We had the good fortune of connecting with Cortney Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Cortney, is there something that you feel is most responsible for your success?
Gather is strongly rooted in supporting our community. In the start of my career as an entrepreneur a mentor game me this advice: “Whatever you do, however you can, always say yes to your community.” That meant whenever we can give our support with donations, volunteering and participating in community events we say “YES!!”.
This has helped up build more than a traditional customer base. We have worked really hard building our community first and letting that help build our business. It’s really important to establish trust in our relationships and once we can do that the rest follows. Our base calls themselves the “Gather Family” and we really are one big crazy family. We’ve introduced people who have become best friends, co-workers, couples and more.
We don’t operate a traditional business model, and that’s really important to me. I come from a corporate background, heavy on analytics, data and retail strategy. I didn’t want to start my own business looking at our students as a dollar sign. The relationships we build are worth more than that. Of course, the bottom line is always important as a business owner, but if you can figure out how to balance the two it’s so rewarding.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
How I got where I am definitely wasn’t easy. And I never expected to be here. I feel like my varied background helped me to be successful as an owner at Gather. I started out in restaurants, with a little retail thrown in for good measure. I moved out of home at 17 to go to college and worked a full-time job as a server at the Italian Moon in Grand Forks, ND. That wasn’t my first job, but I credit it with teaching me how to be efficient in the face of chaos. It was a crazy, fun place to work that was always busy – overwhelming busy. I’ll never forget looking down at a handful of tickets that seemed so overwhelming, almost panicking, and then thinking to myself – just get them out, one by one, until they’re all gone. It’s so vivid in my memory and I find myself thinking that early message all the time. You don’t really know busy unless you’re a server with a 10-table self seating section and half of a 60 seat party room. And you’re 18 years old. It was a great time and instilled a drive in me to succeed.
Fast forward to moving out of restaurants 12 years later and into my professional career at CHEFS Catalog. I fell into an amazing career that I loved in the Merchandising department. It was the perfect balance of analytics and working with products and doing recipe development. I was there for 8 years, starting out as an Assistant Buyer, to a Buyer, to a Senior Buyer and finally as a Merchandising Manager. It was a really great company. It taught me how to be tough, dedicated and most of all, how to handle making really hard decisions. I can’t even explain the wealth of knowledge and skill sets that I developed with CHEFS and how much they shaped who I am today. Sadly, there were purchased by big box retailer and closed once the data had all been striped and mined. Which taught me something else really important – I worked my fingers to the bone, late nights, weekend, all of it. And in the end I had no control and it didn’t really matter because someone else was making the decision. And that’s when I became an entrepreneur.
I opened Cooks Marketplace with a partner and former co-worker from CHEFS. It was a local kitchen store with a cooking theater. We were so excited. Our backgrounds in merchandising and connections in the industry should have made it a recipe for success. Unfortunately, it was not. We floundered, make mistakes and closed in a year and a half. I couldn’t even really talk about it for a long time. I felt like I had failed in front of everyone. Spectacularly. It was so heartbreaking I still find it a little hard to think about. But the Gather Family was there for us. We taught the last of our cooking classes in the kitchen of one of our student’s homes. Everyone checked in on us and offered encouragement. What happened then made me who I am today and has also helped us be successful at Gather.
We closed Cooks and a mere 3 months later we opened Gather in a tiny, 600-sqft cottage with $2,000. We (very) nervously scheduled our Grand Opening and hoped for the best. It was better than we could have ever expected. I cried (which is unusual for me), so grateful that the people I felt like I had let down were still there and still supporting us. One year later, we had outgrown our tiny little cottage and moved into our current location, right next door. We held our Re-Grand Opening and our 1 Year Anniversary party on the very same day. This year we celebrate Gather’s 3-Year Anniversary and are in the process of buying our property.
I’ve learned not to ever give up. I thought I was tough…until we closed Cooks. That was tough. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, but the best life lesson I ever learned. I never really understood it when mentors and other entrepreneurs would tell you that your first business will probably fail and to just keep going, and that it doesn’t define you as an entrepreneur. I do now. And it’s that drive that keeps us going.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Well…obviously we’d have to take a cooking class at Gather! I’ve been in Colorado Springs for 22 years and I definitely have some favorites. We live on the perimeter of Garden of the Gods, so hiking some of the lesser used trails right from our front door are one of my favorite things to do. We’re hikers, so other great hikes like Blodgett and The Crags are usually on tap.
Of course, food is important to us and we have some favorites. Bon Ton’s for breakfast on the patio (it’s where we have our Monday weekly meeting every week over pancakes). I’m recently in love with the beer at Local Relic, so The Carter Payne would definitely be on our radar. I can’t really have someone visit without going to Crystal Park Cantina and having margaritas.
And we always spend time in Old Colorado City, where I encourage all of my visitors to spend some money with our local business. My two favorites are Simple Body and Conscious Living, where you can get all natural products that are good for you and the environment.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
Our story is dedicated to our students. They give us the support we need during hard times and we can always count on them for constructive and honest feedback. We’ve had ups and downs and some really difficult times and I cannot tell you how many of them have called, emailed and stopped by to give us support and love.
When we moved Gather into the location where we are now, we put our a desperate request. We had 6 weeks to move, re-model and open in our new location. And it needed significant work. I was still teaching and Dave (my partner) was working full-time on the renovation. We asked our Gather Family if there was anyone willing to volunteer their time and skills to helping us get it done in time. Everyday for 6 weeks we had people cleaning, painting, building, laying flagstone, gardening, and doing whatever they could do to help us. These weren’t fun and glamorous jobs -they were dirty, sweaty hard jobs. And they showed up every single day. For that we will be forever grateful. We walk the garden together everyday with our coffee and 2 years later we still can’t really believe that we accomplished what we did in such a short time. And it was all because of the Gather Family that we have created. We will never be able to say thank you enough!
Cortney Smith, Gather Food Studio