Pitcher Perfect

A Christmas party idea put two nurses on the path to a thriving business

by Tom Gresham

Business partners find each other in all kinds of unusual ways. If it's meant to be, it's just meant to be.

At a Fletcher Allen Health Care Christmas party, nurses Sherry Smith (left) and Kathi Roesler cooked up the idea for Courtyard Collection, their Burlington shop that sells Italian pottery and glassware, Vermont furniture and various soft goods.

Sherry Smith and Kathi Roesler are prime examples. They were operating room nurses at Fletcher Allen Health Care when they met. They didn't become friends in their O.R. scrubs so much as "ships passing in the night," Smith says. Smith's regular shift wrapped up at 3 p.m., just as Roesler was arriving.

One year at a Christmas cocktail party, they discussed the idea of opening their own shop together. The idea sat, untouched and unmentioned, until the next year's Christmas party, during which a woman complimented Smith on the Italian pottery she had in her home.

"I never see pottery like that sold anywhere around here," the woman said. "You should open up a store and sell it."

"I'll help you," Roesler quickly jumped in.

Everyone laughed.

The next morning Smith called Roesler and asked, "Were you serious?" Within a year, the duo had opened the Courtyard Collection on St. Paul Street in Burlington.

The shop offers Italian pottery and glassware, furniture from Vermont Furniture Designs and various soft goods. The pieces largely occupy the high end of the market, but Roesler points out that the store offers several low-cost items, too. Smith and Roesler say the Courtyard Collection has managed to do steady business ever since its inception.

Italy itself might be the store's largest draw. When customers step through the Courtyard Collection's front doors, many have reported feeling stirrings of Italy. The store's owners say that is no accident. Smith and Roesler, who decorated the Courtyard Collection themselves, have worked hard to cultivate an "old Italy" feel both inside and out.

For instance, they had their landlord install an classy Italian gate at the head of an alley next to the store. A small touch, but one of many that added up. Another: Ivy climbs past green window shutters on the brick exterior.

"We want this place to stand out a little bit, to look different and catch people's eye when they pass by," says Smith. "We want it to remind people of an old European home." The partners hope to soon deepen the atmosphere by turning a portion of Courtyard Collection's space into an Italian cafe. The new project would include indoor bistro seating for 16. When the weather allows, seating would be expanded into the courtyard next to the shop. Fare would be light, including Italian pastries from New York, Montreal and Boston, and soup, sandwiches and salads. More essentially, they say, the cafe would serve espressos and cappuccinos prepared properly: the Italian way.

"We felt like this was just a natural thing to do here," Smith says. "Italy is such a coffee-oriented culture. There are coffee places everywhere. You can be racing down the Autostrade and there will be little espresso stops right there on the side of the road. It's everywhere. Italians just love their coffee and especially their espresso."

The Courtyard Collection's success in trying to recreate a sense of Italy in downtown Burlington can be measured by the enthusiasm it engenders in the store's customers. Roesler says customers often feel inspired to recount their own personal reminiscences of Italy. Smith and Roesler are eager listeners and, not surprising, well equipped to discuss Italy in great detail, having traveled there extensively over the years.

In 1996, the store's first year in business, the partners were satisfied to purchase stock for their shelves from a gift show in New York City.

"Then, we said 'Why don't we just go to Italy and import the stuff ourselves?'" says Smith.

The partners flew to Rome, rented a car for two weeks and drove all over Italy. "We were like Thelma and Louise," Smith says. Tuscany, Umbria and Florence were the highlights the first year.

"We probably didn't need to be there as long as two weeks but we found a lot of stuff," says Smith. "We went into every hillside town, met a lot of people, made a lot of contacts and started importing the stuff ourselves. We really don't need any middle men anymore."

Smith and Roesler are effusive in their praise of Italy and its people and culture. They say when they travel in Italy their time is dominated by business-related tasks, but, says Roesler, "the business part is always fun anyway. Italians are just so friendly."

Smith says they rarely go where the tourists go. For instance, for meals, their business contacts point Smith and Roesler toward the favorite haunts of the locals or even invite them into their own dining rooms for genuine, home-cooked Italian meals.

Smith says the Italian items in Courtyard Collection remind her of Italy in the same way they seem to awaken memories in her customers. "I love the whole culture and this stuff reminds me of it. I look at a piece and it just makes me happy. One of these pieces can lend such an Old World look to a room."

Roesler says the attraction of Italian pottery and glassware is evident: "It's just beautiful art."

According to Smith, the reason the intimate connection between a people and their product is so apparent in Italian pottery is that the work is the result of centuries-old traditions. The intricate details required for the exacting artistry that creates the pottery has been passed down from parents and grandparents to their children and grandchildren. By traveling to Italy and meeting people who produce the pieces, Smith and Roesler believe they can ensure the quality of the items in their store.

"When we go over to Italy, we might go to a little family-owned pottery business that has been operating for several generations," says Smith. "We will go through there and the owner's son will be sitting down on a bench carefully painting a beautiful piece. Well, we can order that same piece and put it in our store."

Smith and Roesler's rich network of hard-earned contacts allows them to do more than just import stock for their store. They also occasionally import specific items for clients. For example, the Courtyard Collection has imported traditional rooster wine pitchers, the design of which date to a now-extinct Italian village in the Renaissance period, for Three Tomatoes and Trattoria Delia, two Italian restaurants in Burlington.

"Whenever anyone asks us to do something, we say yes and then figure out how to do it," says Roesler.

The partners approach the entire business with that attitude. If the walls need painting, they do it. When they decided to create the Courtyard Cafe, they moved fast, clearing the space and doing their own decorating. Barring unforeseen complications, Smith and Roesler hope to have taken the cafe scheme from idea to realization in a mere month's time.

Smith and Roesler took a similarly dead-ahead, unflinching approach when they opened the Courtyard Collection. Both had been nurses for at least two decades Roesler at Fletcher Allen; Smith at Fletcher Allen as well as a maximum-security prison in New York ("an interesting experience," she says) and at Glens Falls Hospital and had "no retail experience beyond shopping," according to Smith.

Still, they were undaunted by the lack of an example of an Italian pottery and glassware retailer in the area. They simply saw an opening. Roesler researched the demographics for the area and the new partners produced a business plan and secured a loan.

Finding the right home for the shop proved to be a challenge, but when they found out about the open storefront on the corner of St. Paul and King streets complete with high windows and a dignified appearance Smith and Roesler jumped. They're still pleased with their location.

"People coming off the King Street ferry, tourists, come right by here driving up the road," says Smith. "People coming downtown from Shelburne Road use St. Paul all the time to park on and they walk by here. Lots of people going to Trattoria Delia for dinner will park right in front of us and look in our windows when they walk up the street. We hear that people have found out about us that way all the time."

The Courtyard Collection has managed to keep many of those customers over the years, no matter the apparent boundaries. Smith says the store has repeat customers from all over the country. One woman in Pennsylvania, the mother of a former University of Vermont student, calls the store when she needs a gift and leaves it up to Smith and Roesler to pick something out. "She told us we've never done wrong for her before."

People often come in who have recently been to Italy. They find pieces they had seen in Italy but were unable to afford because of the shipping costs.

Parents of students at the local colleges are favorite customers. Roesler says they see some sets of parents a few times a year. Smith says college parents recently filled their car with purchases from the Courtyard Collection and then the husband said, "We're going to bring our SUV next time so we have more room. You're going to love us. We have a freshman."

The key, says Smith, is making the customers feel comfortable, and they make a conscious effort to learn customers' first names. Other small touches include a medley of Italian candies laid out over the busy holidays and careful packaging in distinctive purple boxes.

"If you walk into a store and the people working there act like they don't really care all that much about you, there's a tendency not to want to go back in there," says Smith, "but I know I like to shop at places where I'm treated well. It's the whole Cheers mentality: You really do want to go where people know your name."

Jill Sikora-Cain of South Hero regularly stops by the Courtyard Collection, often just to browse to see what's new in the store. She has bought several items over the years.

"The stuff here is very beautiful," Sikora-Cain says. "The quality is excellent everywhere you turn. There are so many different kinds of things and, of course, they're so friendly here, too."

Smith and Roesler are clearly the central element of the friendly atmosphere. Both have dynamic, kinetic personalities and an affectionate way with customers without being stifling or solicitous.

Although both are willing to put in long hours when necessary for instance, with the redesign of the store's layout to accommodate the proposed café Smith and Roesler largely enjoy a much less demanding week than when they were nurses. Both work about 21/2 days a week, splitting up weekday duties. Smith's mother, Edna Gardner, who once owned a gift shop in Hyannis, Mass., minds the store on Saturdays.

Kathi Roesler holds the wine pitcher Courtyard Collection supplied to Three Tomatoes and Trattoria Delia.

Roesler claims it's much easier than being a nurse. "I don't have to worry every weekend anymore about someone not coming to relieve me at 11:30 at night and then having to stay until 3 a.m. It's also nice not having to go to the movies with a beeper."

This new career has enabled both to indulge more deeply in their other interests. Smith, who is married to Arthur Weitzenfeld, the owner of Vermont Furniture Designs, is a member of the Flynn Theatre board of directors. A Hudson, N.Y., native, Smith has one stepdaughter, three children and two grandchildren. She's also an avid gardener whose garden was on the garden tour this year; and she finished second in the Burlington Blooms competition.

Roesler, who grew up in Essex, is married to Robert Roesler, an attorney. She has two stepchildren, two children and five grandchildren. Roesler plays tennis several days a week and skis in the winter. She's begun gardening at the behest of her business partner.

Smith and Roesler's friendship has developed as the business has grown. "We're friends now, but I can't imagine what it would have been like if we had gone into this as friends," Roesler says. "I think that would have been too hard."

Smith adds that partners who are building a business from scratch are going to butt heads occasionally. She and Roesler agree they were much more comfortable disagreeing with each other and being forceful in their opinions with someone who was an acquaintance but not a friend.

"We became friends being here together," Smith says, "but if we had started out as friends, the business partner thing wouldn't have happened. And that would have been too bad."

Originally published in December 2003 Business People-Vermont