TAMPA — In 2004, Ron DeFrece and Tina Bacon were co-authors of a scientific journal article called "Miniature spectroscopic instrumentation: Applications to biology and chemistry."
Now they're in the T-shirt business.
Oh, and they also do canvas tote bags, golf towels, mouse pads and aprons.
It actually takes three scientists to print these T-shirts: DeFrece, a laser engineer; Bacon, a chemical engineer and DeFrece's wife; and computer scientist Leeward Bean.
Their year-old company, Big Frog Custom T-Shirts in Clearwater, just launched its first franchise, which opened last month at 3411-E S Dale Mabry Highway.
The three scientists were looking to launch a company together — it's a long story — and at one point planned to start a fun online retail business called uniquelygeek.com. Instead, they stumbled into a wide-open market niche that would not have been possible a few years ago.
The most recent printing technology, called direct-to-garment printing, now allows businesses to make small orders of custom T-shirts, something that was never possible with the more traditional method of screen printing, DeFrece said. And it turns out, he said, that there's a big demand from people who want to get anywhere from one to 120 custom T-shirts printed in a 24-hour turnaround time.
Big Frog is similar to online printing businesses like Cafepress.com, DeFrece said, but with an emphasis on customer service and design help. The response has been so strong — despite their retail inexperience — that they have quickly put together plans to open several hundred stores across the country.
In addition, DeFrece said, they've been — naturally — spending a little extra time tinkering with their printers and came up with a way to make them more efficient. (A patent is pending.)
"Five years ago, if you said I would be printing T-shirts, I would have been rolling on the floor laughing," DeFrece said.
Big Frog's Tampa franchise owner Joe Lackey, who also owns South Tampa Cigars, said he was sold on the concept when he contacted the Clearwater location in hopes of getting some shirts made.
"I told them, if you ever think about opening a franchise in Tampa, let's talk about it," Lackey said. "Evidently, it wasn't just me."
Big Frog T-shirts start at $14.99 per shirt with no setup fees or minimum orders, with several styles available for babies, women and men.
The printer offers an unlimited color palette with ink that bonds directly to the shirt fibers.
Hours at the Tampa location are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 to 3 on Saturday.
Shopping after dark
One of Nevada Vanderford's first moves was an unusual one for an owner of a new clothing store: She decided to stay open until 10 p.m. on weekend nights in hopes of bringing in the partying park-and-walkers.
Her shop, Reborn Couture at 701 S Howard Ave., is purposely edgy and located in the SoHo district, which was the closest thing Vanderford could find to her favorite vacation hot spot.
"We go to South Beach, where everybody sits outside, eats and shops," she said. "We're trying to bring that here. Bring that vibe."
Reborn Couture, which opened July 11, offers an eclectic collection of men's and women's clothing and accessories that Vanderford describes as trendy and high fashion. Vanderford owns the shop with her fiance, Shannon Wren, a top-rated street racer from Clearwater. In creating a "rock 'n' roll" atmosphere, they aim to draw in everyone from young professionals to the area's growing mixed martial arts crowd.
The shop carries high-end jeans lines like True Religion, Robins Jeans, Laguna Beach and Taverniti. Prices range from $20 to $700 for a Swarovski crystal studded handbag. Hours at Reborn are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 to 10 Friday and Saturday and noon to 5 on Sunday.
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