August 30, 2013

STRANGERS: Josh & Natalie Harvey
LOCATION: Coquette, 2800 Magazine Street, New Orleans
THEME: Lunch with owners of a t-shirt company

I am not a dedicated follower of fashion.

My wardrobe consists of years-old clothes, mostly hand-me-downs from my brothers. The one unique aspect of my inventory is t-shirts. I have a tendency to buy t-shirts with goofy logos or comical sayings in lieu of having to spend hours at a shop trying on different items. And one of the places that I like to buy from is New Orleans-based Storyville.

The company sells high-quality t-shirts with great designs at affordable prices, and if that sounds like a sales pitch, then good, because I’ve been pleased with the stuff I’ve bought from them since 2007 when I first stumbled into their shop on Magazine Street in the city’s Garden District.

It’s clear that thought goes into the designs, which range from simple tributes to the cities where Storyville is based — the Crescent City, Baton Rouge and until recently Austin, Texas — to more colorful designs. The images and logos tend to be colorful, almost cartoon-like in some instances, and usually with a quirky sense of humor. They are shirts that put a smile on your face. My current favorite is a blue t-shirt featuring an alligator, that classic symbol of the bayou, with the words “See Ya Lata” scrawled over his scaly body. It’s a neat design and friends say they like the t-shirt.

Some also say I wear the t-shirt too often, but nuts to them.

Over the years of visiting the Big Easy and shopping at Storyville both in-person and online, I started to get curious about the owners. Who launched this place? Who makes the designs? Is there one t-shirt wizard hidden behind the changing room curtain?

The answer: there’s no Oz pulling the strings. Instead there is — as I’d learn over lunch one warm August day in New Orleans — a charming couple, Josh and Natalie Harvey. They come across as very amiable, relaxed people, quick to smile and joke. They also seem highly intelligent, switching around conversational topics with ease, both with plenty to share. And despite having both spent time living in the Northeast, they retain pleasant hints of Southern accents.

We met in the upstairs dining room of Coquette, a brightly lit restaurant in the Garden District with a relaxed air and a decent number of lunchtime customers. Our table was in the center of the room, allowing me to glance all around at the exposed brick walls, polished chandeliers and apparently extensive artwork collection. According to the restaurant’s website, the building’s past lives have included a residence, grocery store and auto parts store. Of those, it retains the closest resemblance to a refined and understated private home, albeit with dozens of tables.

Chef/owner Michael Stoltzfus changes the menu frequently, so Josh, Natalie and I perused the day’s brunch offerings while I answered their questions about Dining With Strangers and my dinner the night before with restaurant critic Tom Fitzmorris at Tommy’s Cuisine.

I was spoiled at Tommy’s with a barrage of fine wine and lavish food, so I was looking for a simple but hearty lunch, and Coquette’s menu held great promise.

After placing our orders, the Harveys — both Louisiana born-and-raised — told me they were glad for the chance to do the interview because Natalie recently gave birth to their son, so most of their time is divided between working at home either on their business or their child. Lunch at Coquette gave them the chance to dine out and socialize, and I was happy to help.

Throughout the meal I’d learn that Josh and Natalie have a very easygoing relationship, finishing each other’s sentences or picking up where the other left off the conversation a few minutes earlier. And it was the t-shirt business that first brought the two together.

Storyville is Josh’s creation, and stems in part from his experience producing political themed t-shirts several years ago. He was living in Hoboken, New Jersey, and got involved in a campaign to draft former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, to run for president in the 2008 election.

As part of that effort Josh made his first customized t-shirt, which carried the slogan “Mark Warner is Good!” and sold it through Brooklyn-based company Neighborhoodies, a customized clothing company. “I always had a fascination for Democratic politics,” said Josh, who also worked on other Democratic campaigns before relocating back to New Orleans.

Producing the draft Warner t-shirts eventually led to Josh being among those invited to a reception at Warner’s house. And another t-shirt that he printed up for eventual Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama gave Josh the chance to meet the future president’s campaign adviser David Axelrod. With a laugh, Josh said, “I thought this was nuts that a t-shirt and a website could get you plugged into D.C.”

Inspired in part by his experiences with the political campaigns — where he saw the market potential for unique t-shirt designs — and also tired of life in New Jersey, Josh made the move to New Orleans and decided to open the very first Storyville location near the Louisiana State University campus. “Our first shop was right across the street from LSU, but it’s not there anymore because college kids don’t have any money,” Josh said.

The name Storyville stems from a neighborhood in New Orleans where Josh’s grandmother lived. She had a painting in her house of a years-ago scene from the area, which had a reputation as a red-light district. When Josh was younger, he was captivated by the mysterious imagery and something about the place stuck. He started to read more and learned the neighborhood’s history — it was a creative birthplace for Louis Armstrong and other jazz musicians — and settled on the name for the t-shirt company by tribute.

“I always thought a t-shirt was such an easy way to express yourself that everyone can afford, that gets compliments and a reaction,” he said. “I thought: what if people could walk in and order any t-shirt they want, and combine that with designs from local people we knew? A college campus plus tees plus local designs seemed like the perfect formula.”

Josh had a good job working in healthcare compliance, and as a result was able to secure a small business loan from a credit union near LSU to set up, for which he crafted a business plan. But everything else was trial and error. “I didn’t have anybody to show me how to do things,” he said.

The shop near LSU is where Josh first met Natalie when she wandered in.

“He was very excited to show me everything,” Natalie recalled. Their conversation led on to politics and more, and fast forward to them dating and ultimately marrying. Natalie lived in Washington, D.C. for a while before returning to New Orleans, where she said she “bounced around a few jobs before Josh convinced me to do Storyville full time. It didn’t take a lot convincing.”

Much like Josh’s experience, Natalie was thrown in at the deep end. “I had an accountant who had to hold my hand for a whole year teaching me how to do payroll taxes, etc. I did it day to day with no training. Sometimes you’ve got to learn as you go, sometimes you learn the hard way.”

Nodding in agreement, Josh added, “There’s just no rule book. We never had any mentors. That would have saved us a lot of time.”

As they pondered that thought, our friendly waitress arrived with the first plates. Josh and Natalie had both ordered from the $23 three-course lunch menu, which offered two choices for starter, main and dessert. They figured they could both do the menu and try each other’s dishes.

Smart move. The first to arrive was a kale salad.

And Josh had a pork stew to start his meal. My eyes must have popped out like a cartoon character’s and my skin turned green with envy, because Josh’s plate looked outstanding.

“It all looks amazing,” Natalie said as she enjoyed the first course.

I only ordered the burger rather than the three-course menu, so while the Harveys made their way through their starters I was free to keep peppering them with questions about the early years of Storyville.

Initially people were able to come into the shop with their own designs for production, but Natalie said it meant they spent all day working on one t-shirt — not a cost-effective or efficient way to run a business. Realizing the limits of that model, they’ve transitioned over the years to their current system with a range of designs, mixing artwork from people they know with entries to their monthly design contests, covering everything from sports to dinosaurs and Mardi Gras to the animal kingdom.

The most recently announced winner was in line with Storyville’s sense of humor: a t-shirt featuring two Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs unable to reach Mardi Gras beads with their stumpy little arms, with the caption “T-Rex Problems” underneath.

Evolving how Storyville does business is just one of the many things that Josh said “we had to learn the hard way through retail 101,” including other important lessons: making sure to keep tight oversight of inventory, responding to seasonal demands, and more.

And another important factor: location, location, location. “We had no idea that if you mixed in local support with tourists you could make a lot of money,” Josh said.

The LSU shop is no longer operational, closed down after foot traffic fell and as a more attractive venue opened up on bustling Magazine Street, an area that seems populated half by tourists and half by locals, with plenty of unique stores. Storyville also has small shops at two malls in Louisiana that the Harveys say are doing good business, and until recently a place in Austin.

The out-of-state move was inspired in part by Josh’s cousin at the University of Texas at Austin, who said Storyville — at the time focused heavily on college-themed prints — could make a thriving business in Austin, another big college town. But it wasn’t an instant hit.

“Austin almost sank us,” said Josh, shaking his head. “It was so expensive out there.”

The Austin shop’s location wasn’t the greatest and didn’t have the foot traffic of the New Orleans shop, he added. Throw in other problems like high rent, and they had a serious headache to deal with. They since relocated in the city and enjoyed more success, but Josh said the experience taught them to focus on less expansive retail units, keeping things “small and tight.”

In the weeks since our dinner, Josh and Natalie eventually decided to shutter the Austin store, explaining it was just too large a space for their needs and sales demand. On Storyville’s blog, Natalie wrote, “[W]e’re glad that if we are lucky enough to return to the Austin market, we will do so with more experience under our belt, and in a way that we know will work for us.”

So what’s next for Storyville?

Before the Harveys could tell me, our main courses arrived.

I opted for just one course, having the Coquette burger served with bacon, cheddar, aioli and fries. It wasn’t anything extraordinary — a hearty patty served up with fresh ingredients, but nothing to test my tastebuds — yet it was exactly what I’d wanted. Hit the spot.

Josh and Natalie’s second of three courses included a generous bowl of shrimp and grits.

The other dish they chose was pork belly, which seems to be ubiquitous at restaurants these days. I’m not a huge fan of it — my experiences have landed more fat on the plate than meat — but Coquette’s version was visually appealing, and Natalie and Josh both seemed to enjoy it.

As we made our way through the food, Natalie said that Storyville will continue to produce t-shirts heavy on New Orleans themes like the Saints football team or local food and culture. “The amount of pride here is unlike anywhere else, people love wearing shirts with New Orleans on it.”

To keep sales going, they’re going to focus on building up the website and have experimented with flash sales to deeply discount products. “We’ve had a lot of success with that,” said Natalie.

But an important factor in all of these plans is patience — Natalie said that when she first met Josh he had a long list of college towns where he envisioned Storyville opening, but nowadays they’re happy to take things at a slower pace. “In the beginning it was a rush to expand, and now we have to figure out how to make this work, and work well,” she said.

Josh nodded, adding, “We want to be in this for a long time, but on paper it has to make a lot of sense.”

“We have a have a kid now, so we have to be smart about it,” said Natalie.

I enjoyed the way the Harveys complimented each other’s thoughts throughout our conversation, and I’m sure it serves them well as they work to make Storyville a long-term success. But even before the lunch — and during the meal — they stressed that promoting the company, and not themselves, is what matters.

Josh and Natalie aren’t in the business for any kind of fame, seeing themselves instead as behind-the-scenes operators who are content as long as their customers are getting what they need.

With several locations, their own print shop, the internet site and the design contests, Josh said that he and his wife are “kind of like air traffic controllers” coordinating their staff, even if it means they have to be reachable at all times. During lunch, Josh had to take a call from their staffer running the print shop, but he handled it with calm and cheer. It wasn’t always like this, and in the past they had long days in the shops providing oversight.

But the current way the company operates seems to be working for both of them, regardless of whether it might eventually bring them fame and fortune.

They had a shot at the glamorous high-roller life when a millionaire from California showed an interest in taking the Storyville concept national. For a split second the Harveys flirted with a previously unimaginable life. But it didn’t work out, and they have no regrets.

“It was a real lesson in keeping things grounded,” Josh said. “We’re not rich or famous, but we keep plugging away. It’s more about our passion now than numbers. And we get to spend time with our kid and don’t miss anything.”

“Our priorities have changed,” Natalie added

We chatted for a little bit more while the Harveys enjoyed their desserts, and made me regret even more not ordering the three-course menu. First up was a pavlova, a meringue-based dessert.

The other dessert was a tart, with some flair in the presentation.

Both looked tremendous, but in retrospect given the amount of food I consumed at dinner the night before — and throughout the rest of my six-night stay in New Orleans — I did the right thing for my waistline in sticking to one course.

After lunch was over, we strolled a few blocks to the flagship Storyville shop on Magazine Street. The place was buzzing with customers. It’s in a pedestrian-heavy location, which means a lot of random people dropping in to check out what’s for sale.

The two employees I met were outgoing and had cracking senses of humor, and their interplay with Josh and Natalie made it seem more like a bunch of friends running a shop rather than a top-down stern management structure type of business.

Despite the easygoing charm of the Harveys and their staff, this is no lackadaisical affair. Josh and Natalie talked me through restocking, accounting, and a myriad of other tasks that take up their time at the Magazine Street shop and Storyville’s other locations.

Once my tour of the shop was over, Josh kindly offered to drive me back to Mid-City where I was staying. After he dropped me off at my friends’ place, I realized I needed a change of clothes. Walking through the midday humidity in New Orleans in late August will do that.

So I dug into my suitcase and found the “See Ya Lata” t-shirt that I’d bought from Storyville a year ago. I put on the t-shirt and walked back outside with a smile.

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