Update: This 2017 article inspired Backroads Boss Lady: Happiness Ain't a Side Hustle (Grand Central Publishing), which published March 6, 2019.Jessi Roberts to write a book,
Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
New Plymouth, Idaho, is celebrated as the country's largest horseshoe. The town's U-shape--open to the north facing the Payette River--is formed by a series of irrigation canals dug by its founders in the late 19th century. Horseshoes are considered lucky, and New Plymouth has certainly been lucky for Jessica Roberts. The founder of Cheekys Brand is on target to do $2.8 million this year selling apparel with attitude to country gals.
"When we started, we called ourselves 'farm-girl chic,' but now we appeal to any type of rural person," says Roberts, who owns the business with her husband, Justin. "Girls who hunt and girls who fish. Outlaw girls and little boho gypsies."
Cheekys, which has a warehouse and office in New Plymouth and a retail outlet in nearby Fruitland, is perhaps the hottest thing going in this region of tiny towns and farms near the Oregon border. With 14 workers, it's among the larger employers in New Plymouth, a town with a single four-aisle grocery, two bars, and no stoplights.
Roberts launched Cheekys five years ago, chiefly as a way to liven up the retail-starved downtown. Since then, the business has vastly exceeded her expectations. Now women around the world wear across their chests the company's arch-yet-proud slogans: "Some Girls Play with Dolls but Reel Girls Fish," "Camping Hair Don't Care," and "Love Me Like You Love Deer Season." The business makes bracelets crafted from Western belt buckles, caps that proclaim "Bad Bitch Cattle Company," and a set of Thelma and Louise necklaces, each dangling half a heart and a pistol.
In addition to the single brick-and-mortar store, the Robertses run a thriving business online and wholesale through roughly 600 small, independent retailers. At least 85 percent of traffic to those channels comes through Facebook. "We have stores in New York, Canada, Australia, the U.K.," says Roberts. "There are country girls everywhere."
Certainly there are plenty walking in the door at Rietdyk's Milling Company, a Ridgefield, Washington retailer of farm products and its own homemade animal feed. Several years ago, owner Lucy Hegge discovered Cheekys at a trade show and was so taken with the products that she opened a Barn Boutique within her store to sell them. During the holidays, Cheekys goods may account for close to a quarter of sales.
"The men love it because they can buy a birthday gift for their wife or girlfriend at the same time they get their feed," says Hegge. "And now, the women say to their husbands, 'I will get the feed so I can check what's new in the boutique.'"
"It's fun for me, too," Hegge adds. "I'd much rather buy jewelry and hats than pharmaceuticals and insecticides."
Car sales and a car crash
When a school or prison went up in west Texas in the '80s and '90s, the call often went out to Network Plumbing and Mechanical to handle the new building's innards. Network, which has employed 3,300 people over the years, was owned by Roberts's grandparents, who raised her. (Today, a cousin runs the company.) Growing up, Roberts spent time on job sites and working in Network's business office, which during one financially troubled period moved into the family home. "They did all the plumbing, heating, air conditioning, every air vent and toilet," says Roberts. "My grandma used to say, 'Some people call it shit. But we call it bread and butter.'"
Roberts skipped college. By the late 1990s, she was a 21-year-old single mom working as a waitress at an Outback Steakhouse. One day, an appreciative customer asked her to interview for a job at the Saturn dealership he was opening. Roberts landed a sales position. Soon, she had a dizzying $2,400 monthly salary and a new wardrobe courtesy of Mervyn's. In 2000, another dealer, whom she met at a Saturn factory, recruited her to move to Idaho. "Them having me come up here in April was pretty wise," says Roberts. "I had never seen trees this beautiful."
But Roberts didn't like the new job and after two months decamped for a dealership in the Larry Miller Group, a large automotive chain. She managed the subprime loan department and started doing small advertising events for the business. Her boss suggested she launch her own advertising agency and offered to become her first customer, with a guaranteed monthly spend of $30,000. Roberts's agency, Accolade, opened in Boise in 2002 and eventually grew to 12 employees.
In 2004, a drunk driver struck Roberts's car, severely injuring her. "After that, I couldn't do what I could before," she says. "I shook terribly. I had anxiety before any group of people. It completely changed me as a person." Roberts closed the agency and returned to the auto dealership. There she met her future husband, who worked in the service department.
In 2006, Roberts left Larry Miller to help Justin with a small side business he owned that sprayed buildings with a bomb-resistant coating. As the coatings business grew, Justin traveled more. It was hard on the family, which by then had four children, including toddler-aged twins. "We decided I needed to do something not inside the house and he needed not to travel," says Roberts. "We dissolved that company and put $7,000 into starting Cheekys."
Rodeos and retail
At first, Roberts cared less about what she did than where she did it. The family had moved out into the country near New Plymouth to be close to Justin's parents. "I saw this tiny little town that had almost no business in it," says Roberts. "I thought this place needed something that will make people smile."
After mulling a laundromat (insufficiently smile-inducing), the Robertses leased a small storefront on what counts in New Plymouth as a main drag. There they opened a tanning salon, with some hats and jewelry at the front. "My first week, I sold all the retail inventory and no one was tanning," says Roberts. "So we sold the tanning beds and used the money to buy more inventory."
Roberts began ordering from a variety of distributors products that were both Western-themed and "girly"--which she defines as things that "fit right, smell good, and make you feel pretty." With foot traffic limited in a 1,500-person town, the couple drummed up business by traveling to rodeos, stock shows, and kids' 4-H events. The couple, who raise most of their own meat, loaded boxes of merchandise into the stock trailer they used to transport pigs and cows. ("Sometimes there was poop in there," admits Roberts.) At the events, Justin would assemble a homemade booth resembling a pink barn. They sold clothes and urged people to follow them on Facebook.
To expand her selection, Roberts began visiting distributors in Texas. But most of the clothes she saw were imported from Asia, where designers, says Roberts, don't get American farm and ranch culture. "The shirts would have pictures of horses with no manes and bulls with udders," says Roberts. So she started designing her own products, featuring anatomically correct animals and symbols like the hunter's heart: half fishhook, half antler.
Not every garment carried a message, but those that did were heavy on sass. "Every Girl Loves a Dirty Cowboy." "The Higher the Hair the Closer to Heaven." "I'd Rather Be Someone's Shot of Whisky Than Everyone's Cup of Tea." The Robertses invested in screen-printing equipment and Justin transferred the words and images onto blank shirts and hats. He would also print a small version of the Cheekys logo on the back of each garment. "Sometimes he would get so busy that he would forget to print the tag, and people would get mad," says Roberts. "They would say, 'Why does this not say Cheekys?' I knew we had something."
Salty language and rebel flags
Facebook has always been Cheekys's most effective form of marketing. The company's social-media activity ramped up dramatically two years ago with the launch of a single product: a shirt with a picture of a Hereford and the slogan "Don't Bullshit Me, Darlin'." "I was super-nervous to put it up because we are in a pretty religious area, but there was no negative feedback," says Roberts. "It was seen by 4 million people and had like 160,000 shares. It catapulted us."
Only two of her designs have drawn complaints. One was "Blame It On My Gypsy Soul" because, Roberts explains, "some people thought it was a racial slur." She also took flak for a shirt whose design incorporates two roses emblazoned with the insignia of the Confederate flag. Roberts stresses that the business is not political, and that merchandise proclaiming "Rural American," for example, is not meant to be a partisan statement. "I am a rural American," she says. "And we did not all vote the same."
Cheekys e-commerce and wholesale still operate out of New Plymouth, occupying around 6,000 square feet across the street from its original storefront, now closed. Last year, Roberts moved the retail store to Fruitland, Idaho, 12 minutes away, to generate more foot traffic. (A second Cheekys store opened in Mountain Home, in eastern Idaho.) Now Roberts wants to bring that first store back. "When we moved, it hurt our town, and I did not mean for that to happen," she says.
Recently, Roberts met with several community leaders and representatives of utilities to discuss upgrading New Plymouth's electrical supply, internet connectivity, and other resources in support of her growing business. Cheekys needs more power to, among other things, run a newly acquired screen-printing machine that can produce 1,200 shirts in an hour.
Those upgrades could do more for New Plymouth than just keep Cheekys in town. "When you enhance the public infrastructure to meet a company's needs, it provides opportunities for other entrepreneurs to come to the community to do business," says Kit Kamo, executive director of the Snake River Economic Development Alliance. "Their expansion brings in more traffic, more revenue, and enhances the tax base. It's a win for Cheekys and the region."
If the store moves back to New Plymouth, Roberts can spend more time talking to and learning about her customers: farm moms like herself. "We don't have fancy boutiques like in Dallas or Boise," says Roberts. "The people here don't want to go into a place like that. You can come in here wearing your muck boots, spend 20 bucks, and feel like you have gotten a good deal."