Cooking up success with a helping hand

Pinellas County Economic Development provides classes to assist new entrepreneurs in pursuing their dreams.

Published May 21, 2007

DUNEDIN - Regina Invandino knows about baking.

But a masterful recipe for biscotti a successful business does not make.

So a few years ago, when Invandino decided to trade in her business suit for a baker's rack, she turned to Pinellas County Economic Development for guidance. She enrolled in an eight-week class for small-business beginners.

Next month, Invandino, 51, will celebrate her fourth year running Cappuccino's Bakery and Cafe at 733 Broadway St.

Invandino, who previously worked in sales for Continental Airlines, recently was named an Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year by Pinellas County Economic Development.

The honor is a testament to her growth as a business owner, but she said she needed help, especially early on.

In the beginning, "I knew what I wanted to do," Invandino said as she cracked eggs for that day's batch of ricotta cheesecake. "But I didn't know where to start."

That's exactly where a lot of people are when they contact the county's economic development office.

"It's a person who wants to go out on their own and they have an idea and they want explore it further," said Danielle Ruiz, business development manager at the economic development office. "We help them from point A to the end."

Each year, the economic development office offers more than 100 business classes, some free of charge. The classes range from the most basic of business needs, such as how to draft a business plan, to more complex issues, like licensing and permitting. The office also offers a 10-session course in business plans for $139.

"You do market analysis ... to figure out if it's a viable business opportunity in the first place," Ruiz said.

A large part of the organization's focus is attracting high-wage jobs to Pinellas. Last year, the economic development office had a hand in attracting more than 1, 000 new jobs to the county by assisting existing companies with expansions and drawing new companies to the area with tax incentives.

"We want to try and be more selective and work to get the companies that are harder to get," said Mike Meidel, the county's director of economic development. "If we don't do it, it's harder to attract the higher wages."

Any business with 500 or fewer employees is considered a small business, according to federal guidelines. But like Cappuccino's, many businesses in Pinellas are mom-and-pop shops. Meidel said the center considers those businesses just as important.

"There's always the chance to have the next Microsoft," Meidel said. "We need to work with people already here, plus the more we can help them succeed, the more we have money staying here."

Running a small business has become increasingly trying in recent years, Meidel said. With real estate at a premium these days, business owners who lease their space are getting squeezed by higher rent. And those who own their properties face huge insurance payments and rising property tax bills.

"It's not easy," Meidel said.

To address the challenges, the economic development office has begun assisting small businesses in finding more affordable insurance and getting the best assessment of their properties.

But beyond saving money in those areas, the real secret to small business success is to have "something you can't get in the mall," Meidel said.

Invandino has seen others fail. Since she opened Cappuccino's, several restaurants have closed around her, she said. With Starbucks popping up at intersections everywhere, the upstate New York native said she's stayed in business by providing specialty over speed.

That means you may find a line at Cappuccino's, but it's worth the wait, she said.

Invandino's claim to fame is her sweets, including elephant ears, coconut macaroons and cheesecake. But she makes regulars out of customers with lunch offerings like chicken salad and fresh avocado sandwiches.

"People know my food," she said. "So I don't get a lot of customers complaining about the wait."

On a recent day, Alein Guillame, a Dunedin business owner from Belgium, confirmed Invandino's pastries were about as good as it gets -- outside his home country, of course.

Still, Invandino has had her fair share of challenges. Banks aren't keen on giving loans to start-up restaurants, so she had to open the cafe with her own money. And with stringent city rules on advertising, she's not able to put a sign up on Main Street, perhaps the most well-traveled pedestrian street in the area.

Last year, Cappuccino's grossed $75,000 -- several thousand more than the year before, she said. She's invested in the decor of the cafe. The walls of the 875-square-foot shop are murals of a Tuscan-style village. Recently, Invandino began offering wine, and hopes to expand to bistro food in the near future.

"I've tried to make it an escape out of the everyday world," she said. "We don't do anything instant here. Everything we do is by order, catering to what it is they want and their taste.

"You've got to stay true to your dreams."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4162.

Regina Invandino's top 3 ingredients for small business success

1. Recognize your weaknesses.

If you do this, you can find good people to help you. For Invandino, that's a good accountant and two employees who are masters at customer service -- areas she says aren't her strong points.

2. Recognize your most valuable assets.

For Invandino, it's customers. They are the ones who decide what she does and how she does it. Case in point: when her cafe first opened, nobody bought the cheesecake. Patrons didn't want to take a risk on expensive cheesecake when there were so many other options. So she lowered the price. Now she can't keep it in stock.

3. Stay true to your mission.

Invandino doesn't aspire to be like Starbucks. She would rather be more like the Hard Rock Cafe. "I want to be a destination," she said. "I don't want to be on every corner. My customer base is that person who will drive 13 miles to get that chocolate chip cookie."

For information on business assistance from the Pinellas County Economic Development office, visit www.pced.org or call (727) 464-7332.