September 2021 marks Painted Door’s 30th birthday in Oklahoma City. To celebrate, the gift boutique owner and longtime OKC tourism ambassador Avis Scaramucci recently shared her perspective on the roots of the business, keys to long-term success, as well as how providing exceptional service while taking good care of people never goes out of style.
First of all, tell us just a little bit about why you got into business in the first place back in 1991. What were your goals then as a business owner?
Well, to be honest, we have two children, and for all of their “growing up” years, I was a stay-at-home mom. I have a degree in music education from the University of Oklahoma. But I chose to raise the family and do all of the taxicab driving and everything that’s required as they grow and be actively involved in whatever they were involved in. So that was what I did. And during those years, I oftentimes thought about the fact that I would just love someday to try my hand at some sort of retail. I wasn't sure if it would be a gift store, or a clothing store or something to do with food, but I have always had a real love for people and taking good care of them.
Although I had no background in retail, it just seemed to me that when I was out and about, the most charming and heartwarming thing was when you went into businesses--of whatever sort--they were happy to see you, and very much wanted to take care of your needs. It's such a great feeling, and you carry it with you.
As our youngest son was starting college, it was time to start really putting some of that in place if I could. I started “poking around” a little bit and as it happened, a gift store--one that was just one of my favorites and had been in business for many years--was going to close within the next 12 months. That made me think that, you know, maybe this is what I need to do, because there will be that niche that's open for someone else. I would have never wanted to go in as a competitor to them, but now it was going to be an opportunity.
The building was in bankruptcy and I believe they were trying to figure out what to do with that space. I just happened to stop one day, and said, “I don't suppose that this building is for sale?” And the poor guy about fell out of his chair because there was no sign posted in front. I found all this out when I got inside. He said, “Oh, absolutely. This building is for sale.”
About the same time, the ladies that were closing my favorite gift store started helping me get some ideas about the Dallas wholesale market, what I needed to do to begin attending, and in general doing homework on gift ideas that I thought might fit. That was all in the beginning. And it was such an exciting time for me. I was getting pretty close to the dream that I had thought about for so long, but it was also scary because I had never, ever in my life prior to then been in retail
-- I had never worked as a sales clerk, nothing. I was a little intimidated by that, but I thought, well, surely there's not too much magic to being nice to people and taking good care of them--and I can learn the rest. That was the priority--just welcoming them and taking care of their needs.
The day of opening, I was really--I tell people this--I was such a wreck and it was such an emotional time because I was finally stepping up and perhaps publicly embarrassing myself in front of God and everybody. It was the grand opening--and what if nobody came, I mean, that would be horrible. And it would be terribly embarrassing. And so when the doors opened, I was in the back gift wrap area, trying to get myself situated, and a little teary-eyed. Finally, my husband came and said, “Are you coming out?” I said, “Well, yes.” He said, “Well, you need to look out the door. People are out here, and they're wondering where you are.” So I will tell you, I looked out that door, just cracked it a little bit. And for as far as I could see—and the building was a pretty good size; it was 7,000 square feet, which is quite a big space--as far as I could see, there was nothing but people -- wow.
The rest of the story is that I came out on the floor and discovered that there was magic. I have never looked back. It was the most memorable time. And, of course, that business grew over the years. I added on to the building--once for gifts, once for clothing, and once for the starting of a new restaurant, Nonna’s. I opened Nonna’s as just a bakery and I was the baker. I arrived at 5:30 in the morning and baked my recipes for cookies and pies, then opened the gift store at 10. Now I really was “stirring it up,” you know. I had a whole lot of stuff going! People loved the bakery and Nonna’s provided them a place to sit and enjoy their coffee and treats.
And what was the thought process that went into adding on the bakery portion?
I had always thought that food and drinks were such a nice mix with a gift store. And I thought, well, I think I could do that here too... On a funny side-note, my husband, even back then, said, “Now, if you do this bakery thing, you're just going to do a bakery, right?”
Of course, within a year I had decided that I needed to also serve lunch. I got to explain, “I know that I said I wasn't going to do any more, but I do want to add lunch.” He said, “Well, what are you going to do?” I said, “Oh, it'll just be salads and soup, and maybe a little sandwich or something.” He said, “Well, I'm not going to believe you this time, because you're probably going to do more. So we're just going to outfit it for more, and then let's see if you can grow.”
It was an incredible time. A couple of folks that were investors in Bricktown also happen to be acquaintances of mine and were great customers. Every time I saw them, they’d say, “You know, you need to come look at Bricktown.” I would say, “Why do I want to move? It's a big deal to have to move. Why do I want to do that?” and they would say, “You just need to come look at Bricktown.” Finally told one of them, “Not to hurt your feelings, but why would anyone really want to invest in such a dark, dangerous and dirty area?” I knew them well enough to say that. He said, “Well, you're going to be surprised -- we're working on it.” I said, “Well, okay, surprise me some time, but I'm here, and I've really got more than I can keep up with.”
So I have to admit, I was starting to pay just a little bit of attention to Bricktown because it kind of aggravated me that they kept bothering me and thinking that I should do something different when obviously I was busy where I was. There was this fantastic old building, which is now well over a hundred years old. The interior walls of old brick had been painted bright yellow and canary blue with little booths on the first floor. The second floor was law offices and a beauty shop, if I remember correctly. But boy, was it in a fantastic location--I kind of thought of it as Hollywood and Vine. It was at the corner of Mickey Mantle and Sheridan and right across from the ballpark, right across from the Walnut bridge--which in time became one of the a main entrances into Bricktown--And guess what, it lead right to the building. It was definitely on my mind and as it worked out, we purchased this building.
It took us a little over a one and a half years to remodel. We added on a third floor. We added on to the kitchen area. And so we [situated] Painted Door in the front that still to this day faces on the north side on Sheridan. The Nonna’s [Restaurant] entrance was on the east side with the main floor serving both lunch and dinner menus. The second and third floors were set up for banquets and private parties. The Purple Bar was also located on the second floor offering casual dining both inside and on the outdoor patio. Well, I didn't know it then, but the Nonna’s restaurant activities were going to be such a driver for Painted Door--incredibly so.
I know that a big focus of yours is just customer service in general. Do you think that sort of attitude and that focus has helped lead you to where you are and the success you've had in the business?
I do lots of different programs for groups and I'll talk about whatever they would like me to talk about. But one thing I always include, no matter what the subject is, the fact that taking good care of people never goes out of style. It doesn't matter what age you are, who is it that doesn't like to think that they're special--that whatever they have on their mind, that whatever they would need help with, there's somebody there to do it. And that--sincerely--they are invited to just come and make themselves at home. Any age loves that. And as we have moved forward through the years, I would say that I believe there is less and less customer service all the time. Part of that's just because online ordering is a real convenient way to do things, but there's absolutely no warmth, no touch, no feel, no suggestion, no saying, oh, well, let me help you with this.
And I see that people, especially after the shutdown in Oklahoma City, the COVID thing, people are hungry for communication, actually with a person, not on the phone, not on Zoom--although Zoom has been our savior, has it not? I mean, what would we have done without it--but they love to come and have hands-on experiences. Again, you see it in food. And I have certainly seen it in the Painted Door. So, I think things come full circle. I think we're in a time now where it's meaningful--that customer service is really more important to people than ever--it doesn't matter what kind of businesses it is, even changing your tire or the dentist--It does not matter. People that are greeted sincerely and have their needs taken care of? They don't forget that--they just don't. My business has always been built on customer service because that's just what I knew.
So even during that dark time, if you watched, you could see still there were people moving forward. A lot of cities had collapsed during that time--they just couldn't hold things together. There was not a group of people dedicated to doing that--I think if you can get through those times, there's nothing but sunshine ahead. There are always problems, but they're just problems to be solved, and we are a city and state that have repeatedly done that. We are Oklahoma!
Editors Note: In addition to visiting Painted Door’s permanent gift boutique in the Bricktown District, shoppers can find their unique and curated holiday gifts at Mistletoe Market and the Midtown Pop-up Shops. Painted Door will officially celebrate its 30th birthday with a party this fall alongside the opening of the Old Spaghetti Factory in the former Nonna’s restaurant location.