Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

Taking the big plunge into small business

Michelle Palisi thinks she may be able to take her first salary this year after more than three years in her custom chocolate shop. Chocolates by Michelle finally seems to have established some momentum, with enough corporate accounts to coast through the slow summer season and plenty of established clients when winter residents are in town. Mrs. Palisi, who worked as a waitress before turning her chocolate hobby into a business, has even expanded into a chocolate and gift shop at the Brown Derby restaurant in Clearwater.

"This is my starting-to-make-money year," Mrs. Palisi said. "I really feel I'm at the point where it's not a hobby, it's not a game."

Even if she doesn't take a salary this year, Mrs. Palisi already is well ahead of the odds for small businesses in Florida, which have roughly an 80 percent failure rate during the first 18 months of operation. Of course, not all of those entrepreneurs can look to their spouses for financial support as Mrs. Palisi does.

High failure rates have not discouraged hundreds of Pasco residents from going into business, according to Bill Manck, director of the Small Business Development Center at the University of South Florida.

Between 1980 and 1986, the number of businesses in Pasco grew by 73 percent, Manck said, and he estimates that about 99 percent of those are small businesses, creating 70 percent to 80 percent of the jobs in Pasco County.

"We see tremendous small business potential in Florida for aggressive men and women who are willing to make the commitment, put a business plan together and go for it, especially in Pasco with the rapid population growth," Manck said. "These new residents have created a tremendous opportunity for people who want to go after that new business."

These trends and her own desire to be self-employed motivated Mrs. Palisi to open her tiny shop in a small commercial building on U.S. 19 in Port Richey. At the rear of the shop is a kitchen in which Mrs. Palisi melts chocolate on hot plates and pours it into hundreds of different plastic molds.

The variety of molds is the reason for her success, Mrs. Palisi said.Her chocolates range from beer bottles to baseballs, and she even sells an all-chocolate basket filled with all-chocolate flowers.

But there is some modesty in that explanation, since plenty of other stores have offered as much variety and failed.

Chocolates by Michelle succeeds because the owner relentlessly promotes her product. Mrs. Palisi is a frequent public speaker, donates chocolate when she can afford to, and even works her way onto local television shows.

Those efforts kept Mrs. Palisi afloat during her first year, after she founded the business with $2,500, which was about $17,500 less than a couple of business advisers told her she would need to succeed.

Chocolates by Michelle still doesn't have that much money in the bank, but the way things are going, Mrs. Palisi figures she has proven herself a survivor.

"There have been 10 chocolate stores that have gone out of business between here and St. Petersburg since I opened," Mrs. Palisi said. "I know. I bought some of their equipment."

Move helps business

A lot of people wouldn't shop in Valerie Faulkner's store until she moved it. Mrs. Faulkner opened PYT's on the Boulevard in Gulf View Square Mall in July, after doing business for three-and-a-half years on Grand Boulevard in Port Richey.

In the original location, the women's clothing store was profitable almost from the first day, but growth was marginal and ultimately limited by traffic and visibility.

"People come in now, and they say, 'I saw you there in the old store, but I never stopped in,' " Mrs. Faulkner said. "I don't think they even remember how long I'd been there."

Mrs. Faulkner, a fourth-generation small-business owner, had no experience selling clothes when she opened the store, but she knew she couldn't find the kind of clothes she wanted in Pasco County and figured there were plenty of other women in the same situation.

Opening in a converted house gave the shop instant atmosphere, and doing business away from U.S. 19 greatly reduced her operating costs.

But when Mrs. Faulkner decided to make a change she went all out, moving into the mall, where few independent retailers ever venture and where square-foot costs are among the highest in Pasco County.

"It was a big jump. I told my family this could make us or break us," Mrs. Faulkner said. "There comes a time when you have to say 'I am willing because I'm so sure this will work.' " Beyond paying the higher rent, Mrs. Faulkner had to add inventory and spend money trying to recreate the feeling of an old house in her space at the mall. While her family has always helped out at the store, she had to hire workers for the first time, since the mall stays open about 70 hours a week.

Despite the costs, Mrs. Faulkner deems the move a success, largely because she has been able to combine the feel of the old store with the traffic of the mall. In addition to keeping the Boulevard name, she still chats with customers, decorates with antiques and keeps puzzles and toys around for children to play with while their parents shop.

On days when she might have had five customers in Port Richey, Mrs. Faulkner said she can count on more than 50 shoppers coming into the mall store.

While added costs have kept PYT's in the red so far, business is growing fast enough for Mrs. Faulkner to talk optimistically about her ultimate goal, a three-store chain with shops in Hernando and Pinellas counties.

Family business

Like a lot of small-business owners, Johnnie Clower couldn't make it without his family.

Pictures of his wife, children and grandchildren decorate the walls of his carryout barbecue restaurant in Dade City, and the people in those pictures show up behind the cash register and at the stove at Johnnie's Bar-Be-Que. While Clower tends the meat on the big black cooker at the rear of the restaurant, his family often tends to the rest of the business, and the family ties are completed by a barbecue sauce recipe handed down to Clower by his mother.

Clower sees plenty of advantages to a family business, the biggest being employee loyalty, but there also are disadvantages.

"If you work with your wife, she's the boss, too," he said. "And if you get in an argument here, you know it doesn't stop here. It goes home with you."

Clower opened the restaurant about 10 months ago after closing the small auto shop he had operated for about 10 years in Dade City.

"I saw the handwriting on the wall that the mechanic's business for the small man was a thing of the past," he said. "Technology is moving too fast for one man to keep up with."

While not as technical, the restaurant business also has required a lot of learning.

Clower learned to cook as a child growing up in Plant City, and kept practicing barbecue for years before he decided to sell his talents. He started in the barbecue business part-time with a small cooker attached to a motorcycle trailer that he would take to flea markets and other public gatherings.

Eventually he ran into trouble with authorities, who told him he could only operate the cooker if he also had a restaurant where he could clean and store it.

Rather than push Clower out of business, that incident made him determined to open a restaurant. He found a former beauty salon within a few blocks of the hungry crowds at the Dade City courthouse and went into business as quickly as he could add on a room for his pit and assemble the necessary kitchen equipment.

Since then, Clower has put in plenty of 16-hour days with his family by his side. Business is steady, and Clower hopes to add enough space for a full-service restaurant in the coming year.

Ultimately, he would like to build the business to the point where he could hand it over to his children, but Clower knows that time might be far in the future.

"I do realize that I'm attempting something most people don't attempt nowadays, opening up a private restaurant," he said. "Most people open a franchise, and certainly not a family restaurant."


Occupation: Owner, PYT's on the Boulevard Born: Feb. 23, 1950, Long Island, N.Y. Family: Married, three children Residence: Port Richey Hobbies: Arts and crafts, walking and swimming, shopping Last book read: "I read magazines and newspapers."

Latest accomplishment: "I feel like I accomplish something every day."

Drives: Oldsmobile station wagon JOHNNIE CLOWER

Occupation: Owner, Johnnie's Bar-Be-Que Born: July 11, 1944, in Macon, Ga. Family: Married, seven children, six grandchildren Residence: Dade City Hobbies: Cooking Last book read: reads magazines Latest accomplishment: Opening Johnnie's Bar-Be-Que Drives: Chevrolet Van MICHELLE D. PALISI

Occupation: Owner, Chocolates by Michelle Born: Nov. 24, 1946, Mount Vernon, N.Y. Family: Married, one daughter, one granddaughter Residence: Hudson Beach Estates Hobbies: "My hobby is my work."

Last book read: Rambling Into Romantic Candy Antiquity, by Gus Pulakos Latest accomplishment: Opening a second store at the Brown Derby Drives: Toyota van