You know something is different about a new River Park store when a customer walks in with a box of eclairs for the owner that she drove 5 miles to drop off.
Things like this happen all the time at Top Drawer, a store that specializes in colorful Vera Bradley bags and other products. Top Drawer has opened a second location, this one in River Park across the street from Tillys, and will celebrate its grand opening Wednesday, April 20.
Owner Jane Saunders regularly makes friends with customers. It was another customer-turned-friend who invited her to attend an entrepreneur-themed luncheon. From there it snowballed into making Vera Bradley the center of the Pay It Forward luncheon, which brings together Fresno State students and business leaders and is hosted by the Lyles Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Fresno State.
Mendy Laval, the “intrapreneur in residence” at the Lyles Center who is organizing the luncheon, and Saunders persuaded the company’s CEO and co-founder to fly out from Fort Wayne, Ind., to be the main speakers at the event. They will also attend the store’s grand opening and have a big announcement involving Fresno State that I’m not allowed to share yet (but I will on Wednesday).
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This is something an entrepreneur can get excited about.
Mendy Laval, Lyles Center
The 34-year-old Vera Bradley brand is known for its colorful floral and paisley quilted handbags and luggage. Prices range from the store’s No. 1 seller, the $12 zip ID case with a key ring that holds a few cards and cash, to totes and duffels that cost hundreds of dollars.
And while many people remember their grandmothers carrying the traditional floral quilted bags, the brand’s strongest growth today is with high school and college-age women. The bags and luggage are becoming staples on college campuses.
When Laval she knocked on sorority house doors to invite students, and many knew all about Vera Bradley.
“They’re big fans,” she says.
Vera Bradley is launching a line featuring the colors of 55 schools, including Stanford University and University of Southern California. And the line is evolving to include sequins, stripes and monochromatic leather backpacks that are far different from the look of years past.
Vera Bradley is hugely popular in the southeastern United States. The company has about 150 company owned stores and is carried in about 2,600 stores nationwide.
“You step off the airplane in Florida and it’s everywhere, sweetie,” Saunders says.
But things are a little different in California.
“Vera Bradley hasn’t been a mainstay on the West Coast and it should be,” Saunders says.
The brand isn’t as well known here and just a handful of stores in the Valley carry it.
No other store in Fresno carries as much Vera Bradley as Top Drawer does. The tiny Fig Garden store is next to La Boulangerie bakery (customers came in munching on eclairs once and Saunders teased them about, inadvertently launching a tradition of them bringing her eclairs every visit). About 80 percent of the store is dedicated to Vera Bradley. They even took out the bathroom to have more display space.
The brand takes up about half the River Park store, with the remaining space at both stores dedicated to stationery, including Kate Spade and Crane & Co. Both stores are co-owned with daughter Porsche Saunders.
The tastes of customers here are different, too. The brand is about 20 years behind here in terms of customers being familiar with it compared to the East Coast.
Because Fresnans haven’t owned Vera Bradley bags for decades, the more-traditional designs attract them.
“Our customers, they’re not tired of the cotton quilt” pattern, Saunders says.
And then there’s Saunders. She’s different than your typical store owner, too. When Saunders, Laval and I sat down to talk in colorful patchwork chairs that match the ones at the Vera Bradley headquarters, we chatted for 2 1/2 hours.
Part of that is because Saunders is chatty, but she’s also passionate. And when a shop owner gets so passionate about what she does that she tears up, you sit back and listen to everything she has to say.
Saunders makes sure every wallet and purse a customer buys leaves with a penny in it.
“My grandmother always used to say it was good luck to give a billfold or a purse with money in it,” she says.
She really wants to see Vera Bradley grow in the West the way it has in Fresno. She’s on a committee that advises the company from the viewpoint of independently owned shops.
With thousands of such stores around the country, it’s unusual for CEO Robert Wallstrom and co-founder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard (who named the brand after her mother) to fly to a grand opening. Getting it all to happen – along with the surprise announcement – took a lot of last-minute jumping through hoops by Saunders.
Laval gives Saunders credit for getting it all done while opening a new store: “You can’t say no to this lady. She’s just contagious.”
Saunders had already laid some groundwork that made it easier to get the CEO to Fresno. She printed out a Christmas wish list of things she wanted to see happen in the company, tied it up with a candy cane and bow and overnighted it to him.
On that list was a visit from Wallstrom when she opened the new store. Saunders is so excited about him saying yes that she tears up when telling the story.
Saunders will speak at the luncheon, along with the CEO (whose previous employer was Saks Fifth Avenue) and the co-founder. Bradley Baekgaard will share how she started the company delivering bags out of her trunk and the bumps along the way to creating a giant, publicly traded company.
“It’s one of those stories that you really want to pass onto the students, that it can happen,” Laval says.
The luncheon is open to the public and runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the North Gym. Students sit at tables with community leaders and are encouraged to chat with each other. The monthly Pay It Forward luncheon typically gets between 50 and 60 people, but this one has well over 100 attending.
It’s free, but seats are limited and people must reserve a spot by the end of Monday by calling the Lyles Center at (559) 278-3735 or online under the programs and services tab on the Lyles Center webpage.
The CEO and co-founder will also be at Top Drawer’s River Park grand opening from 5 to 7 p.m.