Meglio and his brother moved to Orange County to start a restaurant in Corona del Mar. Although the restaurant was a flop, he said their father’s cheesecake recipe was a hit. When Di Meglio’s brother moved back East, he and his wife, Ginger, stayed on, determined to make a go of the New York-style cheesecake business.
“It’s an original recipe my father, Frank, made some 60 years ago,” said Di Meglio, who was born on Manhattan’s lower East Side. “He worked at a restaurant called The Turf on Broadway. They sold only roast beef sandwiches and cheesecake. People used to stand in line for hours to get in.”
Di Meglio said desperate New Yorkers living in Orange County drop by the bakery and beg him for tips on where to find real New York-style food.
“There is good food here, but nothing that is reminiscent of New York,” said Di Meglio. “It’s all very, very disappointing.”
Perhaps taking a California slant on his New York cheesecake, Di Meglio has also perfected a recipe for cheesecake on a stick--similar to a frozen ice cream bar. The chocolate-covered bars come in about 15 flavors and sell for about $1.65 each. “It’s taken over five years and I made umpteen mistakes working on it, but I finally stumbled on a perfect way of doing it,” said Di Meglio.
Sales have been so encouraging, his wife recently opened a second store in an El Toro shopping center.
“It’s been a long, hard road, but now we are doing very well,” said Di Meglio.
Newton-John and Farrar are also doing very well with Koala Blue. Last year, the boutique chain’s retail sales reached about $14 million. Koala Blue sells an unusual mix of Australian foodstuffs and casual clothes imprinted with a distinctive rainbow-colored logo.
“I was homesick for Australia--I missed meat pies, milk shakes and our beer,” said Newton-John, who is taking a break from singing and acting to raise her 3-year-old daughter. “We tried to create a really homey, comfortable atmosphere.”
“We love clothes and we love to shop,” she said. “We now call shopping research.”
Farrar, who looks like a brown-haired version of Newton-John, said they both took the business very seriously “from Day One.” Together, they choose the merchandise and help design the clothes bearing the Koala Blue logo.
In 1987, they brought in a third partner and owner, David Sidell. Sidell, who formerly owned a chain of Italian restaurants, wrote a business plan, streamlined operations and cut expenses. Today, he said, Koala Blue employs about 140 people, with about 100 of them working at the company’s clothing factory in Bell Gardens.
Newton-John, who was named celebrity businesswoman of the year by the National Assn. of Women Business Owners, offers advice for people thinking of starting their own business.
“Have a good sense of what things can and will cost,” she said. “Choose the right people, find a trend with staying power and look for a new angle so you can get publicity.”
Nine Win Honors From SBA
Nine Los Angeles County businessmen and women are being honored by the Los Angeles district office of the Small Business Administration.
“Each of our winners has achieved significant business success and made positive contributions to the small business community,” said M. Hawley Smith, SBA district director.
James I. Marvin, president and chairman of Plastics Research Corp. in Santa Fe Springs, is the district’s small business person of the year. Michael Takaki, senior manager of the Long Beach office of Deloitte, Haskins & Sells, is the accountant advocate of the year. Morris Van Asperen, senior vice president of the National Bank of California, is the local financial services advocate.
Donald Keough, president and publisher of the Los Angeles Business Journal, was named media advocate. Lynne Choy Uyeda, president of the Asian Business Assn., was named minority advocate. Louis Paglialonga, manager of employee development for International Light Metals in Torrance, was chosen veteran advocate.
Sandy Steers, president and owner of Lorien Systems in Long Beach, was named the women in business advocate. Richard Smith, president of Food Engineering Service in Irwindale, is exporter of the year, and Caryn Wiley, president of Wiley Designs in Westlake Village, is the young entrepreneur.
The winners will be honored May 12 at a luncheon in the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.