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In Fort Collins, Small-Box Mercantile is the Latest in One-Stop Shopping

Along with a rebound in brick-and-mortars, Fort Collins is experiencing an interesting small biz trend as local owners band together to deliver a mercantile shopping experience opposite the big-box variety.

2020 wasn’t exactly the ideal year to takeover Bloom Floral Boutique, but if there was a bright side to doing business during a pandemic, it was the sweetheart deal Brenna Free-stone-Gilbert secured on a 1,100-square-footretail space at 153 North College Ave., in Old Town’s coveted downtown shopping district.

To save money, and fill out a large floorplan, Freestone-Gilbert shared the new digs with her husband, Caleb Gilbert, who owns the comic book shop Beeda’s Thingamajigits. The concept worked in the beginning, but the two stores couldn’t make ends meet when the market readjusted and their retail landlord raised rates.

“The rent increase was too much to handle, but I didn’t want to leave the space since we’d started to build a name for ourselves,” Freestone-Gilbert explains.

Bloom had always been a “funky mish-mash,” as Freestone-Gilbert puts it. It wasn’t such a stretch, then, to bring in two additional businesses in 2023. Mystic Moon Bakery and Blendings Winery at The Hillside Vineyard added cupcakes and wine service to the mix when they moved in last August.

Fort Collins’ downtown business owners have always formed a “tightknit community,” explains Katy Schneider, vice president of marketing at Visit Fort Collins. While there hasn’t been any official facilitation for shared spaces such as Freestone-Gilbert’s, Schneider imagines many to be happenstance ideas turned into reality.

Whatever its origin, a rising tide benefits all. A customer might drop in for a flower arrangement, then buy a graphic novel and read a few pages in the boho-chic community space while enjoying a glass of wine or sweet treat. That’s the tip of the iceberg: Bloom store owners are also finding opportunities to collaborate on workshops, classes, etc.

Most of FoCo’s combined businesses are located in Historic Downtown, where Bean Cycle Roasters was the first to test a collaborative mercantile model in the early 2000s while housing a used bookstore. Gearing up for its 20th anniversary this summer, Bean Cycle currently shares its bike-themed space with a handmade retail shop, Makerfolk, as well as Half Crown Creative, an artist-in-residency program with exhibition space.

“With these big Old Town spaces, you can’t really afford to pay the rent with one space anymore,” says Ryan Foley, a co-owner of Bean Cycle. For small business owners interested in sharing a roof, Freestone-Gilbert says the first step is meeting with your local zoning board.

Attesting to Northern Colorado’s appetite (pun acknowledged) for retail activity, Longmont’s first-ever food hall opens in May. Parkway Food Hall will feature eight dining concepts along with three retail stores plus an indoor/outdoor bar, large patio and event space. While Denver has one of the highest rates of food halls in the country, Longmont has been left out of the equation — until now.

How the Fort Collins Pig & The Plow Farmstead Bakery Became a Post-COVID Success Story

You may have read the popular Farming Fort Collins Blog turned online farm and ranch directory, turned e-zine, The Pig & The Plow: From the Field, but have you stopped by the Pig & Plow Farmstead Bakery and met the woman behind it all?  

Erica Glaze has been busy. After growing up in the fresh, local food scene of New England, she saw a need when she moved to this area back in 2003. “I worked for the Federal government for 3 years and the State for 10 years, but I’m not a good office person, I was ready for a change.” Her desire to connect people to good, local food was the catalyst behind the Farming Fort Collins Blog. The blog turned into an online farm and ranch directory in 2014, then the e-zine evolved to explore the local food scene more. In 2017 she bought her first oven and launched The Pig & The Plow Bakery out of a converted shipping container on her Farmstead.  

Erica connected with the Small Business Development Center through word of mouth and a mutual connection to an SBDC Consultant. “I took a start-up class and continued to move forward to figure out what was needed to take each next step.” She utilized the resources from the beginning and found a network of mentors. “I’m not afraid to raise my hand and ask for help. There are things you’re good at and things that don’t come naturally. With mentors it wasn’t just me, I had a huge network.”

READ — Modern Day Mentorship

The business consistently outgrew space after space. COVID could have devastated the business, but luckily Erica set it up right. “When COVID hit we had to stop our NOCO Meat Collective classes, the restaurants we supplied closed, and the Farmer’s Markets were halted. Luckily, we were already online and had a following. Within 24 hours we added other market partners to our website and continued selling.” COVID didn’t stop them from thinking about the future. In June of 2021, after outgrowing yet another space, they moved into the Colorado Feed & Grain in Timnath.  

The opportunity to move into their newest location at 140 Boardwalk Dr. in Fort Collins presented itself earlier this year and within two months was a done deal. The space was formerly a bakery but also includes a great area for retail. “My husband was always really supportive and handy. He bought me that first oven and built the shipping container. When we decided to move to our new location we knew he needed to be more involved, so he officially became part owner.” It only took three days to move and set up the shop. They opened on November 15th. 

The unique thing about the business is the attention to how they do things. “We’re not the only bakery in town, but we use local, organic ingredients to create a new twist on old classics.” One of Erica and her staff’s favorite parts of the business is exploring and blending food and culture to bring something new into the fold. No day is the same when you get to experiment and create.

READ — Rising Food Costs Create Unique Challenges for Hunger-Focused Agencies 

The future for The Pig & The Plow Bakery looks bright. She’s focusing on continuing to develop the community around the business. She loves building opportunities for collaboration and creating a place for people to come and grow. One thing she looks forward to is continuing to be a part of people’s special things, whether it’s baking goods for an occasion or as a treat. “We had a woman at the farmer’s market who saw our Danish bread and cried. She was homesick and so happy to see and experience something familiar.”  

Her advice for budding entrepreneurs is this: “Don’t waste your time figuring it all out on your own. Learn from other people’s mistakes. Find the experts and be open to expanding your network.” She also advises connecting with people in your industry, and not seeing them as just competition. “There’s room for everyone, the more we connect and help each other’s growth, it’s an awesome experience.”

She’s most proud of the business she built that continues to move forward. From a converted shipping container to having a great new space with the right equipment and a great team (The Pig & The Plow Bakery employs 1 full-time employee and 2 seasonal contractors), not to mention the people they’ve connected with along the way.

Since 1989, the Larimer Small Business Development Center Network (SBDC) has been dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and businesses start, grow and prosper through street-smart business education and assistance throughout Larimer County. 

We support the growth and resiliency of small businesses by providing free confidential business consulting, practical workshops & events, and connection to resources. Our consulting experts work in partnership to provide entrepreneurs with crucial information that can mean the difference between success and failure. Our vision is to be your premier, trusted choice for business consulting, training, and resources.