By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
LYNNWOOD, Wash. – Playdate Café is fast becoming a gathering place for year-round child engagement.
Located near the intersection of I-5 and 405, the 8,500-square-foot facility is drawing parents, babies, toddlers and preschoolers from all over the Puget Sound area who are looking for low-stress, high-energy fun on a rainy day.
The indoor play space, all 2,000 square feet, is a wonderland of dress-up clothes, pint-size trucks and cars, a bouncy house, puzzles, blocks and other props for imaginative play.
Busy one-stop hub
While the café is busiest on rainy days, its offerings are attracting a strong following rain or shine. Three rooms, one of which doubles as a dance studio, are available for birthday parties and other private celebrations. A cheery classroom is used for morning preschool and afternoon enrichment classes in art and science.
The café at the figurative heart of the facility is busy serving up healthy kids and adult meals, salads, snacks, sandwiches and, of course, steaming lattes.
Barely a year old, Playdate Café (http://www.playdate
cafe.biz/) seems to be in a constant state of motion, and it’s not just the toddlers in the ball pit. Owner Lizz Quain added Spanish and Mandarin classes for kids in March and fitness classes for moms last fall. Next up on her “to do” list is an outdoor play area.
“I’m trying to be the one-stop shop where children can play, learn, eat and celebrate,” said Quain, the mother of 5-year-old twin girls.
Three-year journey to begin
When you’re bringing a new concept to market, timing is everything. Indoor play centers inspired by upscale children’s museums have been around for more than a decade but are relatively new to the Seattle area.
When Quain started working on her business plan in 2010 there were only a handful of indoor play centers for children 0-6 years old in all of Washington, and none were operating on the scale she envisioned.
She was prepared for an all-out sprint to get her business up and running by 2011; instead, difficulties securing a loan and then finding a location turned that sprint into a three-year marathon. She always knew she’d make it to the finish line, but the question was whether someone else with a similar vision would make it there first.
All-inclusive concept a hit
In fact, while she was meeting with banker after banker and then touring possible locations throughout Puget Sound, several indoor play centers did open. But none, she said, matched her vision of an all-inclusive center for play, learning and celebrations with a healthy café to keep both children and adults fueled and ready to engage.
There are now about a dozen indoor play centers in the region. But in March 2014, the Red Tricycle named Playdate Café the best in the greater Seattle area. Red Tricycle is an online kids’ activities guide for parents in cities nationwide; see http://redtri.com/.
“I’m overwhelmed by the positive response” to the business, Quain said. She’s also near-to-overwhelmed by the amount of work involved in launching a small business.
Thorough business plan
Before Playdate Café opened, she said, she estimates she spent more than 10,000 hours over three years on researching the industry, working in similar businesses to gain hands-on experience, writing a business plan, getting a loan, finding a location, executing the build-out and hiring staff. Her Excel spreadsheet records more than 1,000 separate tasks completed en route to opening the doors.
During that time, she was also networking with other entrepreneurs – especially those who owned play businesses – attending small business workshops and meeting with her Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) advisor Rich Shockley.
He is one of more than 20 SBDC business advisors who meet for free, one-on-one with small business owners who want to start, grow or transition their businesses. The Washington SBDC (https://www.wsbdc.org/) receives major support from Washington State University and the U.S. Small Business Administration. The SBDC also receives support from local economic development agencies and institutions of higher education. Shockley’s office is on the campus of Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash.
Shockley said Quain’s business plan was one of the best he’s ever seen during his years with the SBDC.
“The target market was clearly defined, the market demand was documented, the forecast and cost structure was clearly laid out and the timeline for launch of the various revenue streams was documented,” he said.
‘Business partner,’ sounding board
Quain, who has 20 years of experience in sales and marketing in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles, first met Shockley in 2010 while participating in Highline Community College’s StartZone, a microenterprise training program.
“I didn’t have a business partner, so it was really good to have Rich to talk to,” Quain said. “I’m sure he could be doing a lot of other things with his life, so I really appreciate that he has decided to do this.”
A veteran of other start-ups, Quain never expected opening her own business would be easy, but neither did she anticipate how hard it would be to secure a loan or a lease.
With every setback, she said, she knew she could count on Shockley: “He’d say, ‘Okay, that’s bad, but let’s figure this out.’”
Meticulous market research
Indoor play centers have a ready market during inclement weather, but the challenge is building a steady revenue stream for year-round viability.
Foregoing the “build it and they will come” mentality, Quain was meticulous in her market research.
A single mother of twin preschoolers, she didn’t just know her target market, she was her target market. Even so, Shockley pushed her to verify every assumption.
The two reviewed the various sales categories and service offerings, determined the costs associated with each, estimated revenues by category and created a timeline for launching the various revenue streams. They defined the equipment needs for the café, reviewed the layout and design, reviewed the lease, estimated building-out costs and discussed loan packaging and pro-forma financial documents.
“His help has been invaluable,” Quain said.
Building a business focused on play is a lot of hard work, but Quain said it has been satisfying as well.
Walking through the facility and seeing children and grown-ups smiling and laughing is a huge satisfaction.
“When children cry on their way out because they don’t want to leave, it makes me realize what a valued and needed community gathering spot this has become,” she said. “It makes all the blood, sweat and tears worthwhile.”
Playdate Café by the numbers
Hours spent on startup before opening: 10,000
Months spent writing business plan: 9
Sites toured for possible location: 40
Banks that rejected loan application: 15
Number of employees: 13
Lizz Quain, Playdate Café, 425-582-7007, email@example.com
Rich Shockley, Washington SBDC, 206-592-4150, firstname.lastname@example.org