For Port Plums co-owners Karen and Katie Shernan, going into business together was a no-brainer. The mother-daughter duo purchased Newburyport Olive Oil Company in the Tannery Marketplace in December 2014 and have since taken over the adjoining space to open Port Plums, a high-end specialty foods and culinary equipment store. Just two years into their joint venture, Karen and Katie are poised to take on their next big challenge: Port Blue, a funky and eclectic shopfront on Newburyport’s State Street – just a couple blocks away from Port Plums. We caught up with these busy ladies on a rare day off, which they spent cooking together (of course).
Newburyport Macaroni Kid: So which one of you first suggested that you go into business together?
Karen Shernan: I honestly don’t remember! We’ve always just kind of finished each other’s sentences.
It’s often hard to remember who came up with an idea first. It’s more like…before you know it, we’re working together on it. I do give Katie credit for finding the Newburyport Olive Oil Company when it was put up for sale. We are generally of one mind on things.
MK: Obviously you two are pretty close! Has it always been that way?
Karen: I’ve got pictures of Katie and me cooking together when she was really little. She was always one of those kids who wanted to try everything. Very open-minded about food.
Katie: To be honest, as an only child it was more fun to follow my mom around and do things with her than play by myself.
We’re actually cooking together right now! We just did a roast chicken with asparagus, applesauce, and mashed potatoes. We used to get together on Sundays and cook for the week. This is kind of like that – time to clean out the fridge! But we’ve been so busy lately we haven’t had a chance to cook together in about two months.
MK: Was cooking together your inspiration for Port Plums?
Karen: As a matter of fact it was a trip to Spain. Katie spent her junior year of college studying in Granada. I went to visit over the holiday break and we saw “Katie’s Granada”: it’s a small city that manages to be historic and organic and cool. We were particularly inspired by the tapas there.
Katie: Granada is one of the last Spanish cities where tapas are still free when you order a drink! You can spend an evening sipping wine and trying all these little dishes. It was such an amazing food experience. On the plane back one of us said – I can’t remember who! – that we should try to recreate that sense of warmth and hospitality at home.
MK: Did either of you have any experience working with food?
Karen: I had a small catering business before Katie was born. I also started the original natural prepared foods department in the first Bread & Circus. Later in life, I had a 20+ year career in corporate. I was a Senior Vice President of account management for a software startup – primarily a sales role. I enjoyed my career and was able to save money toward retirement, but I realized that I’d rather take that money and use it for myself now.
It was a deliberate decision, but also just a matter of timing and staying open to whatever opportunity the universe had to offer – and taking advantage as it comes along. When Katie found Newburyport Olive Oil Company it was just time to make the transition.
I firmly believe in just going for it, maybe even before you’re ready.
MK: Sounds like a lot of learning on the job.
Katie: We’ve made lots of little mistakes along the way – choosing the right payroll provider, point of sale system, that kind of thing. It’s definitely a lot of trial and error.
Karen: I say that if you’re making mistakes you’re doing it right. I mostly figure things out by the seat of my pants!
For example, I do most of the buying (finding, I should say) for the store - browsing online, going to places that I love and just seeing what appeals to me. We also go to craft shows like “New England-Made,” which exclusively features artisans and craftspeople from this area. It’s just a matter of keeping your eyes open.
Katie: We also like to take trips together to another town or venue just to get some new inspiration. We call them “sharpen the saw” days – because otherwise we’d get pretty dull!
MK: You seem to have very complementary styles. What do you most admire about the other and how do you think that benefits the business?
Katie: My favorite part of working with mom is that she encourages me to just try something. I’m more cautious and that leads me to avoid taking risks, even when they could really pay off. Whenever I go to her with an idea she just says “Try it!”
Karen: Katie was born going on 40. I really appreciate the way she thinks and how she helps me think things through when I get stuck. She can talk me off the ledge if I start to feel overwhelmed.
Katie: I guess I’m a little better at being reductive and narrowing many options down to the best few before making a major decision.
MK: How have your lives changed since going into business together?
Katie: For me it’s work/life balance. I used to commute two hours a day from my home in West Newbury to my HR-coordinator job in Lexington. Now my commute is about 10 minutes. I have so much more time to spend with my boyfriend, my friends, my dog. And what I’m doing is my passion. I may work on my business more than 40 hours a week but it’s so much more rewarding than what I was doing before.
Karen: I used to be a real road warrior, spending 2-3 weeks a month traveling for work. My friends were all work-related and spread out across the U.S. Now I have so many wonderful friends locally, and I feel such a huge sense of community. My social life is no longer corporate dinners with big clients. It’s so much more meaningful to me to participate in community events and be part of something right here at home.
MK: What’s next for Port Plums?
Katie: We’re about to announce a series of events at the store scheduled for end of January through April, and we’re aiming to offering a wide variety of free and ticketed events year-round. Our second store (until now a pop-up store) will re-open in its State Street location as Port Blue on March 1. Port Plums is focused on culinary goods, while Port Blue will feature locally made home and personal accents.
MK: You’ve got a busy year ahead of you! How will you measure success?
Karen: For me it’s about the customers who come into the store and are so thrilled to be there that they come back bringing friends and family to show them, too. They make my day more than anything else.
Katie: When the customers are as excited by the products we carry as we are - that’s what we consider success.
This article was originally published as a blog post for 28 Carrots, an entrepreneurial feeder and community for like-minded women to gather together, inspire one another, and feed our innovative spirit. With every great idea, we encourage and empower each other to create success. We connect, network, and engage! We wholeheartedly believe in collaboration over competition. Come thrive with us!