Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Spicing Up 3rd Street: Meet Bonnie and Sarah Gemmell of Spicer Bags

Bonnie and Sarah Gemmell are the mother-daughter team behind Spicer Bags. They are shown here in their manufacturing facility at the American Industrial Center in Dogpatch. Their new retail store is opening at street level in the complex.
For many months we passed by the construction at the American Industrial Center (AIC) on 3rd Street and hoped that the new storefronts being carved out of the existing brick walls would bring more retail to 3rd Street.

We enjoy the bars and restaurants in our vibrant neighborhood but boy it sure would be great to have a place where one could pick up a gift bag for that bottle of wine from Dogpatch Wineworks or a last minute birthday card or hostess gift.  We already knew that the flaky goodies from Neighbor Bakehouse would finally have a permanent home in one of the four new spaces but we were excited to find that a current tenant of the AIC would be expanding into one of the storefronts and that this tenant would offer a line of retail products. 

Spicer Bags will officially open at 2341 3rd Street on Saturday, December 6 -- just in time for the annual Dogpatch Warehouse Sale.  The new shop will be called Spicer on 3rd and will carry not only the company's line of totes and bags that have been long been cult favorites, but also a selection of curated items such as ceramics, furniture, gift bags and paper products.  And like their bags, all the products are from companies that manufacture in the U.S.

Although Spicer Bags has been around for more than 14 years, the shop on 3rd is a new beginning of sorts for the company and for the new owners, Bonnie and Sarah Gemmell, the mother and daughter who bought the company in 2013 from the founder and designer of the company -- the late Sally Spicer Rankine.
Some of the products from Spicer Bags made from innovative materials like cork. All are made in the Dogpatch neighborhood in San Francisco, CA.

We met with Bonnie and Sarah in their studio on the second floor of the AIC -- almost directly above their new storefront.  In contrast to the yet to be filled storefront, their studio space was packed to the ceiling with textiles and manufacturing equipment.  Sarah is the COO and is in charge of all operations and the constant trouble shooting that occurs in a small business with lots of moving pieces.  Bonnie brings her many years of retail, catalog and small business expertise to Spicer Bags as the CEO.

Why do you do what you do?

We both have a love of well-designed products.  And we are long time entrepreneurs and supporters of products that are manufactured in the U.S.  In 2012 we found out through a mutual friend of Sally Spicer that Sally was being forced to shut down Sally Spicer Bags because of her health issues.  It made us so sad that after all her hard work she was facing the loss of her business and the legacy that she had been building for her son. We were amazed that with very little marketing effort she had build an incredible fan base for her bags. 

We were both looking for our next project and we weren't afraid of the challenge.  We knew we had to buy the business to keep it going.  We were ready to take on the challenge of not only keeping Sally Spicer Bags open for business, but also the challenge of expanding the core business and looking into new marketing opportunities.  

We had lots of marketing experience but absolutely no manufacturing experience!  But we jumped in and although we kept the best sellers, we tightened the offerings and redesigned the bags where needed.  We have assured our existing customers that if a favorite bag is no longer offered on our website, we can still make it for them if they request it.  We also added a cork line that has a very modern feel to it.

When customers started showing up at our manufacturing space requesting to buy the bags here, we realized we might have an opportunity to keep a retail space busy.  We starting pestering the AIC folks about what might happen with the retail space they had been talking about building out.  They agreed to build one out for us.

We go to a lot of trade shows and had discovered some amazing people who were designing and manufacturing great products in the U.S. We always said if we had a retail space we already knew what products we would want to sell.  We decided that the retail space would sell not only our bags, but also a curated selection of these products we had discovered.  Some of the products we will have include easy to open water bottles manufactured from recycled aluminum cans from Liberty Bottleworks, a furniture company located in the Outer Richmond called Anzfer Farms, ceramics from Portland-based Pigeon Toe Ceramics and many more fun products including dog collars and leashes!

We will now have two businesses that each have their own website -- Spicer Bags and Spicer on 3rd.  We like that if all goes well we could possibly open other Spicer retail locations in other areas.  We will continue to offer Spicer Bags through other retail outlets as well as through the Spicer Bags website.  We have two employees and hope to add one more to staff Spicer on 3rd. 

Why Dogpatch?

Well, Spicer Bags was of course already manufacturing in the neighborhood when we bought the business.  And the two employees who worked with Sally stayed with us and were comfortable with the neighborhood.  We didn't see any need to make a location change.  And we loved the vibe of the neighborhood.  It felt like so much was happening here and was only going to get busier.  We are always discovering something new.  We want to be part of that growth. 

What would you be doing if you weren't doing this?

Bonnie -- I would be an organic farmer!  I grew up on a farm in Ohio and I love my tomatoes!

Sarah -- as the "nerd" in the family I've always been drawn towards product technology -- the user interface design part.  I would probably be working in a technology company that was developing the next great App!

Bonnie and Sarah:  "and this is why we work well together"!