West Point — To own a business that’s successful enough to need more space is every businessperson’s dream. Valeda Carmichael realized that dream with her shop, Culin-Arts, after only one year.
She opened her colorful, upscale shop “for indoor and outdoor cooking and entertaining” in November 2002 in a small building “to see how it would go.” In November 2003, she moved to a building four times bigger than her original space and it’s filled to the brim.
“The shop is gradually evolving,” Carmichael said. “I added working kitchen stuff like Viking and Skandia cookware and more gourmet food because you can’t find much of it here.”
Culin-Arts is housed in a wonderful old building on Commerce Street that has been home to three drug stores. Built in 1869, the building has a pressed tin ceiling and old-fashioned tile. The inside walls are now a cheerful yellow bursting at the seams with kitchen ware, accessories and utensils; pottery of all descriptions; spices; baskets, linens, aprons, buckets; canisters, vases; cutting boards; serving pieces and more.
Dropping jaws, word of mouth
Carmichael, who says she could give Williams-Sonoma a run for the money, has a knack for finding items that are fun and unique. That penchant, along with her flair for displaying, causes jaws to drop when shoppers enter for the first time.
“I wish a TV camera could be set up and catch these comments when people come in,” she said. “It would make a good commercial.”
She’s done very little advertising. Word of mouth seems to be bringing customers in who’ve heard that Culin-Arts is not a run-of-the-mill shop. The nearby Old Waverly Golf Club brings visitors to town from far and wide who often find their way to Culin-Arts.
“Business has been good from day one,” Carmichael said. “There’s nothing like it around here. We get people from all over — Boston, San Francisco, Cincinnati — and they tell me the shop doesn’t need to be in this small town.”
This business owner carefully chooses merchandise, striving to have items other area shops do not have. She goes to markets in New York, Dallas and Chicago, enjoying going to different places in search of the unusual. “Who knows where I’ll go next,” she said. “In most cases, if you go in one kitchen shop, you’ve been in all of them. But, if they’re carrying something, I’ll have something else. Why would I want to have the same old same old?”
The building’s back room is now Latte Da, an in-house coffee shop that Carmichael says fits her attitude. Using buckets of leftover paint, she mixed her own colors for the green-striped walls, painted the carpet to look like tiles and painted a giant coffee cup in an old fireplace to create a cozy spot. In Latte Da, she serves espresso, cappuccino, latte and chai made from her own concentrate.
Carmichael, 46, is well suited to own and operate a kitchen shop. She went to Mississippi University for Women (MUW) on a home economics scholarship and upon graduation went to work in the test kitchens of Bryan Foods of West Point. During her 16 years with the company, she developed recipes using Bryan products, tested products from the consumer’s point of view, wrote recipes and cooking instructions for food packaging, and did food styling for photo shoots. Along the way, she attended classes of the Culinary Institute of America in High Point, N.Y., and Napa Valley, Calif. She also transferred to Memphis for a while and traveled extensively from there.
“I was a creative kitchen person and made the food look pretty,” she said of her career with the food company.
After leaving Bryan Foods, Carmichael was busy as a consultant before opening Culin-Arts. She consulted with her old company and with the Sara Lee Corporation. She also helped design the kitchen and curriculum for a culinary school at MUW and found time to teach cooking classes for kids at summer camp and for Elder Hostel programs.
With Culin-Arts she’s been able to set her own style. “I have always done different things,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, but I’ve always wanted my own shop and I love pretty, unique things.”
Opening and running a new business does not daunt the intrepid Carmichael, who’s driven alone cross-country twice. “A lot of people tell me I’m brave to do it, but I’m one of those go-for-it people,” she says. “I always have bigger ideas than I have time and money, but I believe it will continue to grow.”
Down the road, she says she would like to get into unusual kitchen and outdoor furniture, kitchen decorating and have a Web site for the shop. She is presently not offering cooking classes at Culin-Arts although that’s not ruled out for the future.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.