It takes a village: Martinez took advantage of resources available to small business owners.
Even offbeat businesses need to make an attempt to fit into the neighborhood.
It's hard enough starting a business. Harder still to start one that some people might find awkward or even offensive.
But that isn't detering 33-year-old Serene Martinez.
In 2009 Martinez worked as a buyer for an adult store, and worried that some of the items it sold posed hazards to users. She thought she could do better by women, imagining a store that sold only healthy “intimate accessories” — and that she could own it.
Her ambition became a reality this past fall, with the grand opening of the Pink Bunny in an 800-square-foot former dress boutique located in San Francisco on Union Street between the city’s tony Pacific Heights and Marina districts.
Among those nibbling on finger food and sipping champagne among the hangers of imported lingerie and shelves stacked with a range of playful products for consenting adults were bankers, the head of a local business incubator and members of Martinez’ family.
The bankers were officers of Circle Bank, a $300-million institution that lent $10,000 to Martinez. Erick Kostuchek, the bank’s senior vice president for branch administration, said that Martinez “created an environment that is very warm and friendly and comfortable for women.”
"They eat organic food. Why would you not translate that to the rest of your life?"
The business incubator executive was from the Women’s Initiative for Self-Employment, which provides business training, a support network and encouragement to low-income women. Martinez attended six months of twice-a-week classes through WISE, and a Women’s Initiative SuccessLink counselor helped her draft a business plan.
Also in attendance was Martinez’ grandmother, 77-year-old Alice Cannistraci. She helped get the food, wine and champagne for the opening and helped Martinez outfit the store, as well as be her biggest cheerleader. “I’m proud of her,” Cannistraci says. “We’re all proud of her.”
Even with all this support pushing her forward, Martinez hit some roadblocks. She struggled to find a landlord who would rent to her on Union Street where — in addition to a smorgasbord of boutiques, spas and service businesses — the neighbors include an elementary school, three large banks and a century-old hardware store. When, after months of rejections, she found a landlord willing to meet with her, she won him over by showing him samples of her products, a written proposal and the wallpaper she had ordered from England.
Yet Martinez says she never considered locating elsewhere. “I like the atmosphere,” she says of Union Street. “People are friendly. It’s safe. It’s beautiful.” A site in an edgier district would make the Pink Bunny “an entirely different business.”
Besides, San Francisco entrepreneurs have a long history of straddling the fault lines of sexual taboo. One was Martinez’ late grandfather, who was a manager and partner in the Condor Club, the landmark nightclub located in the North Beach neighborhood. Back in 1964, after a Condor dancer began performing topless, the club became an epicenter of tourist curiousity. Today, a block away from the Pink Bunny, that dancer, Carol Doda, owns a small boutique selling lingerie.
Leslie Drapkin, the owner of a jewelry store on Union Street for 25 years, says when Doda opened her store more than a decade ago, other merchants “were very pleased to have (her) on the street because she’s so colorful herself.” The Pink Bunny’s selection of higher-end products works well on what is, she says, a “well-edited street.”
Now, with the welcome mat out, it’s up to Martinez to make it work. And she expects her health emphasis to resonate with the soccer moms, attorneys and doctors who walk through the door of her shop. “They eat organic food. Why would you not translate that to the rest of your life?”
Martinez stresses the safety of the sex toys she sells. She recalls talking with a male sales rep one day at her previous job. When she asked for a list of non-toxic products, he hesitated before responding, “They’re only toxic if you eat them.”
Martinez says that so far, she’s happy with the progress she has made with her business, and states that things are “going very according to plan.”
Martinez’ grandmother, who works as a waitress, is certain the Pink Bunny is going to be a hit. “Sex sells,” Cannistraci says. “It’s the oldest profession in the world. I think she’s is going to make a ton of money.”