Q&A: Optimo Hats on Opening a Second Location


Not every business is struggling. In fact, some are indeed flourishing during these trying times.

True, Optimo Hats may not be a household name, but you've definitely seen their products: The Beverly institution's dashing wares have been donned by movie stars (all the hats in 2009's Public Enemies were made there), comedians (Bernie Mac frequented the store) and pretty much anyone you see out on the streets wearing a striking, old-fashioned derby, trilby or Panama hat.

Owner/Hatmaker Graham Thompson started the store in the mid-'90s, and while it has certainly flourished, its main drawback is its location. No matter where you live in the city, it's a trek out to Beverly and back. Thompson knows this.

And so now, Thompson has decided to do something about it. Come mid- or late-November, Optimo Hats will be opening its second location in the Loop. I gave Thompson a call to talk about what's involved with running two stores at once, what the process was like of scouting locations and what other plans he has for the future.

What can you tell me about the second location?

Graham Thompson: We're opening up in the Monadnock Building, which is at Jackson and Dearborn. You can Google it and the Wikipedia page on it is pretty accurate. In a nutshell, it was built in 1893, I think, Daniel Burnham built it. It's got all this architectural significance, and it's just a completely cool building. I really love the zone that we're in. It's just the cultural center of Chicago, old-school Chicago. It's just really our vibe.

That's totally the right vibe for you guys.

Graham Thompson: Oh, totally. Yeah. We looked for quite some time more in the Gold Coast area and couldn't really find something that was perfect for me. When we saw this all the pieces just fell into place. We are gonna open probably mid-November. We're shooting for mid- to end of November.

What made you start thinking of expanding?

Graham Thompson: We've been here for 15 years and I've been thinking about a downtown location for probably 10 years. I didn't really seriously start to look into this and think about it [until] the last two years. I knew the time was approaching. Well, actually, before that. I guess for the last five years.

The first thing we needed to do was expand our production facility here, because I knew that was going to have to get bigger to give us more of a capability to expand. We had to do that first. So we got settled in, and for the last year I've been really looking quite seriously. It took us about a year. When we found this location, it just worked on so many different levels. It's just got that feeling where I knew we were in the right place, and we plan on really establishing ourselves there, to be there for a long time.

Will this second location differentiate itself somehow from the current location?

Graham Thompson: We wanted it definitely to have its own character. It's not going to be the same thing as here. We're going to have different stock there. Slightly different styles. But we want the place to be a comfortable, enjoyable place for our customers to hang out, just to kinda feel like at home like they do when they're down here at this location. I wanted it to be one of those places -- this is one of our main reasons for locating downtown, is that a lot of our growth is on out-of-state clients now. We're having more and more people visit Chicago and they want to see us, and they're only in town for a day or a short period of time, and it's just very difficult for them to get to see us [in Beverly]. That was one big thing.

This is going to be great for a lot of our local Chicago business. So many people work so close to there. And I want it to be a location that people who are familiar with our store now and like our store now -- they'll have a reason to go to both stores. 

You mentioned in our e-mails that this second location would make things easier for you. Can you elaborate a bit on that?

Graham Thompson: It's going to allow us to certainly present more product. We don't have any more room to display our product here, so it's going to give us an additional showroom. It's going to give us a space that we can pretty much dedicate solely to retail. It's going to help us with being a lot closer to our customer base, rather than it always being a trek out to our factory. But again, it's not going to be a secondary store that is a shadow of the first store. There'd be no reason to go.

It's not going to be like Starbucks.

Graham Thompson: No, it's not going to be like that at all. I want it to be like, our customers love this place, they love the new place. Someone's in from out of town? They're gonna enjoy going to both places. The building is so cool, it's just a great feeling walking into this lobby. If you go down there, you can see it. It's really our style. It's a walk from the train line to Beverly, so it connects the two stores very well. It keeps us in the south end of the city.

How do you expect this to affect your day-to-day, running two stores, because obviously you can't be in two places at once.

Graham Thompson: Well, I'm going to be at both stores. Maybe two days a week here, two days a week there. We've had to build up staff in preparation for this. As we grow I want to try to continue to scale our business in a way that allows us to improve our product. Improving our product does not mean that I need to be sitting there overseeing every minute detail of everything. It's just about, as we grow, making sure that everyone on our team is passionate about what they do and is all after the same goals. We can have people specialize more directly in what they're doing.

For example our sewing is better than ever. Our sewers are very focused on what they're doing. I've hired a production manager who is an engineer, and he's going to be helping us refine the quality of all of our processes even more. This is the team I want to assemble. I've been doing less sales directly than I used to because our sales manager just does such a great job with all of that. Once our customers know they're in good hands, then it's all cool. I don't have to be around to do every little detail, so, I'm not stepping away from the business per se, but as it grows I want to be able to...

You want to grow with it.

Graham Thompson: Grow with it, and just try to focus on things that I'm excited to do.

Like what?

Graham Thompson: As we get more hats going, as we get the number of hats that we sell up, one of the things we can do is afford to invest more and more in having things custom-made for our product. So we can always use this sort of scale to reinvest in things that are going to grow our quality. I think it'd be no different than if we were making high-end automobiles or whatever. Growth can give you the income that you need to invest in more and more quality. That's our goal. We want to be the benchmark of quality with hats in the world, not just in Chicago. That's our niche. This store is going to get that word out more, especially more to the global community.

That's a really exciting part of what we do. We're a Chicago company. Chicago is the hat town. There is so much rich culture here that's tied to hats. People feel it hear. A lot of proud hat-wearers, people who know how to wear hats live in Chicago. That's what's cool about being here and manufacturing here. But globally, we're starting to ship hats all over the world. We don't have hundreds going to each country, but, like, every week, we're sending hats to different countries. Japan, Iceland, the UK. Things are just kinda popping up.

How do hat tastes vary internationally compared to over here?

Graham Thompson: I think it's kinda subtle. We're not selling enough to really see patterns as much. It's pretty eclectic and all over the place. But I think the new store is gonna help us reach more of an international clientele, and I just want to keep pushing that. That's our niche. We want to make the best men's dress hats in the world. And to do that, I don't want to just sit back and say, "We're doing that, and that's all we're going to do. We're going to keep making exactly how we do it." I think to stay on top we need to continually refine our product.

I think a very important point is we've found that our customers have always appreciated that. They're right along with us. They are happy with the hats that they've bought, and they see how great they are in the long haul. Every time we get a softer felt or something that's finer or better, they love it. They love to see that. So, I guess that's what I'm planning to do more and more of, to keep tweaking our product.

Finally, do you have any advice for other business owners who are thinking of opening another location? Something you wish you knew starting out in this process that you learned the hard way?

Graham Thompson: I would say definitely do not rush into any location. I've had a few deals fall through that I was very excited about and I'm so glad that we backed out of them or that they didn't go through. Don't talk to yourself into any location. Really, really wait until it feels right. Definitely, if you're going to make a move, make sure you're ready to do that and it's not going to affect your quality. What we thought about a lot was never just about, "We need more money, we need more sales. Let's just open a new store up." I know we couldn't just do that. How are we gonna make it? How are we gonna make the hats? If we're maxed out at our production now, how could we throw another store open? It'd just result in hats being late, customers being upset, and us being stressed. I really wanted to avoid that, so I thought a lot about that before we opened. We needed to make sure that we'd be prepared for the business that a new store would bring and that quality and service would not suffer. That's certainly my goal. I'm sure that everything isn't going to be totally perfect and smooth. We're gonna have some issues and problems and we're going to have to learn as we grow. I feel confident that we're prepared and we're making this move at the right time, and we've got a fabulous staff that's ready for it, and that's all I could ask for.

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