Girl Power: Women fuel business renaissance in Belhaven

Published 8:33 pm Monday, October 6, 2014

FILE PHOTOS | DAILY NEWS ENTREPRENEURS: The products of three Belhaven businesswomen (left to right): Teresa Van Staalduinen’s culinary work of art — soup — at Spoon River Artworks and Market; Winbrandt owner Heike Brandt Winfield’s pen and ink drawing of a seahorse; and some of the products found in the mini-shops of Market 32, owned by Nicole O’Neal. Two other women — Lindsay Hubers and Amy Johnson — are also making marks with their Belhaven businesses.

ENTREPRENEURS: The products of three Belhaven businesswomen (left to right): Teresa Van Staalduinen’s culinary work of art — soup — at Spoon River Artworks and Market; Winbrandt owner Heike Brandt Winfield’s pen and ink drawing of a seahorse; and some of the products found in the mini-shops of Market 32, owned by Nicole O’Neal. Two other women — Lindsay Hubers and Amy Johnson — are also making marks with their Belhaven businesses.



For the Washington Daily News


BELHAVEN — There’s something going on in the tiny, two-square-mile town of Belhaven, population 1,639. Call it a rebirth, a renaissance, or an act of desperation to keep the town thriving. Call it Girl Power.

Behind many once-shuttered, now open-for-business storefronts stands a female business owner who is helping to fuel Belhaven’s economic revitalization. Behind every counter and cash register is an entrepreneur, an artist or artisan, a mother, a visionary, or — most probably — all of the above.

According to the 2014 State of Women-Owned Business Report, commissioned by American Express OPEN, Belhaven reflects a growing national trend. Women are starting 1,288 new businesses per day, double the rate from three years ago. During the past 17 years, the number of female-owned businesses increased at 1.5 times the national average. Belhaven contributes to North Carolina’s standing as one of the top 10 states for women-owned businesses, moving up from No. 8 on the list last year to No. 3 in 2014.

More like a hurricane than a breeze, Theresa Van Staalduinen is hard to track. Always in motion, the self-described “foodie” opened Spoon River Artworks and Market two years ago, a farm-to-table restaurant that brings together her passion for healthy eating and artful presentation.

“We live in the best part of the world when it comes to farming,” said the life-long Belhaven resident. “I can trace all of the food we serve to its source.”

Spoon River doesn’t even have a website. Yet. A word-of-mouth and online reputation combined with a great location, just one block away from the Intracoastal Waterway, has contributed to a steady business that attracts both locals and out-of-towners from as far away as Greenville — the state’s 10th largest city, 50 miles west of Belhaven. A fresh, inventive dining experience in an artfully eclectic environment, an adjacent wine and craft beer shop, and a recently added hand-made cocktail menu has earned Spoon River a five-star rating on both Yelp and Trip Advisor.

Despite her success, Van Staalduinen said, “It’s hard to take a compliment. I’m not even close to where I want to be.” Her next projects include a “kick-ass bar” and event space to augment her restaurant. There’s an orchestra playing out ideas in her head. After all, she has to get to work on her other buildings. In total, she owns or co-owns about 20,000 square feet of 110-year-old buildings on Pamlico Street. She has a lot at stake, but her passion extends beyond her own investments; she wants the whole town to succeed. She recently helped organize all the local restaurants and chefs to compete in a Chowder Tasting, raising grant money for Belhaven’s downtown revitalization and historic district designation.

Past midnight, after the last diners said good night, Van Staalduinen and her husband, Mark, a farm owner, who frequently pitches in on weekends to do whatever needs doing, were working on payroll. The mother of two teenagers said she runs on sweat equity and a lot of faith.

“I believe in my town so much that I know we are building something awesome here,” she said. “We’re just getting started.”


When O’Neal’s Pharmacy at the corner of Pamlico and Main streets — arguably the gateway to downtown Belhaven — moved to higher ground, Nicole O’Neal turned to her husband, Chad, and said, “We can’t let this happen. We can’t let this building stand empty.” The building had been in the O’Neal family for 82 years. Last year, soon after the birth of her first child, Nicole moved in, opening Market 32, named for the year her relatives established their business in Belhaven.

“I’ve always wanted to own a store,” she said.

And while the timing might not have been the best, she knew this was the best location.

An artist with extensive retail experience, O’Neal naturally gravitated to what she knows best, but added a new twist. Market 32 houses 10-by-10-foot mini-shops or kiosks. For a monthly rental fee, the vendors have their own space to decorate and display merchandise; they manage their own inventory.

“It’s a shop within a shop concept,” said Nicole, who manages sales from a central desk. Antique furniture, clothing, home décor, shoes, preserves, jewelry and what-not — it’s all part of the variety at Market 32. There’s even a cooler for fresh seafood and local produce.

Eighteen vendors, mostly women and mostly local, now have an opportunity to sell their wares without substantial investment or risk.

“This is exactly the career I envisioned for myself,” O’Neal said, as she cuddled her son on a Victorian sofa — one of the only antiques that does not have a price tag —  looking out over Main Street, where Chad runs O’Neal’s Cellular Services.

“We can never sell this sofa while he’s still a baby,” she said. “The sofa makes the store feel more like home,” — something every child who grows up in a family-run business can relate to. O’Neal’s support system, including a strong network of family and friends, allows her to balance career and motherhood with apparent ease. Of course, there are trade-offs. She admits to doing paperwork in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep and cherishing the rare quiet weekends.

“It’s important for me to see this town grow,” Nicole said. “Market 32 is my contribution to making that happen. I’ll keep working it until Belhaven becomes a destination.”


SUBHEAD: With a touch of whimsy

With windows facing the waterfront and the new town dock, Heike Brandt Winfield found an ideal outlet for her own artwork in Belhaven, her husband’s hometown. Ron Winfield came out of retirement to help Heike get started and even opened a custom framing shop next door as a complementary business.

With talent for pen and ink drawings, acrylic painting and mixed media, Winfield is inspired by the town’s coastal nature. Her work prominently features crabs, birds, fish, shells, seahorses, and … mermaids, often with a touch of whimsy. She expresses herself on canvas, cards, clothing, pillows and glass.

Winfield opened Winbrandt Creations, a combination of her maiden and married names, about one year ago as a one-woman gallery but soon attracted the attention of other area artists and artisans. Without judgment, she immediately began accepting the work of other artists, who pay a small monthly fee to display their work: handmade jewelry, paintings, needlecraft, carvings and even what she calls “edible art.” Of the 12 featured artists, eight are women, and all live within a 40-miles radius of Belhaven. Most of her customers, however, do not. Out-of-state visitors, international tourists and boaters cruising the Intracoastal Waterway account for most of her sales.

“My goal is to make art affordable, accessible,” she said. “I want the average person to have a chance to own something original, something that brings them joy to look at, to use, to wear or to taste.”

At the same time, she wants to give local artists enough incentive to keep working at what they love to do.

Winfield found her passion later in life. Her mother had wanted her to be a hair stylist, and so she complied. She later went to work for Foot Locker, working in a fast-paced corporate environment that consumed her creativity. She had to dig deep to find it again.

“I come from a family of artists,” she continued. “I turned to art as therapy, a way to express myself, and discovered my passion.”

She works on something every day, often changing her preferences. Keeping her hands and head busy saves her from boredom and depression, she said.

“Every artist has a story that inspires me. I feel fortunate to work where I am surrounded by so much self-expression,” she said. “This store gives me a strong sense of purpose.”


SUBHEAD: Old things, new life

Just a short drive away from Belhaven’s business district but still within the town limits, Lindsay Hubers opened Attic Life. From the outside, Attic Life looks like an old-time General Store. Fittingly, Lindsay and her family live in the house next door, which happens to be the home where she grew up.

The shop is located in a residential dwelling with a quintessential front porch, where customers were rocking in a pair of vintage metal lawn chairs, painted a cool shade of lime green.

Attic Life features three large rooms full of antique and vintage furniture and small wares along with heirloom children’s clothing, toys and southern-themed T-shirts. Upstairs are two newly renovated, cottage-style rooms with a shared bathroom, available for short-term rental. While the rooms give her the permission she needs to operate in a residential zone, it’s the store that drives Hubers’ passion.

She prepared for opening about four years ago, collecting a sizeable inventory and building her client base both locally and on-line. Born and raised in Belhaven, Hubers and her husband, Shane, went on to raise five of her own children here; some help in the store.

“I adore this town. I never had the desire to leave or to travel,” she said. “This is my dream: living in Belhaven, selling things I like to people who will give them a new home.”

She loves the fact that the business gives her a chance to meet people she might not otherwise get to know. “I have something in common with everyone who shops here, and that makes me feel connected to a much larger community,” she said.

Not surprisingly, American Pickers is her favorite TV show. She named her shop to appeal to both men and women who are pickers at heart and can’t wait to see what might be hidden above the rafters.

“Over the years, so many people encouraged me to open my own place,” she said. “I am truly blessed to be in an environment where people want me to succeed. Now that I’ve been up and running about five months, even I wonder what took me so long.”

On the other side of the screen door, a woman gleefully exclaimed, “I remember these!”


SUBHEAD: A little window dressing

Empty shops don’t translate to empty storefronts in Belhaven, thanks to Amy Johnson. All they need is a little window dressing.

“Merchandising means more to me than the merchandise,” said Johnson, whose passion is designing and decorating with re-purposed materials. “I was into rustic before rustic was cool.”

The working mother of three, including a six-month old, has little leisure time to paint and refinish furniture, although she would love to, so she finds inspiration in whatever is in front of her, recreating something discarded into something beautiful.

Amy learned to use power tools and refinish furniture from her father, a carpenter, shop teacher and antiques dealer.

“I could do anything the boys could do,” she said, adding, “only better.”

She recently purchased one of the empty buildings in town, but hasn’t yet decided what her new venture will be. Meanwhile, she keeps changing the front window display, using vintage items as well as merchandise from the gift section inside her family’s hardware store Riddick & Windley. Johnson started Riddick & Windley Gifts in 2003 to fill a local need. Front and center, the creative displays of coastal-inspired home goods and décor as well as jewelry, handbags and home fragrances are an unexpected welcome to an otherwise nuts-and-bolts kind of business, excluding the wine and cheese.

Several years ago, Johnson and her husband Ben launched The Front Porch, an evening extension of Farm Boys, a take-out restaurant they purchased in 2002. They created a casual, open-air dinner spot where friends can hang out and enjoy live music.

“We wanted Belhaven to be everything we wanted in a town,” she said. “We don’t want it to be just a retirement community. We want Belhaven to be a place we are proud to call home, that our children are proud to call home, a cool little coastal town, rich in history and diversity, a magnet for creative and interesting people.”

Her vision for Belhaven includes more restaurants, a coffee shop, bookstore, live music, festivals and lots of things to do. She mentions that she and Theresa Van Staalduinen decorated their empty storefronts — and the streets — with a 1920s theme for the second annual ICW festival last weekend; she also is a member of the celebration committee that helps organize Belhaven’s annual July Fourth events and has signed on for the new downtown revitalization project.

“The problem is that there are so few of us trying to do it all,” she said. “I am not complaining. I want to be in the middle of this renaissance. I don’t want Belhaven to die. Can you tell?”