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Living the Retail Dream

Bird & Bean of Berkeley, Calif., made the happy transition into a vertical operation, and owner Janel Andersen has never looked back.

Inside the Bird & Bean store

Inside the Bird & Bean store

What happens when an art and psychology major travels to Europe? If you’re Janel Andersen, you get inspired to become a childrenswear designer. Andersen began a little company sewing patches onto T-shirts at her kitchen table.

Today,  18 years later, Ander-son’s little company has evolved into a vertical operation and one-stop shop for not only apparel, but toys, crafts, plush, games, and gifts galore in the Berkeley-Oakland area of California.

How exactly did she get here? One step at a time, a mantra she uses frequently.  Andersen’s T-shirt company became Nohi Kids, which she sold at street festivals and local trunk shows. “We started tiny and definitely bootstrapped all the way,” she says.  Meanwhile, the brand grew, and she was exhibiting at trade shows, hiring sales reps and landed accounts across the country. “I loved the interactions with our customers and absolutely loved being back face-to-face with our community.”  That love of connection is something that would stay with her.

Andersen was determined to make her teenage dream of having a brick an mortar a reality, and she set off to have the best of both of her worlds. In 2016, she opened her first store, Bird & Bean­— the nicknames of her 1 month and 18 month old—and stocked Nohi Kids. After two years, she renamed Nohi Kids as Bird & Bean to match the store.It was all falling into place.

Andersen brought in an assortment of merchandise in other categories. She had already been in the industry for over a decade and was familiar with many brands. “I knew what I loved, the designers and companies that I respected, and those that complimented my own brand. When I buy, I trust my gut and my eye. I can often make a buying decision super fast and luckily that has worked for me so far,” she explains.  “I love a collection that is cohesive and on trend without being overly trendy. I want to see the personality of the designers come through and not just a copy/paste of the trend of the moment.”

She admits it was an “insane time” to embark on this business: “This is something that crazy people do, I thought. But I believed in it so much.” Her valid concerns of needing more than 24 hours in a day and needing to be in two, three or even four places at once didn’t deter her. “I know myself and I know that I am a very hard worker and if I want something I will make it happen.” Andersen is quick to credit the additional reinforcements she has had:  Her “incredible husband” who has supported the business every step of the way, encouraging and believing in her. She also has an amazing team that functions as an extension of herself.

Then in late 2019, the storefront next door unexpectedly opened up, so she took it over and opened a women’s clothing and gift boutique called Stitch + Sparrow. “We were only open for about six months before the Covid shutdown, so that was an interesting ride. Two stores, a wholesale brand, and two kids under 5 during a pandemic was a real plot twist!” 

This was not Andersen’s first rodeo with career challenges. After graduating from college, she spent many years working with kids in the foster care system and group homes. “I loved this work, but because I have a bleeding heart, I got burnt out quickly and I needed a change. So I took several months off to travel. I got inspired by these adorable fashionable kids in Spain and started designing my first collection in my travel journal,” she explains. “When I got back from my travels, it was either continue to grad school or start making baby clothes.”

While Andersen may not have always had her sights set on creating baby apparel, she always had imagined herself owning some kind of retail shop, from the time she was a teenager. Supporting a wholesale and retail business has proven to be a magical combination for her. “I love how they both work together—the brand has evolved based on what I hear in real time from customers and what sells in my store. I think that one of the reasons that the store has been successful is that we have our own label. Our customers are loyal to our brand and some have been buying from us since our street festival days,” Andersen relays.

Bird & Bean tutu dresses and other giftables

Bird & Bean tutu dresses and other giftables

Bird & Bean literally borders Oakland and Berkeley; the wall inside her store is official dividing line. Each side of the store is approximately 1,100 square feet—one side for kids and the other for adults, but with the newly knocked-down wall, the space is essentially one big store. Parents, caregivers and grandparents stock up on Rylee + Cru, Quincy Mae, Pink Chicken, Me + Henry (see Designer Profile on pp 38 – 39), Angel Dear, Blueberry Hill, City Mouse, Appaman, Mayoral, Rivet Apparel, Baby Sprouts, Culk, Chaser, Tiny Whales, and of course, Bird & Bean. Her brand’s current top-sellers include adorable wash-and-wear tulle dresses, zip rompers, anything bamboo or modal, matching sibling items, and mommy and me outfits.

When it comes to hiring staff, Andersen invests a great deal of time in training before someone is formally hired. “The employee piece is by far, the hardest part of running this business. I feel like I can control lots of other aspects, but this is the wild card.” The store has a lot to offer to new employees, especially the “open, communicative, fun, and supportive work environment.”

And her recent solution for needing to be in those four places at once while trying to run her businesseses and still be a mom? A full-time operations manager. “Having someone to handle the training, staff management and the day-to-day workload at the shops is what I need to be sure both sides of the business are running well. There is no way that I could do it without her,” Andersen stresses.

“I have found the art of delegating and hiring people who you can trust. This was hard for me as a total control freak, but it’s a must-do to be successful,” she explains. Andersen constantly performs double duty with her wholesale side—both parts of the business get busy at the same time. “I am simultaneously selling my in-season collection, designing the next collection and buying for the shops.” As one can imagine, her operations manager has been a game changer. 

In addition to her capable team, Andersen has a few core practices that help her move through her days, even if she channels her original “one task at a time” mantra. “The to-do lists are truly endless and can feel very overwhelming at times. I also follow this advice: ‘When you feel tired, rest, don’t quit.’ A good nap, a walk, a deep breath, stepping away from all of it for a minute usually helps me recharge and refocus.” She also follows a strategy  for time management and productivity called “Eat the Frog.” The idea is that you identify your most challenging task (the frog) and do it first thing in the morning (eat it), so that it’s not hanging over you for the rest of the day.

After almost two decades in the childrenwear industry, Andersen has some of her own words of wisdom to share with budding entrepreneurs. She says that when it comes to funding, have more capital than you think you need, invest in marketing and be original. She stresses this point: “Anyone can copy what is already being done, but what are you bringing to the table that is interesting and different?” For channels of distribution, having an e-commerce site is a non-negotiable marketing and selling strategy .

The art major in her remains the foundation of her love of design. “I will go to sleep with visions of prints in my head,” she says. “I love seeing those end up on a garment that then ends up becoming a store’s bestseller. I also love merchandising so much. Often, I will come in late when the shops are closed and do a full redo of the stores—it’s my therapy.”


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