Running a Business From Out of Town

San Antonio is the seventh largest city in the United States and growing every day because of our friendly hospitality, economic diversity and energetic cultural scene. Even those who haven’t made the commitment to live in San Antonio are dipping their toes in the water other ways. SAN ANTONIO WOMAN recently interviewed three prominent businesswomen based in other cities who have established serious business and personal ties with SA.

Melissa Guerra
Based in the Rio Grande Valley, Melissa Guerra has a long biography as a cookbook author, television chef and nationally recognized expert on Latin American food history and recipes. She is also the owner of the eponymous Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina gourmet food and craft store, originally located in Edinburg. About 18 months ago, she opened the store at The Pearl. “They had me at hello,” she jokes about the decision to move her store from her home in the Valley up to San Antonio. “Pearl is unlike any other venture nationally in this economy. We are so lucky to have it, and San Antonio needs to step up and support it.” As an alum of Saint Mary’s Hall, she has long-standing ties to San Antonio. Guerra recently bought a house here and commutes from her family’s ranch in the Valley for three days every other week. As a businesswoman, Guerra says she has seen 100 years of traditional retail marketing abandoned in the last few years. Her print catalogue has been retired, her Web site is about to be relaunched, she’s on Facebook and has a hysterical, folksy blog. She’s even planning to incorporate small instructional videos in English and Spanish into her site. “Retail has gone from knowing your customer to serving them quickly. As quickly as possible,” she explains. “It’s even changed the way we hire.” Guerra needs employees who know and understand the cultural divide between the store and the vendors, but they also need to have computer skills and social media savvy.

“Working with the artisans I do, in Mexico, Central and Latin America, we’re bringing Third World problems into the most sophisticated retail market in the world,” she notes. Issues with production, transportation, reliability and quality are unfathomable to most American consumers, “but what can you say when the vendor tells you they don’t know when your earrings will arrive because a rebel faction blew up the factory?” Guerra asks. “It has to be about more than material gain,” she adds. The compensation is that she works with true artisan collectives, especially women. One Peruvian vendor raises and shears sheep, cards, spins and dyes the wool, makes the fabric and then designs, cuts and sews the clothing from it. Start to finish — one set of hands. Guerra’s store is modeled after a traditional Mexican mercado, or market. You’ll find everything from stone molcajetes for grinding spices and mixing sauces to modern appliances such as Cuisinart juicers and KitchenAid’s cult-status stand mixers. Tableware is where Guerra particularly excels, with sumptuous hand-painted pottery and serving dishes as well as stunning glassware. The hand-blown, hand-etched glasses made in San Miguel de Allende from recycled glass by Charlie and the Glassware Factory come in a wide variety of hues (favorite — turquoise) and styles (martini, of course!) — perfect for a summer wedding gift.

It’s not all foodie-related, however. Guerra also stocks gorgeous one-of-a-kind jewelry and textiles. It is a wonderful destination for picking up rebozos (long pashmina-like scarves) and papel picado (cut paper) for your next outdoor pachanga.

While she was saddened to close the store in Edinburg, Guerra admits chain stores are invading even our own last frontier. “We can’t compete with Bed, Bath and Beyond or Wal-Mart,” she says. “It takes decades to build loyalty to a small brand.” Undeterred, she has committed herself even more strongly to supporting small businesses herself and educating other consumers. “You have to vote with your dollar,” she advocates. “Think about where your money is going — out of town. Take responsibility for what you are purchasing.” It has been an education for Guerra, trying to focus all of her purchasing power on smaller vendors and learning to redirect her money according to her values. But, she says, “You have to at least try!” Guerra started out like many entrepreneurs: “in the garage, with my kids on my lap,” she laughs. The family is still very involved in the business, and when she is not in San Antonio, her husband and three boys, aged 18, 15 and 12, come with her to the Valley warehouse. “I could not have done this without their support,” she says. When Guerra first realized she would be doing a lot more traveling for the business, the boys got together and bought her a travel kit. “They always ask me how sales are doing,” she says with a smile.

In this close-knit family, Guerra makes their events a priority. “That’s why we don’t socialize,” she adds; “we hang out as a family. No one can tell a joke like your kids can.” She has been married to her husband, a painter, for 21 years. He is able to work from home and has been instrumental in the business, often stepping in with male vendors when a male presence is needed. “I don’t try to change the culture,” she shrugs. “I just work with it.” Sundays at home in the Valley are also sacred for Guerra. Every week for the past 16 years she has sung the service at her 250-congregant church, St. Anne’s, in San Manuel, Texas. She is the only adult singer, with a guitarist and a youth choir to accompany her. Guerra studied voice for many years in college and then in New York City, with aspirations to become a professional singer (“The only thing that pays worse than running a kitchen store,” she jokes.) Coming home to the traditional Spanish church music every week helps her stay grounded. Guerra is currently working on a new cookbook about the origins of Latin American cuisine. She will be spending time this summer in New York City, at the Hispanic Society, conducting research and working on the proposal. “The cookbook will be a deconstruction of what we know as Latin American cooking,” she says. “Food is the best way to internalize a culture.” As for the tienda de cocina, Guerra plans to add more food, reaching towards a gourmet mercado feel, with emphasis on tequila, coffee, chocolate and cigars. She’d also like to set up a touch point to book travel and tours into Mexico and South America. Eventually, she sees the store as a “smaller, more ethnic” Williams-Sonoma. Factoring in her considerable expertise and aplomb, we’re sure Melissa Guerra Tienda de Cocina will continue to be a unique, authentic destination for cooks and art lovers everywhere.

Dr. Jui-Len “Lillian” Chou
Dr. Chou, a radiation oncologist specializing in breast cancer, owns and operates Wellness Lubbock, a women’s health center in Lubbock, and the Lubbock Imaging Center and The Aurora Center in San Antonio, both breast cancer treatment and prevention centers. These centers are two of only 50 in the world with advanced breast MRI machines able to identify breast cancer in nearly double the instances of traditional mammograms.Dr. Chou is herself a breast cancer survivor. Despite being a radiation oncologist since 1986 and operating breast health and wellness centers for nearly a decade, in 2004 she was diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer. “A mammogram missed my cancer in December — by the time it was found, the following September, it was already half an inch,” she recalls. Frustrated and disappointed that the cancer was not caught sooner, which could have saved her from chemotherapy and invasive surgery, she threw herself into research. The fault was found, Dr. Chou believes, in the currently available imaging process. The traditional mammogram squishes and compresses tissue, finding only 50 percent of tumors. “Once missed, how long until it is seen again?” she asks. However, the Aurora MRI, a setup that costs $1.8 million, can see 90 to 95 percent of breast tumors. The machine works like a traditional MRI – the patient lies down on a slab akin to a massage table, and the breast is viewed digitally from a 360-degree advantage. Dr. Chou became dedicated to this new, more advanced tool and opened the only Aurora MRI center of its kind in San Antonio in September 2009.

Although based in Lubbock for the past 21 years, Dr. Chou considers San Antonio her first home. After moving her young family from Taiwan in 1983, she trained in radiation oncology at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She calls it her “imprinting stage” — she had never lived anywhere but Taiwan, and what she learned of the United States was here in our city. “For example,” she laughs, “I learned that chicken-fried steak is not chicken!” Dr. Chou and her husband, Dr. Ming-Tao “Peter” Ho, fell in love with the warmth of the local citizens and the vibrant, multicultural energy. Despite moving to Houston and then Lubbock to follow her career, she still considers San Antonio home. The couple formed deep professional and personal contacts, invested in the local medical real estate market and have returned often. “Sometimes I feel like we’ve never left,” she adds. After opening the Aurora MRI in Lubbock, she felt she had a chance to “bring something special home” to San Antonio. The Aurora Center is a new model for breast cancer treatment, taking a patient from screening and biopsy straight through to treatment in one location. Once cancer is diagnosed, chemo and other therapies are all available on site. There is even an operating room. The center is open staffed, as well. Dr. Chou and her team are willing to train any doctor on the technology available at the center and accommodate their patients.

As a doctor and a cancer survivor, Dr. Chou is an enthusiastic advocate of preventive measures, wellness techniques and healthy living. When not engaged in her research and patient care, she also operates TreeGrace Farms, an urban organic agriculture space in Lubbock. “I’ve been a farmer all my life,” she says, having grown up on a farm in Taiwan. “The only thing I didn’t like was laying down pesticides. When I started farming in the United States in 1999, I decided not to use them.” As an oncologist, she clearly sees a connection between cancer and major exposure to chemicals in our food, soil, water and air. She doesn’t allow landscaping chemicals on her office properties. The grounds of all three centers must be water-wise and even produce edible crops. “Everybody can be an organic farmer,” she says. She and her husband run the Ho-Chou Family Foundation, a private foundation that offers grants to turn public and private land into edible gardens and encourage sustainability. San Antonians are encouraged to apply. Drs. Chou and Ho have three children, the second of whom was born in San Antonio. The eldest is in graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, and the middle child is teaching English in Taiwan. Dr. Chou is currently in San Antonio two days of every two weeks, but when her youngest child starts college next year, she plans to divide her time equally between here and Lubbock. Her husband is also thinking of opening up a branch office in San Antonio in a year or two. Expect to see even more dedication to early cancer detection and healthier lifestyles soon.

Lana Duke
Lana Duke considers herself a “triangle resident,” given that she spends her time divided among her native Toronto, where she grew up; her adopted hometown of New Orleans, where she has lived since she was 17; and San Antonio, where she owns our two Ruth’s Chris Steak Houses and is a dedicated advocate for the Roy Maas Youth Alternatives organization. Roy Mass Youth Alternatives, or RMYA, helps abandoned and abused children by providing counseling and residential and foster care. Duke, recently named RMYA’s Humanitarian of the Year, identifies closely with the children RMYA serves, having been a foster child herself. For most of her first 15 years, she experienced both the best and worst of the foster care system in her native Canada. In a true rags-to-riches story, she left the system as a teenager and moved to New Orleans without a job or family support. Selling pots and pans door-to-door led to a job selling advertising for a Catholic newspaper, which led her to open her own advertising agency in 1975. A strong believer in setting down goals, the young Duke made a list of the top 10 clients she’d like the agency to handle. One of them was Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Duke had met Ruth Fertel and loved the restaurant, but had no idea if the client would be big business. It was — Duke coined the “sizzle” campaign that put Ruth’s Chris on the map and helped Fertel build the brand nationally, expanding from two restaurants to nearly 100.

Duke first came to San Antonio for a Catholic newspaper conference. Still living in New Orleans and running her own agency, she knew she had discovered some place very special. “It was so beautiful, so romantic and full of culture, just like New Orleans,” she says. Duke asked Fertel what she thought about setting up a franchise here. Fertel told her to do the research and make a proposal. Her first location opened in 1993, and the downtown location opened in 2000. “Of all the franchises, Ruth visited the San Antonio restaurants more than any other,” she remembers. Duke knew she wanted to use the restaurant’s success to help children in need. “We gave out a lot of gift cards,” she says. “I was fine with that, but I asked, can’t we do something more? And could it be with foster children?” Her PR agency did some research and connected her with Roy Maas Youth Alternatives, a perfect fit. Duke began by hosting an “etiquette dinner” (“And if you know me, you know how silly that is!” she laughs.) Seeing the joy and pride on the children’s faces as they sat in the fancy restaurant, she spontaneously asked, “How would you like to spend Thanksgiving with me?” An annual tradition was born. Years later, the entire Ruth’s Chris family has embraced RMYA and the Thanksgiving dinner. The Ruth’s Chris chef is a former RMYA resident himself, and between him and Duke, they help demonstrate that success is possible, despite the odds. “We all need mentors;” Duke says, “that’s how we succeed in life.” She has also organized a three-week culinary program that teaches interested young adults from RMYA every aspect of the restaurant business, from front to back to the “heart” of the house. She believes people who come from difficult backgrounds often excel at hospitality — “We want so badly to make other people happy, to please,” she explains — so she loves connecting RMYA’s kids to the business.

The partnership has been so successful that when Duke opened two Ruth’s Chris Steak House restaurants in Toronto, she found a similar foster child organization, Peel Children’s Aid Society, and began the Thanksgiving dinner tradition there too. Then, after Hurricane Katrina, Duke realized she could set up a similar program in New Orleans as well, with Raintree Family Services. Duke doesn’t spend as much time in San Antonio as she’d like, coming in every few months, but she has formed unbreakable bonds with so many of the children she’s helped that it will always feel like home.

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