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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Jan. 12, 202205:10 AM EST

Business Strategy: ‘Luck and a lot of hard work’ for Kilwins owners

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Starting with a day care center, the Stallings family found success with ice cream shop, Jax Kitchen and an Airbnb.
by: Dan Macdonald Staff Writer

The Stallings family business plan is the Stallings family.

Vance and Dana Stallings, owners of the Kilwins chocolate and ice cream shop at St. Johns Town Center, have total confidence in themselves. 

When a challenge arises, they quickly identify a solution.

The first was to start a business.

“Neither one of us grew up wanting to own our own businesses. It has taken luck and a lot of hard work,” Dana said.

Both of them came from modest backgrounds. Vance, 53, is from North Carolina and Dana, 50, from Minnesota. 

Vance said he barely made it through high school, so he joined the Navy where he eventually rose to the rank of petty officer first class and along the way earned his college degree and an MBA.

They met while Vance was in the Navy in Kissimmee and they married 28 years ago.

Dana earned her degree in health care management.

In 1996 they started their first business, Little Britches Child Care Center, which they operated until they sold it four years ago.

While running Little Britches, the couple decided to join the candy business.

“I wanted to do something that was more fun. I enjoy food and candy. I was ready not to have to manage staff so much. It’s quite an undertaking to run a child care. We just thought the candy business would be fun,” Dana said

The challenge was they had no food preparation background. They simply enjoyed the Kilwins products whenever they stopped in at the store in St. Augustine.

Franchising solution

The solution for food industry novices was franchising, Vance said.

Don and Katy Kilwin founded Kilwins in 1947 in Petoskey, Michigan. They modeled their store after an old-fashioned ice cream and candy store, known for its quality ingredients.

The Stallings bought and opened a Kilwins franchise next to P.F. Chang’s and were one of the inaugural tenants at St. Johns Town Center in 2005.

Haley Dougherty spends her mornings making confections like these caramel apples.

They became the 54th franchise. Now there are about 200, mostly in tourist areas. Theirs was one of the few in a shopping center. 

The challenge was convincing Kilwins that the Town Center would be destination shopping.

With the success of their first store, they decided to open another in 2006 on First Street North in Jacksonville Beach near the Seawalk Hotel and Spa. 

Unlike touristy St. Augustine, Jacksonville Beach didn’t provide much in the way of foot traffic. Some days represented as little as $40 in sales, Dana said. 

“Ours is a high-quality product. We found people would just as soon go to Dairy Queen,” she said.

When that shop didn’t work out, they closed after three years.

As their Kilwins business grew, they ran into a storage problem. Kilwins shipments come twice a month and their store was too small to serve both customers and keep supplies. 

It was another challenge.

Jax Kitchen founded

They said Town Center rents are expensive, so they needed an off-site location. 

Seven years ago, they purchased a former pizza restaurant at 1850 Emerson St. and created Jax Kitchen. At 5,000 square feet, the building offered plenty of storage and provided space for another venture.

The building had some equipment, but over time Vance and Dana outfitted it to be a professional kitchen so they could rent space to other small operators.

Small food preparation companies can only do so much work from a home kitchen. They must work out of an inspected facility. 

The specialty businesses also cannot afford their own space, but at a minimum $200 per month, Jax Kitchen offers a solution.

Jax Kitchen has 90 clients. Most produce specialty food items like pickles, spices and hot sauces. They have food truck customers, but just five because most want to park overnight near their prep kitchens.

The couple also overcame a challenge when their daughters moved out. Their home was too large and they wanted to sell. When it didn’t, they decided to rent it out as a weekly Airbnb.

The house in Julington Creek in Mandarin proved to be a popular location with visitors, but neighbors complained to the city.

Dana Stallings is a hands-on owner at Kilwins. She is there hours before opening making fresh treats for that day’s customers.

City officials told the couple they couldn’t rent their house using the then-new Airbnb model. 

That’s when another challenge became a solution. During their Little Britches ownership, Vance had tired of paying for lawyers, so he became one himself, graduating with a law degree from the University of Florida in 2002.

He practiced briefly, specializing in real estate law. Today, he keeps his license but represents his businesses and does some pro bono work for family.

He took the city to court to prove he and Dana were running a legal Airbnb operation. They prevailed.

That challenge actually became yet another solution.

At first they still were living in the house, renting a hotel room for the week when the house was booked. Soon they were renting so frequently that they moved out, first to an apartment and then to a new home in Beachwalk in St. Johns County. 

They continue to operate the house as a profitable Airbnb.

“The way we think about it, how do you make the most out of whatever space you have and make money out of it,” Dana said.

They also rent their camper. No sense letting an asset sit unused in the driveway.

Second Kilwins

The Stallings now are working on their newest venture, a second Kilwins in St. Johns County in Beachwalk near the lagoon on County Road 210. 

As with the first store, the couple had to negotiate with the Kilwins company to allow for the plan.

The building will be 6,000 square feet, large enough for the 2,100-square-foot store and a commercial kitchen that will become a second Jax Kitchen.

It also will be the first Kilwins franchise with a drive-thru, but at a cost. 

As the franchisor, Kilwins isn’t paying for the design or the modified system needed to handle drive-thru orders. 

“This is going to be a game-changer. Even before COVID I wanted to do this. A lot of stores couldn’t have their lobby open,” Vance said, referring to the first days of the pandemic.

It is expected to be a six-month project at a $3.5 million budget.

Inflation keeps increasing that budget, he said, but a stand-alone building will prove profitable in the long run.

“Mortgages don’t go up. Your rent does,” he said.

Staffing challenges

Like most retail businesses, staffing has become a challenge. 

The couple employs two full-time workers and another four to six part-time. 

In the past, most workers were college students who stay about two years before they graduate.

The couple now is hiring more high school students to supplement the crews.

The limited number of daily hours offer challenges. That’s where the family is a solution.

Vance and Dana work the St. Johns Town store as does their daughter, Haley Dougherty, 27. The soon-to-be first-time mother is the store’s manager. 

A second daughter, Emily, 25, has worked at the store but so far isn’t interested in making it her career. 

During the winter months, which prove to be the store’s busiest, Dana’s mother, Lois Ferguson, comes down from Minnesota and puts on her Kilwins shirt to become part of the crew. Employees and regular customers know her as Grandma.

When the new store opens, Dana’s sister and husband, Susan and Luke Simmons, will move from South Dakota to help run it.

Until last year, Haley worked as a nurse at Mayo Clinic. The onset of COVID proved stressful. 

She and her husband had talked about becoming partners with her parents. When she left nursing she found she enjoyed selling ice cream and chocolate. 

The change of careers also allowed them to start a family.

That means the family business could continue.

“We’ve created a good quality of life for ourselves,” Vance said.

“We did it by taking little steps along the way.”

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