From side hustles to full-time gigs: These Charlotte women entrepreneurs turned a setback — the pandemic — into opportunity.
by Michelle Boudin
Heather Opal Artwork
If you drive around Charlotte’s residential neighborhoods, you’ll likely spot one of Heather Cole’s signature creations: a brightly colored heart-shaped charm hanging on a front door. Cole (pictured above) studied painting in college but gave it up when she went to work in information technology at Wells Fargo. Ten years went by before a tragedy inspired her to pick up her paintbrush again: A friend of a friend lost a child, and Cole wanted to help. “Immediately, with a 6-month-old strapped to my chest in a Boba baby carrier and a 3-year-old at my feet, I began painting hearts,” Cole says. She sold them and gave the money to the family.
Cole continued to paint, realizing she could turn her passion into a business with a mission. She figured out how to mass produce her hearts, and she continues to give back to other families facing hardships. Her latest outreach project, featuring a lemon motif, supports Foster Village Charlotte. Charms are priced from about $45-$150.
While she fiercely loves her newfound focus, Cole admits it isn’t easy.
“It is impossible to juggle mom life and business life. I am constantly dropping the ball. Luckily, my family and my cheerleaders give me grace. But even when I feel like a failure as a mother and business owner, I know I am fulfilling my purpose. Seeing my work on and in the homes of my amazing collectors and friends fills me with so much joy.”
Queen City Crunch
Katie Cooper was a stay-at-home mom teaching fitness classes when the pandemic shut everything down. She began spending time in the kitchen, working with a favorite old family recipe. Cooper would take pretzels, douse them with different seasonings and bake them. “My mom had made the recipe for years. We had them in our wedding welcome bags and brought them to parties and family gatherings. With the extra time on my hands, I began to research to see if I could even make a business out of it,” she explains.
Queen City Crunch was officially born in January 2021 in Cooper’s home kitchen. But after word of mouth and social media boosted demand, Cooper moved to a shared commercial kitchen and office space to bake what she calls her “knot your average pretzels.” The bestselling “OG” is seasoned with crushed red pepper, Cajun seasonings and dill, while other varieties include Cinnamon Sugar and an extra-spicy version called The Heat. An 8-ounce bag costs $10, and gift sets and variety boxes are available.
Cooper hired a team of moms as part-time employees and began selling Queen City Crunch in retail shops across the Carolinas. She’s currently looking for a bigger space so that she can fill even more orders.
“The biggest reward for me has been to achieve becoming a woman entrepreneur. I love that my daughter gets to see me working hard and growing a business from nothing. It is also very rewarding to put other stay-at-home moms to work, and give them a flexible work space that allows for both personal growth, without compromising their family first.”
Gathered by Porcupine Provisions
Megan Schlernitzauer had just moved back to Charlotte and landed a dream job with a boutique PR firm when Covid hit and she was suddenly out of work. At the same time, Porcupine Provisions, the popular catering business her parents have owned for two decades, came to a screeching halt. “We’d always been looking for ways to expand Porcupine’s offerings, and necessity is the mother of all invention,” Schlernitzauer says. “I needed a job, and my parents needed a pivot … enter Gathered!”
Gathered started in June 2020, delivering curated meal kits for at-home cooks. The business has since evolved to focus on locally sourced gift boxes featuring comfort meals (soups, quiches, chicken pot pie, priced at about $50 per kit) and gift boxes and bundles for pickup and delivery.
“I wanted to come up with a concept that would not only help to recoup lost revenue but could also support other small businesses, local farmers and purveyors that were struggling as much as we were,” Schlernitzauer says.
Gathered recently launched a cocktail hour in a box that Schlernitzauer says has been a huge hit. It’s a combination of Porcupine Provisions’ bestselling cocktail mixes and appetizers you can enjoy at home.
Schlernitzauer says the business is very much a family affair — and one she never saw coming. “The funniest part is that I always said I would never work with my parents or live in Charlotte.”
Follow Gathered on Instagram @gatheredclt and shop online at gatheredclt.com. There’s also a fridge full of Gathered goodies at Woo Skincare and Cosmetics at 2900 Selwyn Ave. Photographs courtesy Gathered.
Roma A. Singh Soy Candles
Her candles may be sold at stores across the country and around the world, but Roma Singh admits she got started by watching YouTube videos. “I’ve always wanted to create my own signature fragrance line, but I knew labs would cost a lot of money. So one day when I was at my retail job, a lightbulb went off.” That night, she left work and began watching videos on candle-making. “I started to Google all of my questions, and I felt ready! I then ordered supplies and never looked back.”
She kept her day job until Covid hit. Since then, she has focused full time on what was once her side hustle. Singh’s hand-poured, phthalate-free candles are priced from about $18 and come in seasonal scents like Coconut Dreams and Mango Escape.
“Being my own boss is something I prayed for, and it is surreal to me that I am living that prayer. It can be difficult to turn the off button, but I practice a lot of discipline and I am learning to separate work and home,” she says. “Things can go wrong at any given point, so it is very important to learn how to pivot and grow, but being my own boss is such a huge accomplishment.”
The Social Shop
The Social Shop opened its doors in late September 2021 in Strawberry Hill, bringing together two beloved Charlotte brands under one roof. Whitney Ferguson and her mom, Susan Young, opened Blis, a gift shop in Founders Hall 17 years ago. Lauren Fisher ran The Little Red Shop, an online clothing boutique. When Covid hit and retail shops took a beating, the women started working the pop-up circuit and decided to join forces.
“We wanted a store that offered gifting and clothing, a one-stop-shop that felt approachable to anyone, no matter their age or background,” Fisher says. “We wanted a place that felt not only inviting to customers, but a place where we could feature and partner with other locally owned businesses.” Local brands sold at The Social Shop include Piedmont Pennies, Queen City Crunch, Bear Food, Cloister Honey and Shoppe Clay Earrings.
The Social Shop regularly hosts in-store parties featuring its vendors and other Charlotte mainstays, along with food and drinks from other small businesses. “We honestly feel so blessed by our ‘little business’ every single day,” Fisher says. “Not only do we truly enjoy working together, but we love the familiar faces that we’re seeing again and the new faces that The Social Shop has brought us. We love being able to let our creative juices flow and never miss our children’s sporting events or dinner times! We love the connections that we’ve made with local businesses and have been overjoyed at their support of our joint venture.”
Follow The Social Shop on Instagram @thesocialshopclt and visit the store at Strawberry Hill shopping center, 4219 Providence Rd. Photographs by Amy Kolo
Featured image by Chrissy Winchester