Wednesday marks 20 years since Five & Dime General Store on the Plaza opened as a smaller, repurposed version of the doomed F.W. Woolworth on the same site.
Since then, the company behind Five & Dime has opened eight more locations on the same model: catch-all emporiums in pedestrian-friendly historic areas that sell things people need, as well as a whole lot of things they don’t need but will probably buy anyway. The formula, born in New Mexico, has had a ripple effect that reaches to nearly every time zone in the nation.
This week the 10th store in the chain is expected to open in St. Augustine, Fla. The company owners didn’t plan a new store for the 20th anniversary; it just worked out that way, they said.
The St. Augustine Five & Dime will stock most of the same eclectic variety of merchandise available at the store in Santa Fe, with one exception: It will not sell Frito pies, the made-in-the-bag concoction of Frito-Lay corn chips, chile and cheese sold only at the Santa Fe location. And it will have no lunch counter.
Santa Fe’s Five & Dime started a small business empire that stretches from Savannah, Ga., Charleston, S.C., and St. Augustine in the East to San Diego and Monterey, Calif., in the West. In between, the chain has branches in Branson, Mo., Kansas City, Kan., and two in San Antonio — one near the Alamo and one on the River Walk, the second-oldest in the chain and its best performing.
“To appeal to the masses, I think, simplifies it,” said Mike Collins, CEO of the parent company, UTBW LLC. “We get a high capture rate of the people that walk in front of our store by offering such a variety. Also, we do great by the locals. We wouldn’t be successful, or do the volume we do, without the local community.”
The chain is on track to make $15 million in gross revenue this year, he said. The stores run on a 55 percent margin, meaning, for example, that merchandise it buys for 45 cents is sold for a dollar, Collins said.
“Whoever saves this would be a real hero,” Deborah Potter said. “At this point in the history of downtown, everything was becoming a [pottery] and jewelry shop.”
However, they did know something about building a business. The two were part of the group that founded Hotel Santa Fe — the success of which, Earl said, hinged on finding a good manager to run it. Perhaps, he recalled his wife saying at the time, Woolworth’s already had that person in place.
Either way, Earl Potter awoke and made his way to Woolworth’s, where he found a chaotic scene. He left a business card for Collins, the Woolworth’s manager — a card Potter retrieved and keeps framed in his second-story office on West Marcy Street. Collins remembered being bombarded by callers the day news broke of the store closing.
Collins trimmed the inventory down to the 25 percent of merchandise that generated about 80 percent of sales. The mix of ordinary items — like over-the-counter medications, microwaveable soups, souvenirs, sunscreen and bottled water — worked well, he said. A survey of the Santa Fe store yields a mingled inventory that appeals to the impulse buyer, anything from local souvenirs to dried chile mix, hats, toys of all varieties and gag items.
Collins said the Five & Dime proved a success after the first six months. Five years later, the company opened the River Walk location in San Antonio. Seven more opened between May 2006 and March 2013. Earl Potter’s experience as a real estate lawyer and helping rewrite the Santa Fe city code on historic preservation proved an asset for a company that specifically sites its stores in historic downtown areas.
That, of course, has never been a problem in Santa Fe. And the Five & Dime enjoyed a moment of fame in October 2013. That’s when Anthony Bourdain, food critic, former chef and host of the CNN travel series, Parts Unknown, disparaged the look and feel of the Frito pie, but deemed it “quite delicious.” The episode did little or nothing to impact sales, Collins said.