HOW it all began
Many of you will remember Kat Kohlhammer, Crabapple's founder, a woman with loads of personality and an even bigger heart. She was kind enough to answer some questions and give us a little insight on the first 20 years of Crabapple Clothing Company!
1) Whitney: Where did the idea/inspiration for Crabapple come from?
Kat: We had a small business of selling baby slings out of the house. We began producing some children’s clothing and between that and the slings we outgrew the house and secured a small location on 14th Avenue. At that time I had a business partner that I had met through a children's play group and we started the location on 14th together selling the slings and children’s clothing.
2) Whitney: How did you decide on the name Crabapple Clothing Company? Originally Crabapple Cottage?
Kat: Originally it was Crabapple Cottage and the name came from a children's book that I read to Astrid as a child. It was about little mice who lived underneath a crabapple tree, about their family and their village.
3) Whitney: What did you take in University? And what were you doing prior to opening the doors of Crabapple?
Kat: I took biology at University of Saskatchewan. I graduated with honours in biology with an emphasis on mammalogy and tissue culture. I originally worked in the biochemistry department at the University of Calgary. I then transferred to the medical school at the University of Calgary and worked on a tissue culture project there in immunology.
4) Whitney: What was your favourite part of owning Crabapple?
Kat: My favourite part of owning Crabapple Cottage will always be the people. The people who worked for me and the people who came into the store. I felt like I was part of a small village. I loved hearing stories of their families and I loved knowing about the babies that were born. I did Christening gowns for babies and then later graduation gowns and that connection to people is what I will always miss and always have enjoyed the most.
5) Whitney: What is your favourite fashion trend of all time?
Kat: I think my favourite fashion trend will always be boho chic, I don't think it's changed since I was age 14. Luckily with many brands there is the ability to continue to love this trend. It was in when I was a teenager and I'm still rocking it as a 61 year-old.
6) Whitney: What was the biggest thing you learned as an entrepreneur?
Kat: Biggest thing I learned as an entrepreneur in a nutshell, perseverance.
7) Whitney: Is there anything that you would have done differently?
Kat: What would I have done differently? I would probably have tried to get to more of Oliver's basketball games. And I would have probably kept a tighter rein on financial matters within the business. I always hated the bookkeeping end of the business, but in any small business keeping up with that and/or seeking advice if its not your strength, is really important.
8) Whitney: What was the biggest challenge you faced over your 20 years in business?
Kat: The biggest challenge I faced in the business? I would say it would be trying to manage the growth. Maintaining finances and cash flow when the business was growing at 20% per year was a big challenge. Keeping an eye on inventory and the fact that you needed to buy more stock but you also needed to pay for more stock and just keeping all of that in check.
9) Whitney: Who was a mentor for you in business? Who were you able to talk to?
Kat: My biggest mentor for sure was Norm (my husband), he was always a cheerleader in the background. When I was feeling worried or feeling like I was taking on a huge risk with how big Crabapple was getting, he was always there for me.
10) Whitney: What was your favourite aspect of the business itself? Ie: buying, numbers, selling
Kat: Again my favourite part of the business was always the people. Whether that was staff or the customers that came in, I formed wonderful friendships throughout my years of owning the store. Still after all these years whether it's on social media or I'm talking to someone, the community that Crabapple created and the people who connected through Crabapple, fills me with a sense that we accomplished something important. Also that people that are still connected all these years later.
11) Whitney: What was your least favourite aspect of the daily operations of the store? Ie: budgets, managing people etc
Kat: Returns and trying to correct shipments or deliveries that were incorrect.
12) Whitney: What was your biggest strength as a business owner?
Kat: My biggest strength as a business owner was perseverance and maybe a little bit of creativity.
13) Whitney: What tasks did you delegate as an owner?
Kat: Tasks that I delegated as a business owner were the bookkeeping which I had no experience in and definitely the pricing and some of the computer technology as you well know.
14) Whitney: Obviously, a lot of changes would have happened over 20 years, what were some of the significant ones and how did you handle them?
Kat: I think one of the most significant changes for me as a business owner was the move of Crabapple to the MARDA Loop area that you are presently in. That changed the exposure of the business and it kind of made me feel like the store was all grown up.
15) Whitney: People still believe that Crabapple has/had multiple locations, can you explain to us how some of the other “Crabapples” came to fruition?
Kat: The multiple locations for Crabapple Cottage are as follows:
Crabapple Lane was started by Norm’s brother and his wife up in Varsity. Crabapple Lane moved downtown for a couple of years before they closed.
There was a Crabapple in Strathmore, that was started by a woman named Sheila. She was in business for about 3 years and I helped her start.
The other location would have been Margaret's location in Bragg Creek which is still operational.
16) Whitney: You were able to retain employees for years and years, several of which still work at the store, how were you able to build and keep such a great team?
Kat: I think my great team was partly a gift to me, I really don’t know how such wonderful people came my way. I hope that one of the things I did well was let the people know how much I appreciated them and the work that they did. I think the other thing that is really important is that in general we had a lot of fun at the store, we laughed a lot, we formed community.
17) Whitney: How did you advertise the business? What did you find to be successful and how did that change over the years?
Kat: Back in the day when I owned the business the most successful form of advertising for me was word-of-mouth. We tried little ads, email, and postcards for sales were a big deal - we did snail mail back then. So probably pretty different to what you do, but I would still go back to saying that word-of-mouth and providing great service is probably your best advertising.
18) Whitney: How are you enjoying retirement?
Kat: I'm really enjoying retirement. This has been a challenging year for everybody, I miss my family, I miss seeing my friends, I miss being able to interact with the people I know because of Covid-19. But overall, I love working for Donita a couple of days a week. It keeps me in contact with people and lets me enjoy fashion. And at the end of the day, I lock the door and I don't think about it which is a great pleasure.
19) Whitney: We all know that you are a very talented lady, what activities have you been learning and/or practicing?
Kat: Probably the biggest activity I’ve been doing is returning to my sewing machine, which I didn't do for many of the years that I owned Crabapple because it was just so busy. I'm doing a lot of quilting, I'm doing a lot of fabric art. I also spend a whole bunch of time outside in the better weather working on my garden and enjoying the plants, going for walks on the river, and of course spending time with the dogs and Norm . The other thing that I have taken up again is biking. I used to to bike a bit when the kids were little, but now I bike even in the winter when it's not too cold. I really enjoy the exercise and the wildlife, so yeah biking has become a big part of my life again! I've also picked up a daily yoga practice again. This keeps my body in shape and I just really enjoy the practice.
20) Whitney: Any simple advice for people interested in becoming a business owner?
Kat: You're going to work hard, you’re going to work really hard. I remember lots of people saying to me “isn't it great that you have your own business you get to pick what hours you work?”. But the reality is that you get to pick the 18 hours of a 24-hour day you work at it. Owning your own business has lots of challenges, but it also has so many rewards to so I guess the answer to this question is hard work and perseverance.
Big thank you to Kat for donating her time and energy to this blog. I certainly hope that I have been able to move Crabapple Clothing Company forward in a fashion that is in line with her original vision!