Kids love to play, and there are plenty of businesses around the San Antonio area that provide them with the opportunity to do just that in a safe and structured environment. But while it may look like fun and games, there is much more to owning and operating a child-friendly business than meets the eye. Children are fickle, and what is “in” today may be “out” tomorrow. And in a struggling economy, business owners must be able to demonstrate a value to the parents that justifies an activity that could be viewed as frivolous. The following women are tuned in to the needs of children and their families and are running businesses that provide valuable services, keep children entertained, parents happy and themselves young at heart.
If you have children, chances are you have been to Incredible Pizza, the enormous restaurant/family entertainment center that offers everything from indoor go-carts to miniature golf. Dina Uribe-Cruz opened the San Antonio franchise in January 2007, almost by accident. “It was one of those things that just kind of falls in your lap,” says this savvy business owner, who is in the process of opening another Incredible Pizza, this time in Phoenix. “We are not restaurateurs,” she laughs, although until recently Cruz owned the San Antonio El Taco Tote franchise. “My background is in the travel industry.” In fact, Cruz still owns Executive Meeting Services, a company she started in 1999. So why add another restaurant to her list of responsibilities as a wife, business owner and mother? “As a parent, I like that this is a place that encourages family time,” she explains. “It is a concept based on the 1950s and a simpler and happier time.” What many people may not realize is that Incredible Pizza is a Christian-based concept. The focus is on the children, which translates to an alcohol-free environment, G-rated movies and videos and nonviolent games.
“You don’t have to worry about what your kids are exposed to here,” Cruz assures, adding that she often consults with her 9-year-old daughter, Catherine, on the games and other activities. In addition, a portion of the company’s profits is donated to the Incredible Foundation that benefits various charities — a fact that impressed this philanthropist when she was researching the business. “I love to be a part of charity work, and I enjoy participating in the charitable organizations that benefit children,” says Cruz, who is a trustee for the Ronald McDonald House. It is a quality she has tried to instill in Catherine as well. “We spend a lot of time trying to keep her grounded and remind her of our values and the kind of people we are,” she explains.
Cruz also spends a lot of time thinking of ways to keep Incredible Pizza from getting stale. While she admits that part of her attraction to franchises is that “you don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” this energetic woman doesn’t just sit back and let the business run itself. She is always looking for ways to further enhance the Incredible Pizza experience, most recently by adding home-style meals to the menu. “Putting a lot of focus into the food sets us apart,” she says. “Parents like the fact that there are more options than just pizza.” As a mom, Cruz understands the importance of quality family time, and she strives to create that experience both for her customers and in her own life. When she is not at the restaurant, she and her family enjoy traveling. She and Catherine recently enjoyed a mother/daughter trip to Africa, but Cruz also appreciates the importance of a little down time too. “Our lives are a little hectic,” she laughs. “Sometimes just staying at home on a Sunday is really nice.”
Young Chefs’ Academy
Children in aprons puttering around a brightly colored kitchen might sound like a recipe for disaster — or a least a very large mess. But Terri Angelico, owner of the San Antonio Young Chefs’ Academy franchise, is unfazed. “I get energy from these kids and from sharing their lives,” she says with a smile.
Children have always been a source of pleasure for this mother of two. In her college days she worked at a day care center and volunteered her time as a Big Sister before landing a full-time career in the world of advertising. After 18 years on the job, however, her love of children beckoned, and she prepared to leave advertising to pursue a career in teaching. Fate had other plans. As part of the advertising team assigned to the Young Chefs’ Academy franchise, Angelico was impressed with the concept, and a new business venture was born. “When I saw that it combined cooking and working with kids, I knew it was for me,” says the soft-spoken Angelico, who learned to cook at the hands of her own mother.
The concept of Young Chefs’ Academy is straightforward: Children ages 3 to 13 learn new culinary skills at weekly classes. The hands-on process puts safety first and involves lots of reading, measuring, teamwork and more, with the result being a delicious meal and, occasionally, a new attitude toward food.
“I have parents who constantly tell me that their kids are eating things they wouldn’t normally eat,” Angelico says with enthusiasm. “I love that!”
Angelico says she also enjoys seeing the excitement and creativity in the children and watching as their confidence grows. “That’s the best part of my job,” she exclaims. Her passion for children isn’t only contagious — it is a job requirement. “When I interview someone, if they don’t voluntarily tell me that they love kids, I don’t consider them for the job,” she says with conviction. Fortunately, she has found two chefs who teach many of the classes, leaving Angelico time for golfing and coaching and playing softball with her husband, 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. “I’m exhausted at night because I have to fit everything in,” she says. “I am not going to lose any of my family time.” Exhausted or not, the children never know it. Angelico says parents remark on her kindness and the patience she exhibits with her small chefs. “It’s all about the kids,” she says with a sincere smile. “If they don’t love it, they don’t come back, and then you don’t have a business.”
When USAA employee Michelle Flores learned that the youngest of her two sons was being bullied at school because of his weight issues, she realized it was time to rethink her life. After working her way up the corporate ladder with the insurance giant for 16 years, Flores quit her job and began an entirely new career with the interests of her 10-year-old at heart. “I was working so hard I didn’t realize what was going on with him until he told me,” Flores says sadly. “I took a step back to see what I wanted to do and how I could help other children like my son.” Her research led her to the Dallas-based NexGym, a new and novel business that gets kids ages 6 to 14 moving in such a way that they can’t wait to come back for more. Similar to an adult gym, it offers classes and a cardio area. Unlike an adult gym, the classes are centered on age-appropriate games and activities, and the cardio area is more like an interactive video arcade. Parents drop children off for a maximum of two hours and then watch as their offspring develop not only physically but emotionally and psychologically.
“Parents are always complaining that they can’t get their kids off the couch and away from television and video games,” she explains. “This just seemed to make perfect sense.”
Flores, who admits to struggling with her own weight throughout her life, saw NexGym as an opportunity to educate children and their parents about how to prevent obesity. Along the way, she began to educate herself as well and now makes time for fitness in her own life. “I was always the opposite of athletic,” she chuckles. “I always understood the need for exercise, but I never really got into it. Now I am trying to set an example for my children because it is never too late.” Flores and her children spend time walking and biking together, and she makes an effort to prepare healthier meals. “I was surprised at how little I knew about nutrition,” she exclaims. Her enthusiasm for her business is evident as she talks excitedly about her young clients, all of whom she and her staff treat with the utmost courtesy and respect. “This is the one environment where you can go and be whoever you are,” she explains. “For some kids this may be the only place where they are accepted.” Flores hopes to use NexGym as the impetus for taking fitness programs to underprivileged children within the community, especially since she has seen firsthand how the program builds not only bodies but also self-esteem. “The rewards of this business have been far more than I could have ever imagined,” says Flores. “My son doubled and tripled in almost every single category of his school Fitness Gram in only one year.” And while Flores admits that it can be difficult to convince parents of the necessity rather than the luxury of a child’s gym membership in our troubled economy, once the kids see the facility, the parents are hooked too. “My favorite part of this business is seeing the looks on the kids’ faces when they are able to accomplish something that they couldn’t do before,” she says. “They are sweaty, they are happy, and it’s great when they don’t want to leave.”
Let’s Get Loud Cheer and Tumbling
American Dance Company
From a shy girl to a Rangerette to a Silver Dancer to the owner of what she refers to as a “dance empire,” Farrah Olson has accomplished much in her young life. This 31-year-old mother of three has enjoyed a full and successful career by doing what she loves — dancing. Olson is exactly what you would expect from a cheer/dance instructor: Energetic, enthusiastic, attractive and confident, she seems to fill up the room with personality. However, that wasn’t always the case. “I was a really shy and somewhat insecure kid,” she recalls. “I found that I liked expressing my emotions through dance.” The fourth of five children in a middle-class family, Olson was fortunate to have parents who made sacrifices to ensure that she was able to hone her apparent talent — a talent that landed her a scholarship at Kilgore College when she was accepted as one of the world-famous Kilgore Rangerettes. “It is extremely difficult to get on the Rangerettes,” Olson says proudly. “They invented the high-kick and the jump-split.” A dance major, she knew that dancing was something she wanted to do for the rest of her life, and after graduation, she moved to California to continue her training. “I knew I wasn’t the person who would get dressed up and sit behind a desk every day,” she says with a smile. She was right. After returning to San Antonio, Olson began working at the studio that she now owns, and she divided her time between teaching and performing as a Spurs Silver Dancer in the 1999-2000 season. She was poised to go to New York and try to take on the bright lights of Broadway when the studio owner offered the then-23-year-old Olson the opportunity to purchase the business. “I was shocked,” she exclaims. “I couldn’t believe someone had that much faith in me at such a young age.” Faced with the decision to be a career dancer or a career teacher, Olson chose the latter. She purchased the studio at the end of the Spurs season, growing it from one location and 100 students to two locations and approximately 1,000 students. There’s a new 20,000-square-foot studio poised to open in Fall 2009 that she describes as “like nothing anyone has ever seen before in San Antonio.”
Along the way she separated the cheerleading studio from the dance studio in order to focus the same level of technical teaching in cheerleading as she did in dancing.
“It is very important to me that my students know what the technique is called, where it comes from and how to do it correctly in both cheer and dance,” she says determinedly. “I always appreciated the teachers I had that gave me the knowledge that allowed me to go into any class in any city and understand the terminology and style and fit right in.” Olson expects a lot from people, not least of all herself. Not one to understand the meaning of “no,” she tackles any challenge head- on, including the challenge of running a business and managing a family. She takes pride in the fact that both she and her husband (who manages the administrative side) are hands-on in the business as well as at home with their three young children. “We always said that if we were going to have a family and a business, we were going to do both,” she explains as to why you will often find all five of the Olsons hanging around the studio. And she credits her staff, all of whom carry a great load, she says. “I have learned to delegate as I’ve gotten older,” she laughs. As for whether or not Olson harbors any regrets over not choosing to tackle the Big Apple — the answer is quite simply “No. When you are good, you know you are good,” she says with confidence. “I know I would have been successful in New York, and I chose this life. It was definitely worth it!”
Ellen Di Giosia
Fiesta Music Together
When pianist/vocalist Ellen Di Giosia was living in Wimberley, a friend opened a Music Together center and asked Di Giosia to teach a class. Always eager to infuse others with her love of music, Di Giosia signed up for teacher training, but before she could teach her first class, she and her husband found themselves moving to San Antonio. “If I wanted to teach Music Together, I was going to have to open it myself,” says Di Giosia, which she did just over five years ago. Di Giosia, who received her undergraduate degree in music from Mississippi College, describes herself as a band, musical theater and choir “geek.” She married a man whose parents are both cellists with the San Antonio Symphony, and she still performs in her church choir. Once the educational director for the San Antonio Symphony, Di Giosia says the Music Together program appeals to her because it provides children with the opportunity to make music informally and enjoy it. “Music is a language,” she explains. “The earlier you are immersed in it, the earlier you acquire it.” It is a philosophy that the lovely brunette believes so strongly that it inspired her to sing to both of her children while they were still in utero. “If you never sing to your kids, they will never sing back,” says Di Giosia, who continues to spend time singing and playing piano with her two children, ages 3 and 6. Di Giosia acquired her own love of music at an early age through her parents, whom she describes as “always singing.” At the age of 7, she began her piano lessons, and it was there that she realized she had found her happiness. “I find great joy in music,” she says with a gentle smile. “It is not a source of pressure for me.” What is a source of pressure for Di Giosia is the business end of her creative venture. Finding the right location to hold her classes can be a challenge, and finding the time and energy to expand and grow the business in different directions has proven difficult. But those obstacles pale when Di Giosia discusses the best part of her career, which is watching the growth in her students and their families. “In the first class they are infants babbling and cooing,” she says, her face lighting up. “When they leave four years later, they are singing in tune and keeping time, not because anyone told them to, but because it’s fun.”
Texas Ski Ranch
A family hobby turned into a family business for Christine Bialick eight years ago when her oldest daughter, a water sports fanatic, was spending all her time skiing on Lake McQueeney. The family, who owned a piece of property on I-35, realized it might be wise to build their own private lake. “Lake McQueeney is just so crazy on the weekend,” says Bialick about the family’s decision. What was originally designed as a place for the family to play soon evolved into what is now the Texas Ski Ranch, a 70-acre action sports park that features motor cross tracks, a skate park, a bar and grill, acres of beach and, of course, water sports on the private lake. The biggest draw, however, is the cable lake for wake boarding. “It’s an old concept, but it is new in the States, and we are the only ones in Texas to have it,” says Bialick. The overhead cable and towrope system goes around in circles, allowing even beginning wake boarders to enjoy the sport without a boat. The entire complex is designed for family fun and safety. “With three kids of our own, my husband and I know that kids need a place to go and something to do that makes them feel good about themselves and gets them excited,” Bialick explains.Classes, camps, memberships and day passes make it fun and easy for children and their families to enjoy the park, and the private lake makes teaching little ones how to ski less daunting. “A private lake is the easiest way to work with a young child,” advises Bialick. “It is much less intimidating to a 3- or 4-year-old than an open lake.” Bialick, who considers herself more of an “ambassador” than an owner of the business, prefers staying behind the scenes as much as possible. She spends the majority of her time buying and merchandising for the large board shop and visiting with the children who have kept Texas Ski Ranch in business for the past eight years.
“Most days I spend more time passing out stickers and hugs than doing what most would consider ‘real work,’” she says with pleasure. “We have a talented crew of managers, who are addicted to their passion for sports to guide each area of Texas Sports Ranch, and our staff of students is an endless source of energy and fun.”
When she isn’t feeding off the energy at the Ski Ranch, Bialick is feeding off the energy of spending time with family and friends at favorite pastimes such as Spurs games or simply hanging out at home. She and her husband share a passion for theater and can often be found taking in a show at the Majestic or sneaking off to New York for a Broadway production. Family trips are usually adventure-centered and involve activities such as surfing or snowboarding, although she says she is not an athletic person. “I really prefer a good book,” she says. Athletic or not, Bialick still describes her job as an “awesome experience. I’ve never had a bad day,” she says with enthusiasm. “It is the most amazing place to be.”
By Bonny Osterhage