Meet Our Founder
Collectively we at Smoochie Baby have worked in a few different fields from retail, banking to real estate but it's safe to say that we have never felt a more rewarding and personal responsibility as we have here, at this magical children's clothing store! Every day at Smoochie Baby is an adventure filled with new stories. As time went on, we came to realize that we really didn't know much about the story of how Smoochie Baby came to fruition. We knew the basics, but we wanted to know the good stuff. Were there struggles starting Smoochie up? Or any hesitations early on? So, we had the pleasure of asking our founder, Penelope, a few questions to get insights into how she took the leap into opening a children's store and becoming a small business owner..
"Like any new mom, I was immersed in the whole baby world, obsessed with seeking out the best children's clothing lines. Each time we went home to Toronto, I would bring my nieces and nephews fabulous outfits from New York. There were no stores in Toronto selling anything nearly as cool and my sisters-in-law would beg me to send them more, so this is what sparked the idea for Smoochie Baby. Toronto desperately needed a cool baby store and who better to bring it to them but me?"
Penelope Stipanovich, President at Smoochie Baby
Where did the idea of becoming a small business owner come from?
Growing up the daughter of a successful retail merchant, the idea of owning my own store was always in the back of my mind. My father’s business could not be any more different than mine though. His story is pretty amazing. I always love telling it. My father was a Greek immigrant from very humble beginnings. He moved to Toronto, Canada in 1967 with my mother and two brothers to escape a military takeover of the democratically elected government. With a basic grasp of the English language and an insane work ethic, he opened a small shop on Yonge Street selling custom tailored leather goods. You know, leather jackets, pants, skirts and whatever else people requested. Unbeknownst to him, the shop was located in the heart of the gay district and by the early 1970’s he started to have a regular flow of customers requesting items such as jock straps and harnesses. Without judgement, and as long as it was legal, he would craft these items and soon those offbeat requests became more frequent and word got out in the gay community that this little Greek man will make whatever you want. This was before the internet. No one else was making this stuff at the time. And thus my father’s little shop become a pillar in the leather community and he became the Fetish King of Canada. I began working in the shop when I was 14. First in the factory where I learned how to make some of the smaller items and then I graduated to the sales floor.
Penelope's father, John Giaouris in Northbound Leather
Is this what you initially wanted to do? What did you want to be growing up?
Not at all. The family business was to be handed down to boys. I was to go to college and become a doctor. But what I really wanted, was to become an actress. I honored my father’s request and got a university degree first but then quickly moved to New York to go to theater school. While pursuing my dream, I met my husband, Che, another Canadian transplant, we fell in love, got married, and had a very Smoochie baby named Max. Coincidentally (perhaps) Che was also from Toronto and when we had Max we decided to move back home to raise him around family. Sadly my father passed away before Max was born, which amplified my need for him to get to know the rest of his family. I had been working as a real estate agent to supplement my income as an actress and I was yearning for a change. I never would have had the guts to open a children's clothing boutique in New York but something about doing it in Toronto felt more doable.
What are your strengths and weaknesses within this field?
I have always had a good sense of style and I inherited my father’s crazy work ethic. However, I’m a total idiot when it comes to computers. It drives Che and Max (now a 6’ tall 15-year-old) crazy.
Was having a child always apart of your plan? Did it help birth Smoochie Baby?
Absolutely! And most definitely.
Penelope & her son Max
Was your husband on board with the idea?
100%. Not only was he my biggest cheerleader but he helped me find the perfect location and then almost single handedly built the most beautiful space out for me.
Did you have to give up anything to achieve this plan?
I had to put all of my time and energy into this and had to put my dream of becoming a full time working actress on the back burner. I was so excited about Smoochie Baby that the sacrifice felt so right. I never had any regrets.
How much time was spent on Smoochie before putting it into action?
About a year and a half from conception to the store’s opening.
Smoochie Baby Toronto Store - 2006
Did you have any help with the start up of Smoochie Baby? Any investments?
Yes. I could never have done this alone. Aside from all the help I got from Che, my brothers helped me with my business plan and introduced me to a P.R. rep who helped me get some press about the store’s launch and my mother took out a home equity line of credit on her house to lend me the start-up money. My father-in-law (a wood worker) designed the beautiful wood shelving units and my mother-in-law (a soap maker) created an all natural line of bath and skin care products exclusively for Smoochie Baby that we sold in the shop until she retired.
What were some early mistakes that you made with Smoochie Baby?
I made that first store a little too precious and spent too much money on the build-out. I also bought way too much inventory in my first few seasons (a common rookie mistake.) It takes time to figure out the nuance of inventory purchasing. 13 years later, I still don’t always get it right.
Are you motivated by children’s clothes? Maybe manufacturing/creating your own line some day?
I have always loved fashion and it has always been a dream of mine to launch my own line of children’s clothing but the timing has never felt right.
How did you decide on scouting the perfect locations in Toronto and Williamsburg in Brooklyn?
In both cases the stores were located near where I lived. I always knew that I wanted to engrain the store in the local community and doing that where I lived made the most sense. Smoochie Toronto was immediately successful but Che and I missed New York terribly and after only 18 months in Toronto, knew we had to move back for our own personal happiness. For a while my sister-in-law managed it for me but then she became pregnant and had to stop working. There was no one else I could trust to run it for me so I had to make a very difficult decision. The thought of closing the store after all that hard work was too much to bare so I decided to move it to New York. This was at the start of the recession in 2008. We had just moved to Williamsburg in Brooklyn and everyone thought I was crazy to be opening a new business at that time.
Smoochie Baby Williamsburg, Brooklyn - 2008
Did you have competition within your locations?
The store at 110 Berry Street was in Willliamsburg in Brooklyn and was not on the market for rent but I kept walking by and seeing the papered windows and stuck a note under the door with my business card. I got a call from the owner a few days later and the rest is history. There were four other baby stores in the neighborhood at the time. Sweet William (a lovely shop with a stunning assortment of mostly European lines) Flying Squirrel (a great consignment shop) Area Kids (a mini chain that mostly carried toys, books and tees) and Mini Jake (a shop that mostly carried furniture and gear). I felt confident the my rock ’n roll hipster esthetic could happily co-exist and compliment these two shops. The first three have since closed or moved but Mini Jake remains a great neighborhood staple. A few other stores have come and gone over the years but with the help of my incredible staff, Smoochie Baby has achieved my initial goal of becoming engrained in the neighborhood.
What were your specific goals with opening Smoochie Baby? Improving the industry, making it more niche?
My goal was always to provide a place where parents of young children (and other foragers of fashion) could come for the coolest clothes for their little ones. The vibe was always hip, cool and edgy. Never too precious or too expensive and always with the friendliest customer service.
Did you believe Smoochie was going to be able to stand out?
I did, or I never would have bothered doing it. My vision was crystal clear and it was something I knew people wanted.
Were you worried when you were deciding to move across country to LA and what would happen with Smoochie?
Absolutely. Che had just closed his restaurant, The Heyward, and was looking for a change of lifestyle. He was burnt out. When a job opportunity presented itself to him in L.A. he knew it was the right answer. It took him a year and half to convince me to make the move to L.A. Once again, I could not bare the thought of closing Smoochie Baby, so I decided to make my long-time store manager, Emily, Junior Partner. I trusted her implicitly and knew she would care for the store as her own. This ranks among the top 5 smartest decisions I’ve made in my life. I could not have asked for a more amazing business partner. Talk about someone with an insane work ethic! Emily loves this store with all her heart and our customers love her!
Penelope & Emily
How long would you like to keep Smoochie alive?
As long as I feel like we are making a contribution to the community. I still love doing this and it always makes me smile when people come to me and say “we love this shop”. Our annual anniversary and Halloween parties are our way of saying we love you back. Our community of parents and children mean everything to me. I sometimes wish I could physically be in the store more but I still feel very much connected to it.
Annual Halloween Party
Are there any talks for opening more Smoochie locations?
Yes. I have thought about opening Smoochie Baby L.A. since moving out here but haven't found the perfect location yet. Stay tuned for more on Smoochie Baby L.A. in the near future.
In the meantime we decided to commemorate our fantastic first 10 years in Brooklyn with a new look. Turning once again to Alex at Collective 11 (who designed the original brand identity) we have arrived at the coolest, freshest new look to launch into the next 10 years.
Smoochie Baby Williamsburg, Brooklyn 2020