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A talk with Mary Heffernan

Mary Heffernan, entrepreneur, proprietor and mother of four and I sat down at Bumble and talked about her seven, going on nine, businesses that are helping to change Los Altos.

Courtesy of H and H Co.
Courtesy of H and H Co.

On the Change

We’ve seen a big change in the demographic that lives here; it’s a lot of young people, urban professionals, and young families. I grew up in Menlo Park and we started in Menlo Park with a place called Academic Trainers that is a tutoring company. It’s still open. I ran a couple other businesses, an errand running company, babysitting service.

Even before I had kids I was doing business that fed into young children because that’s a great demographic to do businesses for because even in a recession people are willing to spend money on their kids.

I had a few family-friendly businesses there and then we moved to Los Altos and I knew there were a lot of great things about the town, awesome farmers market, LAVA and other organizations do a great job with festivals and weekend stuff but the businesses were just a little sleepy.

On Bumble

I had the business model in my head for a few years for Bumble, where the parents could come and feel comfortable bringing their kids. I like to go out but taking kids they kind of look at you and go ugh, are they going to be clean or are they going to make a mess and you’re eating but the kids are done and you’re trying to finish as quick as possible and get out of there.

We wanted to create a place where people felt welcome with their kids

We did find this house and it had this homey feel, like we were going to eat at someone’s house. Took a lot of work to rehab it, it didn’t have a kitchen, dry storage or bathrooms. Once we got open, it was definitely what we were trying to accomplish. 

We first tried to be more family friendly but we realized that, serving farm-to-fork food is hard to find around here, we noticed we get business people; we get adults, young professionals who don’t have kids yet especially at lunch and, on the weekends, brunch. So we sort of adapted our model a little bit to try to not be known as ‘just a kids’ place’ but as a restaurant that serves great food where, oh, by the way, you’re totally welcome to bring your kids.

On Area 151

We noticed the families that were coming were repeat customers but they started saying, “our kids are aging out of bumble,” we have a sandbox out front and a playroom but after a certain point the 10-year-olds are over that. And so out of that necessity Area 151 was born.

We saw Caine’s Arcade and were inspired, “Arcades are coming back!” We leased the space, got some games and wanted that hometown arcade feel where you can call the guy at the front desk and ask, “Hey is Jared there, can you send him home, he needs to do his homework.”

The kids all have tabs so they can bank their points and save for an iPod touch or a Wii or big Lego sets. We try to stock the nice stuff so parents don’t mind when they take the stuff home, rather than all the plastic junk that ends up on the bottom of your car and you’re cursing the arcade. Well, we have some plastic junk but we try to encourage the kids towards the bigger prizes.

On Play

One of my other businesses in Menlo Park, Brilliant Babies, was sort of a drop-in park where the kid gets to play and learn and the business model was changing there with the ever-changing licensing laws and so I decided to move it to Los Altos and morph it into this business Play.

 It’s an indoor children’s museum where you don’t drop your children off but stay with them as sort of an indoor alternative to a park. You can take your kids there and we have science tables, art classes, music lessons, dance lessons but it’s all interactive with your kids.

On The Makery and Red Racer Hobby Shop

After a year, due to zoning, we turned the front retail space into Red Racer Hobby Shop, which was about the same time as we were opening The Makery, a do-it-yourself studio.

Those were started as complimentary ideas, we wanted people to be working with their hands, making, tinkering, but you could only have so many genres in one space. The Makery is more knitting, sewing, hands-on textiles while the erector sets and derby cars went to Red Racer. Those businesses opened at the same time and were of the same idea to take hold of the make movement, working with your hands.

The Makery is awesome; we have a great retail selection with gifts and homemade items as well as all the supplies for making any sort of project. We also stock it with all sorts of textiles and the more hard-to-find designer fabrics that the run-of-the-mill fabric store won’t have.

But, while we have great yarn for knitting, we have Uncommon Goods here in town which has every kind of yarn under the sun. So we try to complement their stock by only having two or three kinds of yarn, that we think are the best kind of yarn for the projects that we teach, but that if they want to continue there’s this great store just down the street.

We know it’s a small town and we don’t want to shut out any of the other businesses and we like working with all of the other businesses.

On Botanist

Botanist opened last summer.  I had a friend who was a gardener who wanted to open her own shop and we saw a need for a flower shop so we put together the business model for the Botanist. It’s more based on sustainable and succulents than the normal arrangements.

We also source unique finds from flea markets. We went all the way to Canton, TX and filled a U-Haul with just really cool, one-of-a-kind, stuff. Just yesterday we sold our last Canton find and now we really have to go back. It’s hard, you find these things but you need to sell them.

On Forest on First

At the end of the month we’ll be opening Forest on First, two doors down, if all goes well. It’ll be more of a gourmet café. Bumble’s sort of at-capacity for what we can handle and so Forest on First is not full service, it’ll be order-at-the-counter or take-away with order and bring home whole chickens. It’ll be really good, the chef we have there, Tyler, is awesome.

It’ll be more relaxed service. It has as play structure built around it that we call the treehouse and it’s wooden and has rope and it’s built around the idea that you can get a bagel or a sandwich, Panini or a latte and you can watch your kids through the rope and know where they are but not have to get up to find them.

On the Alley

The Alley, which will open in six to eight months, will be really high-end burgers, family style restaurant. We want it to be the post-little league place that we thought Los Altos was missing because we can’t accommodate big groups here.

We wanted to give people really good food and do it in groups. We also have a full liquor license so we’ll have a speakeasy in the basement with craft cocktails and try to bring a little life to the nighttime crowd.

On Entrepreneurship

Our idea was a little more selfish than ‘create a place for kids’; we wanted to create a place for parents who have kids.

I’ve always liked starting new businesses but I didn’t know that until I started Academic Trainers, which was a way to pay my way through Medical School. I realized I really liked this and didn’t want to be a doctor.

I started doing really small businesses from an early age like a backyard summer camp, a tee-shirt business, and it stuck. I enjoyed putting stuff together and selling it.

My parents kind of thought I was crazy, my father was a lawyer, had the same job day-after-day, week-after-week, but he was always supportive and my mom’s really creative.

My grandfather was an entrepreneur; he started a small airline and an ice cream shop. I remember driving around with him, he had a couple rental properties he’d have me help out on, and we’d see vacant buildings and he’d ask, “What should we put in there?” Just hearing him think out loud about it really inspired me with the idea that it could be anything.

kim w January 17, 2014 at 03:11 AM
Loved finding this! Just went to Bumble yesterday and wrote a little piece on it for my blog: http://www.northerncalstyle.com/2014/01/northern-cal-restaurants-i-love-bumble.html I had no idea the owner, Mary did so much. I am impressed with all her ideas and Bumble. A lovely spot and I am looking forward to going back and visiting her other businesses as well. Nice article. Kim Wheeler
Penny Lave January 25, 2014 at 11:53 PM
Thanks for coming to Los Altos, Heffernans. We are so glad you chose us!

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