Editor's Note: In honor of National Small Business Week, Inc. is exploring clusters of small companies around the country that share distinctive strengths, challenges, and characters. 

Tap dancing on roller skates comes naturally to no one. Not even Gene Kelly. Kelly mastered that skill--on display in the 1955 movie It's Always Fair Weather--by practicing on his tennis court. He bought the skates at Pioneer Hardware, down the street from his house on Beverly Drive, in Beverly Hills.

Pioneer, founded in 1926, is now Pioneer & Lucerne Hardware, located on the ground floor of a parking structure four blocks east of Rodeo Drive. To qualify for federal funds to build the garage in the early 1980s, the city had to incorporate some community-friendly retail. It asked Joseph Tilum, a onetime mayor of Beverly Hills, to re-launch Lucerne Hardware--his family's former New York-based business--in the space. Shortly afterward, when the owner of Pioneer Hardware retired, Tilum acquired the assets and combined the two stores.

"People have the same problems in Beverly Hills that they have across the country," says Jeff Tilum, second-generation owner of the reconstituted company, which among many other items sells gopher and rat traps. "Just because you have money doesn't mean you don't have problems."

Pioneer, along with other city stalwarts like Edelweiss Chocolates, Beverly Hills Market and Deli, and Arturo's Shoe Fixx, is there to help solve those problems. In a city famous for its global shopping brands--Armani, Christian Dior, Fendi, Gucci, and dozens of others--more than 80 percent of companies are small businesses. Some, not surprisingly, cater to the cavernous-pocketed, with $85,000 pre-owned watches and $12,000 diamond bitcoin wallets. "But we also have stores that operate just like they do in small town U.S.A.," says Todd Johnson, CEO of the Beverly Hills Chamber of Commerce. "Businesses that have been here for decades and serve both people who live here and tourists."

Operating a small business in Beverly Hills has its perks, including first-rate municipal services and across-the-counter brushes with celebrity. (For staff here, the rule "don't bother the famous people" is as common as "employees must wash hands before returning to work.") But Beverly Hills's mom-and-pops also grapple with high rents, advertising constraints--the city bans billboards--and, for some, an aging clientele who expect credit accounts and home delivery.

Those companies compete the same way their glamorous global neighbors do. "You have to come up with things that are unique for your business," Johnson says. "And you have to have staff that delivers the feeling of luxury service."

Beverly Hills Market and Deli: The neighborhood's market for 30 years

Pioneer has always been more general store than hardware store, Tilum says. The business has an old-timey feel. Pioneer's original hand-cranked cash register sits in the window. A wooden ladder on rails rolls along the walls. The store stocks some premium merchandise, like fancy stainless steel dish racks and high-end guest towels. But it also sells keys for $2; key chains for 50 cents; and sodas for $1. Screws can be had for a nickel, a dime, or a quarter.

Tilum thinks his service is better than that of boutiques on Rodeo Drive. "I find those stores to be very impersonal or... I don't know if snooty is the right word," he says. "I like to tell people we are the Cheers of hardware stores."

At Pioneer, employees greet guests at the door--often by name--escort them to the right section of the store, personally hand over the light bulbs or silver polish, and offer to answer questions. The company still carries credit and mails statements for some customers. "A lot of people who have houses with staff have them come in and buy stuff, and then I just send out the bill at the end of the month," Tilum says. "We're kind of old school."

Pioneer & Lucerne is part of a small mom-and-pop shopping district that also includes a barbershop, a dry cleaner, a bakery, and Beverly Hills Market and Deli. The market and deli is owned by Shawn Saeedian and his wife, Angela. Their version of Beverly Hills-caliber service includes home delivery and special orders for regulars, who comprise the large majority of customers. "Our product selection is mostly based on customers' requests," says Shawn Saeedian. "If someone wants Manischewitz wide noodles, I bring it in."

Saeedian, an Iranian immigrant, moved from San Francisco in 1986, drawn by the area's substantial Persian-Jewish population. After trying to run a large market, the family acquired the diminutive Beverly Hills Market from the son of a friend. "I would rather have a small business serving neighborhood people," says Saeedian. Over 30 years, three generations have worked at the store. Currently four of the 14 employees are family members.

When the Saeedians took over, the main competition was Mrs. Gooch's, a health-food store across the street. Whole Foods bought that company, and ever since Beverly Hills Market has been raising its game. The Saeedians remodeled the store to make it fresher and brighter. The product mix changed too, with more prepared meals, a deli, good wines, and craft beer. "I sell a lot of produce because we promote it a lot," Saeedian says. "The big markets have a higher margin on produce. I can do better."

Around 20 percent of the market's lunch business comes from other companies seeking an affordable alternative to the city's tony dining spots. The Saeedians plan to expand their kitchen and deli, partly to satisfy an uptick in catering jobs. "We are not a filet mignon store. We do regular sandwiches," Saeedian says. But it doesn't hurt that his son is a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef, who daily concocts specials like grilled cheese and short rib with caramelized onion or grilled chicken breast with brie and fig jam.

And while the Saaedians don't compete with the upscale restaurants nearby, they do sometimes supply them. "We are open until 9 at night," Saeedian says. "If they need another 10 heads of lettuce, they can run over here and buy it."

Edelweiss Chocolates: The bonbon boutique Lucille Ball loved

In Beverly Hills, even a small business can be part of Hollywood history.

One day in 1952, Lucille Ball parked in the lot behind Edelweiss Chocolates and walked through its small factory to reach the store. A new employee was struggling to mark each chocolate with a cursive initial--"R" for raspberry cream, "M" for mint marshmallow--as it passed before her on a conveyor belt. "She was working at a frantic pace," says Daniel Zahir, Edelweiss's creative director and son of its owners, Madlen and Steve Zahir. "Chocolate was all over the walls, all over the machine. This lady was covered. Lucy thought it was the funniest thing in the world."

A stream of tourists detours two blocks east from Rodeo Drive to see the "I Love Lucy machine," featured in arguably the program's most famous scene. The Zahirs knew that history when they bought the business in 2000, from actress Shirley Jones and her husband, the actor and agent Marty Ingels. They learned more details 10 years ago when William Asher, who directed I Love Lucy from 1952 to 1957, visited the store on his 87th birthday. "He told us Lucy spent about three weeks, physically, in our facility, researching the role," Zahir says. "She liked to immerse herself. She didn't leave anything to chance."

Celebrities have indulged their sweet teeth at Edelweiss since it was founded--as Candy Round-up--by a Montana expat named Grace Young in 1942. "It was selling to the locals, but the locals happened to be movie stars," Zahir says. Katherine Hepburn wrote about Edelweiss's dark chocolate turtles in her autobiography. Almost every day Frank Sinatra bought the store's maple pecan butter creams before meeting Dean Martin at an Italian restaurant across the street for whiskey, cigars, and candy. More recent customers include Reese Witherspoon, Ben Affleck, Oprah Winfrey, and Madonna. 

The most popular products include several from the store's earliest days. Chocolate-covered pretzels are sold whole in gift boxes or broken in bags for snacking. Young was famous for flavored marshmallows, and Edelweiss still sells nine varieties. The toffee version scored its own episode of Unwrapped on the Food Network.

Edelweiss also does custom work: For example, crafting in chocolate exact replicas of a specific model movie camera for the company that makes them. Customers bring in specialty molds for events--animals, musical instruments, tennis rackets, computers--and then simply leave them. "We have collected thousands of molds over the years," Zahir says. "We have even got some X-rated molds that we acquired in Playboy's heyday when they would throw parties."

At $52.95 a pound, the chocolates are Beverly Hills-priced. But they are handcrafted on-site by seven of the company's 12 employees. "If we put that much effort into the product, you know we are using the finest ingredients and paying attention to every detail," Zahir says.

The Zahirs, originally from Texas, had zero confectionary experience when they bought Edelweiss, which had been sold four times before. Now five family members work in the business, including Zahir's husband and sister. "It has always been in the hands of a family, but there was never a second generation that wanted to carry it on," Zahir says. "Now there is."

Arturo's Shoe Fixx: Where fine footwear goes for makeovers

Mom-and-pop proprietors in Beverly Hills say they go out of their way to be warm and friendly, in part to contrast with the more formal service at luxury emporiums. Arturo Azinian has the kind of big personality and sense of humor even to salve the pain of a broken sandal strap on a pair of $1,200 Guccis.

For 30 years Azinian, 93, has owned Arturo's Shoe Fixx, which is now run by his grandson, Ari Libaridian. Former owner of a shoemaking company in Buenos Aires, Azinian bought a repair business in Los Angeles in 1964 and built his reputation servicing department stores like I Magnin and Bullock's Wilshire. In the 1980s, he picked up Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills as a client and opened a second store there, following his affluent clientele out of L.A. He sold the first location and settled down a few blocks east of Rodeo Drive. Gucci's, Barney's, and Saks Fifth Avenue used his services and referred customers to him.

Because Azinian started out making shoes, he understood how to remake them. Close to half of the store's repairs of both shoes and purses are practically reinventions. "My grandfather would take a regular woman's pump and turn it into a mule; or a closed-toe shoe and make it into a peep toe," says Libaridian, who has worked in the store for more than two decades and has continued Azinian's tradition since taking over two years ago. 

Many alterations are more aesthetic than practical. "Everybody wants to be a designer," Libaridian says. "They see something on Instagram and say, 'Can we do this?' OK, let's find a way." So, for example, the store dyed a white Celine purse--price tag in the four figures--neon pink. More challenging, Libaridian found a way to transform a Chanel single-strap purse into a double strap.

The store has its share of celebrity clients. Donatella Versace once brought grandfather and grandson to her bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel to get all her shoes better fitted. And one year when Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar she took the stage in shoes dyed by Arturo's, Libaridian says. The store also does work for specific productions, repairing and cleaning footwear for Fox's 9-1-1, for example.

Recently, rising rents drove Arturo's out of its old home. Fortunately Libaridian found a better deal two blocks away. "You have to fix a lot of shoes to stay in Beverly Hills. But city officials are happy we're here," he says. "When a mom and pop continues to thrive they have reason to celebrate.

Published on: May 14, 2019