From the thicket of T-shirt shops on Clearwater Beach, the owners of Freaky Tiki have found the recession an ideal time to step up to a regional mall.
"You invest in down times to get in a better position when good times return," said David De-Paz, the energetic 34-year-old owner of this Clearwater startup who poured $500,000 into opening not one, but two stores in Westfield Countryside.
It would be easy to brush off this novice entrepreneur's chances competing with national chains in a high-rent environment, but there's reason for his optimism. The right styles of graphic T-shirts are selling well as designer or budget fashion, researchers at NPD Group say. Freaky Tiki's sales rose 5 percent in 2008 when most retailers were down. And De-Paz's story since immigrating from Israel with no retailing experience suggests he may succeed on sheer willpower.
"Life in Jerusalem is a struggle. So after a stint in the army, I left to find a new life in another country," said De-Paz, now a U.S. citizen. "I went to the University of Life. I'm still a student."
The grandson of a Holocaust survivor, this high school drop-out was lured to Clearwater to manage an Israeli friend's surf shop. Within months he learned enough to start his own store. A year later he and his brother and partner Shin De-Paz, 33, got a bigger store at 458 N Mandalay Ave. Then they bought a silk screen factory, where they keep four eight-head silk screen machines and a hat press cranking. They just filled an order for 10,000 Jamaican bobsled team shirts for the Winter Olympics.
In 2008 — its seventh year — De-Paz Enterprises passed $2 million in revenue retailing and wholesaling its own designs.
While the beach store remains a funky "surf shack," the toned-down mall version is Freaky Tiki Clothing Co. The vibe is Tommy Bahama meets Disney World's Enchanted Tiki Room, complete with $20 ukuleles and $6.97 dashboard hula girls. The decor is bamboo floor, antique louvered shutters and fixtures built of weathered wood and pecky cypress scrounged from rural fields.
Priced at $10 to $30, the selection of soft, earth-toned T-shirts and tops carries designs that hark New Age, motorcycle, tattoo-art script and angel-wing themes. More than half of sales are "burnouts," shirts of fabric made splotchy by a process similar to acid-washing denim.
Now, there's a franchised Freaky Tiki in a suburban Detroit mall. The company has been hired to design and build mall kiosks. And the brothers earned enough to fly parents Michael and Nili De-Paz to Florida to be among 11 family members working at Freaky Tiki.
De-Paz's other store at Countryside is White Fin, the mall's first sushi bar.
"I dreamed of opening a modest-price sushi bar ($8.95 for two half-rolls, a side and soup) for years, but never found the right spot," De-Paz said. "In five years, we'll have two or three chains."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.