AT&T retiree Ruth Graves likes to say that she bought her next job. The 59-year-old Elk Grove resident acquired Maestro Coffeehouse in North Natomas on Aug. 1.
“I walked through the door and fell in love with the place,” Graves said. “It took me about five months to actually get everything in order. … My daughter had three years’ experience with Starbucks. If she had not had it, I probably wouldn’t have done it. It helps tremendously. It’s ‘The Ruth and Raven Show’ right now.”
As Graves and other baby boomers head into their golden years, many are opting for self-employment, and their vast numbers are swelling the ranks of so-called “encore entrepreneurs.” That’s the phrase that the U.S. Small Business Administration uses to describe individuals, age 50-plus, who start or buy a business of their own after ending a previous career.
Graves worked 34 years as a technician in AT&T’s network operations, ensuring that the “string” that connects land lines remained up and working. Upon taking early retirement, she wanted to remain active and wanted income that could bridge the gap until she decided to take Social Security.
It’s a situation familiar to retired Sacramento County sheriff’s Deputy Richard Voss, who made his exit from law enforcement 2 1/2 years ago at age 62.
“When you retire, you can only play so much golf and watch so many reruns of ‘Gunsmoke,’ ” he said. “I like to keep a little busy.”
Voss decided to buy a Snowie Shaved Ice kiosk, after seeing one at a picnic for his young daughter’s T-ball team.
Research has long shown that more people choose self-employment as they age. Kevin Cahill of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College told me that 18 years’ worth of data in the national Health and Retirement Study showed that this pattern has continued despite the Great Recession.
Those data track people from Marcia Ruth’s generation. Over the course of a lifetime on the East Coast, she has been a journalist, a photographer, a teacher and a sculptor. After her home in West Virginia was mangled by Snowmageddon, the North American blizzard of 2009, she moved to Sacramento to live near her daughter. A year ago, Ruth started her first business when she was 75 years old.
Like Voss and Graves, she also wanted supplemental income. She found it when she married her love of tactile, or kinesthetic, learning with her woodworking skills. In her business, Kinesthetic Classics, she assembles 3-D maps of California, Yosemite, the Pacific Northwest and San Francisco. Ruth uses data from the U.S. Geological Survey to create the layered maps out of birch plywood.
“I’m a believer in touching things to learn,” Ruth said. “We have to touch things to really get it. Everything we’re doing now is off a flat screen. Well, no matter how ‘3-D’ it looks on the screen, you never really get it until you touch it …. It’s a form of learning that is slipping away from us.”
While Voss and Graves jumped right into their businesses, Ruth took classes at the Women’s Business Center at Sacramento’s California Capital before launching Kinesthetic Classics. The staff assisted her in finding a $3,000 microloan to get her business off the ground.
Her works now sell at the Artists’ Collaborative Gallery in Old Sacramento and at the Oakland Museum of California. She has also been juried into holiday art sales at the Davis Arts Center and the Celebration of Craftswomen in San Francisco. The growth has been slow and steady, and Ruth is learning to juggle marketing, production and the other demands of being both the boss and the sole employee.
Voss, on the other hand, has enlisted his wife, Lynnda, and daughter Katie in helping to scoop snow cones at festivals and events around Northern California and Nevada. He will end the season at the Rio Vista Bass Derby & Festival this weekend.
“Katie is now 9,” Voss said. “She can count money, operate the cash register. The only thing she can’t do is she’s not quite tall enough to make the shaved ice. … I let her try, though, because one of these days she’s going to be tall enough to do it.”
When he started, Voss thought he might make $10,000 to $15,000 a season. This year, he estimates that his mobile kiosk will gross roughly $50,000. Because of his success, Voss said that his son, brother-in-law and some family friends have all invested in Snowie kiosks.
As for Graves, she said she’s making enough to pay monthly bills after two months running Maestro, at 2069 Arena Blvd. She recently conferred with the owner of midtown Sacramento’s N Street Cafe and has added sandwiches and other food offerings to her menu. It was something that Maestro’s previous owner, Sam Samadhana, had advised her to do before he retired.
“The biggest challenge,” Graves said, “is getting people into the store and getting longtime customers to trust us. People really liked Sam. I understand that. I just didn’t think it would be so hard because I’m keeping the same products. I thought it was the coffee people would come for, not necessarily the person.”