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A ‘Crazy Idea’ Turns Out To Be Genius For Alberta Eye Care

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During her third year in optometry school at Pacific University in Forest Grove, OR, Laura Armstrong and her MBA-wielding husband, James, decided to make their long-term home in Portland. That decision alone wasn’t striking, especially given the vibrancy that fills the 610,000-resident city along the Pacific Coast. But alongside the couple’s decision to settle in Portland, the Armstrongs concocted another plan: They would build an optometry practice reflecting their own style and values. It was a bold decision given that Portland is rich in a few areas: weird, foodies and optometrists.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 edition of INVISION.

 

Quick Facts

LOCATION: Portland, OR
URL: albertaeyecare.com
OPENED: 2013
AREA: 2,100 square feet
DESIGNERS: DECA
EMPLOYEES: 12
TOP BRANDS: Andy Wolf, SHO Eyeworks, l.a.Eyeworks, L.G.R., Cutler & Gross
FACEBOOK: facebook.com/AlbertaEyeCare INSTAGRAM: @albertaeyecare
PINTEREST: pinterest.com/albertaeyecare

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“It was a crazy idea to start one,” Dr. Laura Armstrong says.

As the couple began connecting with bankers about a loan, they kept waiting, even expecting, for someone to chide their effort,but rejection never came. “We just kept getting further along in the process,” says James, a forensic accountant.

In 2011, the Armstrongs signed a lease for a yet-to-be-constructed storefront on NE Alberta Street in Portland’s Alberta Arts District, committing themselves, and their futures, to a dirt lot. “We only saw a photo of what the building was going to look like,” James says.

One bold move after another eventually birthed Alberta Eye Care, a fullservice eye health clinic and optical boutique that invites patients to “See Portland Better.”

With thoughtful service including exams, refractions, contact lens fittings, about 600 frames and in-house lab services as well as a stroke of neighborly luck, the 3-year-old practice has emerged as one of Portland’s premier eyecare destinations.

In a once-downtrodden neighborhood now full of ambitious restaurants, swanky bars, posh boutiques and art galleries, the Armstrongs designed the practice to match the neighborhood’s creative vibe with a space decidedly unclinical. “Our goal is to promote a proactive approach to eye health, so we wanted something that felt more like a boutique, a place where people wanted to be and to return,” Laura says.

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A mid-century modern space characterized by simple lines, geometric-inspired elements and an uncluttered look, Alberta Eye Care’s 500-square-foot retail area is heavy in recycled wood, industrial elements like a polished concrete floor and a touch of whimsy, best characterized by Snellen chart papers floating out of a vintage typewriter carrying messages. There’s a pair of live-edge benches in the wait- ing area, a barn door to the pretesting room and a cedar reception desk. The credenza under the display cases and optician desks feature reclaimed wood from the Yangtze River Delta flooding. The Armstrongs selected the pendant lighting to complement the orangehued wood.

The Armstrongs have been able to build a thriving practice that corralled $1.2 million in sales in 2015

“There’s a lot of old looking new,” James says.“We thought through every aspect of the design to optimize what we were trying to accomplish.”

Practicality, however, never took a backseat to style. “We didn’t cut corners on functionality for the sake of aesthetics,” James says. “Everything had to have a purpose.”

In the end, the Armstrongs knew the frames needed to shine.“It’s always about the eyewear,” Laura says.

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With an aversion to traditional frame boards and manufacturer POP materials,the Armstrongs worked with their designer to display eyewear in various compelling ways. Reclaimed barn wood covers walls in the retail area while recessed boxes with LED lights showcase the eyewear. In the windows, industrial cables suspend boxes crafted from recycled Douglas fir. It’s a design funky enough to fit Alberta’s creative vibe, yet soft enough to appease any neighborhood newbie deciding to pop in.

And people do pop in — often thanks to Salt & Straw, the ice cream shop next door that emerged as a foodie phenomenon just as the Armstrongs opened. “This has spurred walk-in traffic and definitely helped to build our reputation,” James says.

For a couple that once termed its daring entry into Portland’s optometry scene a “crazy idea,” the Armstrongs have been able to build a thriving practice that corralled $1.2 million in sales in 2015. That success spawned the opening of a second office, Cathedral Eye Care, near Portland’s Cathedral Park last August.

“It’s surreal to think of where we were five years ago, but we just keep putting one foot in front of the other and it’s led to something really special,” Laura says.

 

Fine Story: Private-Label Eyewear

Alberta has a branded in-house frame line called Community. Produced by SHO Eyeworks, the Armstrongs pick a collection of frames and stamp them with the Alberta Eye Care logo. When a customer purchases a Community frame, 10 percent of the proceeds go to a local organization.

“People here take pride in where they live and it’s beneficial to have a deeper story we can share,” James says.

Though there is a financial risk in stamping their logo on them, Laura says those concerns are offset by a lower price and the branding and marketing benefits.

“Plus, having something exclusive is another way we can’t be usurped by online shops,” Laura says.

 

5 Cool Things About Alberta Eyecare

1. CHEERS: Alberta Eye Care offers complementary beer and wine to its adult patients. “After an eye exam, of course,” Laura says. The hospitable effort accelerates each Halloween when the office provides the parents of trick-or-treaters homemade Jell-O shot eyeballs.

2. ADD-ON SALES: Alberta Eye Care hosts a rotating gallery wall spotlighting the work of local artists. “And we’ll even sell a piece here and there,” James says.

3. MOODY BLUES: For all of the unique design elements the Armstrongs pack into their 500-square-foot retail area, the most remarked-about feature is perhaps the simplest: the Sherwin Williams Moody Blue paint color that encircles the space. “We’ve had numerous people come in off the street solely to ask about the wall color,” Laura says.

4. POP, POP, POP: Alberta Eye Care has hosted trunk shows for both Andy Wolf and l.a.Eyeworks, emptying out its entire retail area and displaying only the complete collection of frames from the featured company — a branded pop-up of sorts. “People love getting a taste of the entire collection and seeing the array of colors and styles available,” she says.

5. CURATING COST: The Armstrongs believe quality eye health should not be impacted by one’s income. To maintain financial flexibility they accept most insurance, including Oregon’s Medicaid plan, and have implemented multiple cost-savings measures, including the purchase of stock contact and ophthalmic lenses, operating an in-house edging lab and carefully curating a selection of frames covering multiple price points.

 

What the Judges Say

ANDREA HILL: Alberta Eye Care recognizes that you can’t deliver a quality experience without quality employees, which is key to success in retail today. Also key is community involvement — and they’re doing a great job with that.

DR. TANYA GILL: This is a inspiring brand concept come to live, breathe and happy dance. Everything is on point. The doctor, the space, the website, the thoughtful signage, the branding and the little details make it so special. I’m a huge fan.

MICHAEL KARLSRUD: I love the vibe of this business. It comes through every element of design. Most impressive, I love that it somehow captures the essence of Oregon. I can only image that when patients arrive they feel like they’ve walked into a magazine story of their lives. Very well done.

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America's Finest

You’ll Be Amazed What This Minnesota Practice Did with 1,000 Sq. Ft.

Hint: A stunning optical, exam lane AND plans to put in an edger.

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Wink Family Eye Care of SLP, St. Louis Park, MN

OWNER: Dr. Roman Gerber; URL:winkfamilyeyecare.com ; FOUNDED: 2018 ; ARCHITECT FIRM: Bob Shaffer Foundation Architects; EMPLOYEES: 2 full-time ; AREA: 1,000 sq. ft.; TOP BRANDS: Ørgreen, Etnia Barcelona, MODO, Acuvue Oasys 1 Day, Fresh Day Sphere; FACEBOOK: facebook.com/winkslp; INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/wink_of_slp; YELP:yelp.com/biz/wink-family-eye-care-of-slp-saint-louis-park; BUILDOUT COST: $150K


Dr. Roman Gerber had wanted to open his own practice from the moment he graduated OD school in 2011. His dream came true in January 2018.

DR. ROMAN GERBER WANTED to cold-open a practice from the moment he graduated optometry school in 2011. Life circumstances and other opportunities kept that from happening for a few years, but by early 2017 he was scoping out potential locations for his own business in the South Minneapolis/St. Louis Park, MN area.

Things moved pretty quickly and the doors to Wink Family Eye Care of SLP opened on Jan. 15, 2018. Gerber began by seeing patients at Wink three half-days a week, while still working at his previous office; but before the year was out, Wink had gone from one to two full-time employees and was busy enough for Gerber to start working there full-time himself.

Gerber’s prime motivation for choosing the St. Louis Park neighborhood was because that was where his family first settled after immigrating from Russia when he was just 4 years old.

But as he took a closer look at the area, he was surprised at how much busier certain blocks were than others not that far away. The location he eventually settled on benefits from being in a mixed commercial and residential zone with Fresh Thyme and Trader Joe’s groceries nearby, a CVS pharmacy across the street and a busy Starbucks outlet just two doors down.

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Gerber estimates that about half of his patients are in the 20-39 age group, and they’re an important segment for Wink. “However, that still leaves half of our patient base as younger than 20, or 40 and older. We try to cater to everyone.” Figuring out the ways to cater to each group has been a learning experience, he says. “We understand that many of our Millennial/Gen Z patients may prefer to communicate through secure email/text so we try to accommodate that. Although some of our Gen X/Baby Boomer patients would prefer phone calls, it has been surprising to me how many of our patients from those generations also prefer text messages.”

The store’s décor and distinctive green color scheme were inherited from Wink’s partner business, Wink Family Eye Care in Chanhassen, MN, with a few embellishments. The store’s cool feel, sleek materials and careful, efficient use of space offer a lesson in how to make the most of a smaller space. Explains Gerber: “With our young hip demographic, we focused on a classier optical. The walls are lined with stinkwood and showcase our frame lines beautifully. We have a small, 1,000 square foot, flag-shaped space. We wanted to fit a pretest room, exam room, office, and future edger without sacrificing our optical. Our architect worked tirelessly to fit all of these components and to allow a natural flow.”

Eyewear is merchandised by brand, with Tracey Eggerstedt, Wink’s technician/paraoptometric/optician extraordinaire organizing and reorganizing constantly. Once again, it’s a constant learning curve: “It’s interesting to see where people look at glasses and which locations are ‘hot spots,’” Gerber says. He adds that the store’s online focus is primarily on building brand awareness. “We like to educate our patients while still showcasing our fun vibe.”

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Gerber strongly believes in listening to staff, treating them with respect, and empowering them. “Take care of your staff and they will take care of your patients,” he counsels. Before every eye exam, staff call on the patient’s medical and vision insurance to ensure there are no surprise bills. Eggerstedt focuses on pre-testing, frame styling, and learning everything about ocular health. “She enjoys being quirky with our patients and getting to know each one,” Gerber says. But all of the staff do a little bit of everything. “Kristin [Cannon] is our contact lens guru. She loves working with scleral lenses and doing difficult insertion and removal trainings.” The key to achieving great service, Gerber says, is to “treat every patient as if they were your family. We really try to empower patients and give them information to make the decisions for themselves. Everybody’s life is different and all we can do is educate our patients on all their options.”

PHOTO GALLERY (20 IMAGES)

Five Cool Things About Wink Family Eye Care of SLP

1. PARTNERS IN FINE. Wink Family Eye Care of SLP has a partner practice, Wink Family Eye Care in Chanhassen, MN, another America’s Finest Honorable Mention. They share staff, records and a website, but are run as separate businesses.

2. MEET & GREET. The Wink team are huge believers in networking and spend about five hours a week meeting other small businesses in the community, looking for ways to help each other out.

3. WILL TRAVEL. Gerber has made charity trips to Honduras, India, Mexico and Peru, and for two years helped build clinics in The Gambia, West Africa.

4. AWARD WINNING. Staff member Tracey Eggerstedt was named Paraoptometric of the Year in 2018 by the Minnesota Optometric Association.

5. EASY ON THE EYE. The store’s green color theme was chosen on the basis that the green wavelength of 555nm is the easiest for the rods in the retina to see.

WHAT THE JUDGES SAID

  • Great logo, clean marketing materials and excellent use of that eye-popping green. Very clean and “shoppable” store layout. Nathan Troxell, PPG, Monroeville, PA
  • Refreshing in its simplicity and direct messaging. A solidly cool business. Leigh and Todd Rogers Berberian, Todd Rogers Eyewear, Andover, MA
  • While they obviously take the medical side of their business very seriously, there is a quirky, fun side that is evident in their marketing materials and social media posts. I like the community involvement, both local and global. Beverly Suliteanu, Westgroupe, Ville St-Laurent, Québec, Canada

 

Fine Story

Wink Family Eye Care of SLP owner Dr. Roman Gerber’s approach to choosing the precise location for the practice was downright scientific. In early 2017, while looking for places in South Minneapolis and St. Louis Park, MN, he says, “We ran a geospatial analysis (a gathering, of imagery, GPS, satellite photography and historical data for specific geographic coordinates, i.e. a street address or postal code) on a few spaces that were available. We were aware the area was changing rapidly, but it was great to see whether our assumptions about traffic patterns were correct. For the most part they were.”

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America's Finest

A Second Optical Location Hitting the Next Level of Candy Crush in Cleveland

People said their business would be ‘too funky’ for the Midwest but they proved their critics wrong.

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3RD Place: EYE CANDY OPTICAL PINECREST | Cleveland, OH

Next Level Candy Crush

People told these optical biz owners that Cleveland wasn’t ready for ‘funky, futuristic and weird,’ but they proved them wrong a second time.

OWNERS: Steve Nelson and Anton Syzdykov | URL: eye-candy-optical.com | YEAR FOUNDED: 2012 |YEAR OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2018 | AREA: 2,000 sq. ft. | EMPLOYEES: 6 full-time | FACEBOOK: facebook.com/EyeCandyOpticalCle | INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/eyecandycle | TWITTER: twitter.com/ECO_Cleveland | YELP: yelp.com/biz/eye-candy-optical-beachwood | TOP BRANDS: Sospiri, Matsuda, Face à Face, Dita, Theo | BUILD OUT COST: $1.1M with equipment | ARCHITECT AND DESIGN FIRMS: Helen Rogic, ONE Interior (one-interior.com), and Jeff Bogart, Bogart Architecture, Inc.


Like many business ideas, Eye Candy Optical was born of a need. Steve Nelson, who launched Eye Candy Optical with Anton Syzdykov in Cleveland, OH, in 2013, recalls: “We couldn’t find fashionable glasses in our hometown.” They set out to change the local optical landscape by bringing a world-class eyewear shop to the city “based equally on fashion and function.” As industry outsiders, they felt they could avoid tunnel vision and preconceived notions. Of course, it’s one thing to identify a need — it’s how you go about filling it that matters. Eye Candy Optical’s founders were determined to do it with flair. “We asked ourselves: ‘What if Victoria’s Secret and House of Blues opened a glasses shop?’” The result was their first store in Westlake, west of downtown. Five years later, Nelson and Syzdykov opened a second location in the Pinecrest mixed-use development in Orange Village, one of Cleveland’s upscale eastern suburbs.

The goal with the second location wasn’t to duplicate the success of the first, but to build on it. “We had built a store that could compete with the best New York, LA, London or Paris shops,” says Nelson. “Sadly, many industry people, neighbors, competitors said we would fail. The shop was ‘too funky, futuristic and weird’ for the Midwest. Fast forward to today; we are very successful and have opened a second location.” Incorporating their five years of experience, the new location takes the strengths of the first store to the next level with added creature comforts, a superior lab and the latest in exam-room gear.

According to Nelson, it took several years to find the right space. “It was more than finding the right location, it was finding the location within the location,” he says. “We insisted on a spot caddy corner to the Whole Foods for the best visibility and parking.”

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It took many tries before they hit on the right design. “Truthfully we almost blew it and created an awful space that was fun but tantamount to a medical office instead of a sexy shop. We had to go back to basics and really recreate a better version of our first location. Sometimes you have all the answers right in front of you.” He acknowledges Helen Rogic from ONE Interiors, who did their displays, as a key contributor. “Without her … I don’t know how we would have tackled this project. She’s an amazing talent.”

“Sexy, cool, and very rock n’ roll” was the look and feel Nelson and Syzdykov were going for —fitting for a store just miles from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The optical’s layout is based around a circle of custom European displays by ONE Interior surrounding a coffee bar offering real Italian espresso and artisan teas.

When opening their second location in Cleveland’s Orange Village, Nelson and Syzdykov focused on the ‘location within the location’.

A large open window allows customers to see directly into the lab. Behind the center wall is a hallway that leads customers “back stage” where they find a first-class lounge with designer couch, bar seating and fridge with drinks and snacks. This area houses the state-of-the-art exam and pretest rooms, plus the “sexiest bathroom in optical with techno music and lights.”

Disappointed with the quality and selection in the mid-market category, the pair decided to design and manufacture their own frame line, Sugar Specs. It was a lengthy learning process and has been both labor and capital intensive, but well worth it, they say. “We set out to improve our position in this important price category by taking the bull by the horns. This is not simply choosing a design from a box of samples; instead we do our own hand and 3D drawings and get inspiration from our staff and customers,” says Nelson. They offer about 15 models in four colors and are working on getting it up to 50 models in the next 24 months. Frames are made from premium acetates or titanium with European hardware.

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The way Nelson and Syzdykov see it, they have “a vested interest in making customers look awesome.” What they strive to deliver, they say, is not just an amazing pair of glasses, but compliments and social validation from each client’s friends, peers, and relatives — with some fun along the way.

Thinking back on Eye Candy’s arrival on a staid Cleveland optical scene six years ago, Nelson says, “Look, we were different. People are always afraid of what is different. We were unapologetic when we said, ‘We are going to be the sexy rock ’n’ roll optical in Cleveland.’ Be bold, be brave, and stick to your vision.”

JUDGES’ COMMENTS

Nathan Troxell: The Eye Candy Optical brand and persona is embraced throughout the entire patient experience and across all consumer touch points. Terrific connection to their home city by embracing the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the attitude that goes along with it.

Stirling Barrett: Eye Candy Optical is showing that eyewear can be creative, exciting and fun. They care not only about getting customers in a frame that looks great, but they also have a fun approach in getting their customers to try new styles and push their comfort zone.

Beverly Suliteanu:This is a serious business that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Fun, cool spirit throughout, from interior design to frame collections, marketing material and online platforms. They are quite high tech and appear to put as much emphasis on the substance (eyecare) as they do on the style (eyewear).

PHOTO GALLERY (28 Images)

5 COOL THINGS ABOUT EYE CANDY
 OPTICAL

1 EDGE ON THE COMPETITION. Eye Candy’s lab has a commercial edger from MEI Italy that allows the practice to make glasses on demand in minutes.

2 GET WITH ‘THE PROGRAM.’ Eye Candy staff wrote their own POS and accounting software that integrates with their edgers, labs, and medical equipment, simply called “the program.” A major undertaking, the end result is a streamlined system that has cut the average transaction time by 50 percent.

3 2020 VISION. The new store has the latest Visionix and Reichert pre-test and exam equipment for faster and more accurate exams.

4 IN THE MOOD. Eye Candy uses the SONOS system to set up to four different music stations. “The mood needs to be different on the retail floor versus the exam room,” says Nelson. They have everything from oldies and lounge to metal and techno.

5 WOW FACTOR. A front display window includes an advanced LED light show. The idea, says Syzdykov, is to “dazzle customers with an ever-changing screen with inspirational photos, sayings and memes, and to make it fun.”

Fine Story

“We are really proud of the ‘Eye Candy Process’ we utilize to get the customer to their perfect frame,” Nelson says. To do this, opticians and stylists are asked to pull five to seven frames for each client that “push their fashion comfort zone,” in a variety of colors, styles and price points. “Then we play a game called ‘Hate/Don’t Hate.’ If they ‘don’t hate it’ it stays in the tray.” (They used to say, “Like/Hate” but customers found the word “Like” too committal.) More frames get pulled, the cream rises to the top, and, eventually, the customer can be certain they found the best frame. It sounds simple but it takes a very skilled person to lead the process and consider the client’s style, facial features, skin tone, color palette, occupation, and the image they want to project. “Try doing that at a chain store! Here we are all psychologists, detectives, artists, and stylists!”

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America's Finest

America’s Finest Optical Retailers 2019 Winners Announced!

This year’s winners are eyecare business masterpieces designed to inspire.

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“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”
Edgar Degas

Despite a basis in medicine, running an exceptional independent eyecare business isn’t a science… It’s an art. A fine art. And nothing demonstrates that more than the top three winners of this year’s America’s Finest Optical Retailers contest. Nothing cookie-cutter here; our first, second and third place winners all demonstrate an individuality that cannot be replicated and a creativity that is quite literally hard to beat.

“I had so much fire in me and so many plans.”
Claude Monet

In speaking with this year’s honorees, many expressed a dissatisfaction with the more traditional routes eyecare has to offer. Sometimes burnt out, or otherwise just not interested, each determined that corporate optometry or a big box setting just wasn’t for them. Not fulfilling enough, not creative enough, not welcoming enough to big ideas and even bigger dreams.

“To create one’s own world takes courage.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

So they each took the leap. And they went BIG. Each pursued their idea of what an eyecare business should be. Whether they started from scratch or changed an established business, are a business in their infancy or have several generations behind them, each of this year’s honorees changed and tweaked their businesses to fit their most authentic expression of experience.

“A true artist is not one who is inspired, but one who inspires others.”
Salvador Dali

But none of these businesses came about by happy accident. The businesses recognized this year have achieved their success through passion, creativity, hard work and an unrelenting drive to offer superior products and service to their customers. They are dreamers. They are doers. They are thinkers and they are artists. They are, in short, an inspiration.

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