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2ND Place: EMPIRE OPTICAL | Tulsa, OK

Family Empire

With five generations under its belt, this
state-of-the-art Tulsa optical shop offers something for everyone… just not an OD.

OWNERS: Christian and Brooke Hargrove | URL: empireoptical.com | YEAR FOUNDED: 1964 |YEAR OPENED FEATURED LOCATION: 2018 | AREA: 5,000 sq. ft. | EMPLOYEES: 7 full-time, 7 part-time | FACEBOOK: facebook.com/empireoptical | INSTAGRAM: instagram.com/empireoptical | TWITTER: twitter.com/empireoptical | YELP: yelp.com/biz/empire-optical-tulsa | TOP BRANDS: Silhouette, Ray-Ban, NW 77th, iGreen, The Caldwell (house brand) | BUILD OUT COST: $ 1.5M | ARCHITECT FIRM: Rick Stuber Architecture


Started as a retail optical lab in 1964, Empire Optical sells the largest selection of eyeglasses in Tulsa and makes their own lenses in house. In fact, the business boasts all sorts of impressive stats: 55 years, five generations, 5,000 square feet, 3,000 frames on display, six sales “boutiques,” 14 employees, the only local in-house digital lab, and NO ODs.

In 2018, the current generation of owners — husband and wife Christian and Brooke Hargrove — gutted and remodeled a neighboring 1930s-era building into a state-of-the-art retail experience to rehouse Empire Optical. With two open stories, the physical feel of the store is that of a renovated loft apartment in an old brick warehouse. “Old brick, new steel, lots of glass, and ‘cool’ lighting,” describes Christian Hargrove. “After the sun goes down, the lighting takes over, and it feels a lot like a high-end restaurant.”

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The store features an eight-foot-tall eyeglass sculpture, a custom 50-foot wall mural, a readers library with fireplace and chairs, women’s boutique complete with chandelier, makeup tables and mirrors, a “$150 Deal” area, and farm tables in the entry where all the “new stuff goes so it’s the first thing customers see when they enter.” Did we mention the motorcycle driving through the front of the store, the sunglass section with DJ light show (SUN21, more on that in Five Cool Things) and a men’s sports bar area with TVs where guests are served glasses with glasses of the latest award-winning homebrew (see Fine Story)?

“Our customers tell us they love how different the experience is from any other eyeglass purchasing they have done in the past,” says Hargrove.

‘We can cut virtually anything,’ says co-owner Christian Hargrove about Empire Optical’s digital lab.

The in-house digital lab may also be a factor. “We can cut virtually anything,” he explains. “We use Satisloh freeform equipment for our surfacing, and our finishing is a combination of Essilor Instruments and DAC edgers; both wet and dry edging options for different styles of lens cuts.” Empire only sends out jobs when there’s a time or backorder constraint, and for anti-reflective coatings. They specialize in wrap prescriptions and often exceed the ranges most “brand” labs can handle. “We always take an Rx in and see what we can do, even if we are just learning from the experience,” says Hargrove. “Since we are a smaller, independent lab we can combine lens materials from various manufacturers with freeform designs from other manufacturers to create custom combinations no one else makes. It allows for a lot of creativity from our customers, and the ability to make almost anything we can dream up.”

In a non-licensed state, Empire prides itself on its many home-grown Certified and Master Certified Opticians with an average tenure of 17 years. “The opticians that run the freeform equipment are the same ones that adjust your eyeglasses. They see the glasses through the process from beginning to end,” shares Hargrove.

The staff is encouraged to continue learning and participate in frame buying, social planning and media, current trends and generally keeping a pulse on what the customers are asking for. “Learning and growing is a big part of our culture, so we really like to collect, summarize and interpret information for our employees and customers.” Hargrove says they create a lot of their own handouts to explain optical issues in “layman’s terms” so customers better understand. “We feel like the information empowers them to make good decisions and pick the right products.”

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In addition to selling frames and finishing lenses, Empire has been known for 55 years as the leader in servicing and repairing damaged glasses from optical stores all around the region. They designed their new service area with airline parts — Tulsa is home to American Airlines’ maintenance center. Guests wait in “Empire Airlines” first class seating and watch videos that determine “Which kind of dog ate your glasses?” while repairs are made on airplane drink carts.

“We are the only ones left in our area that learned how to edge on hand wheels, solder broken frames, custom fit replacement parts, and remount lenses,” concludes Hargrove. “We’ll just do whatever we can to help keep your glasses going.”

Judges’ Comments

Nathan Troxell: Incredible family legacy. Appreciate the complexity of running a freeform lab and dispensing eyeglasses.

Leigh and Todd Rogers Berberian: The layers of this business are amazing … with history and heritage to match!

Beverly Suliteanu: It is amazing to see a family business continue to grow, evolve and thrive after so many years. The longevity of their staff speaks not only to the expertise of their opticians but also to the culture and environment the owners have fostered. Their tag line, “Looking good on you,” plays well across all their marketing materials.

 

PHOTO GALLERY (60 IMAGES)

5 COOL THINGS EMPIRE OPTICAL

1 SIP AND SEE. Empire hosts a monthly event where a dozen people reserve an after-hours spot to custom paint a frame while sipping cocktails. “The frames are extremely affordable and come with a special lens deal,” says Hargrove. “It’s really an opportunity for socializing… and to get people talking about our business.”

2 HELPING HAND. The business partners with local charities Day Center for The Homeless and Family and Children’s Services to make dozens of free pairs a month for their needs-based patients. “We love to give back by doing what we do best: make eyeglasses.”

3 RIDE ON. Empire’s popular house brand, The Caldwell, is named after founder Gus Caldwell, owner Christian Hargrove’s maternal grandfather. Gus and wife Naomi ran Empire from 1964-1978.

4 NAMESAKE. Empire’s popular house brand, The Caldwell, is named after founder Gus Caldwell, owner Christian Hargrove’s maternal grandfather. Gus and wife Naomi ran Empire from 1964-1978.

5 STORE IN STORE. Empire’s sun styles get their own presence. The area in store is called SUN21 and has its own website, Facebook, Instagram, etc. “Google tells us more people are searching for sunglasses than eyeglasses, so we mean to capitalize on that,” he shares. SUN21 serves as an incubator for new marketing tactics.

Fine Story

Owner Christian Hargrove is also an award-winning home brewer and has his Brewer’s Notice to legally brew beer for the public. He has medaled regionally with his Sweet Potato Brown Ale, Porter Patrol, Peach Hefeweizen, and Go Fig-ure, a Belgian strong ale brewed with figs. But customers don’t have to wait for special events to sample his creations. “Currently, we offer four of our own beers, as well as other local Tulsa brews, in our sports bar area,” he says. “We love community, and this is just another way to promote that!”

Having built a career in service journalism, Dee has been covering the eyecare industry for over a decade. As editor-in-chief of INVISION Magazine, she is passionate about telling independent ECPs stories and can be reached directly at [email protected]

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