Now open: Oh, Hello Co. touts Grand Rapids gifts, artists

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new store showcasing what Grand Rapids has to offer is now open downtown.

Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts will hold its soft opening Thursday, a day after the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority granted the business a $23,000 grant to help pay for rent.

The store at 40 Monroe Center NW sells items made by small businesses and local artists, including gifts touting Grand Rapids.

“It’s been a whirlwind. From start to finish, it’s been about 40 days,” said store owner Kayla Benda. “It’s been a lot of long nights, paint all over us, but it’s also been really fun.”

Her husband agrees.

“I imagine if business was whitewater rafting, this is a Class 5,” said Alex Benda, CEO of the company’s promotional branch, Oh, Hello Branding. “It’s been crazy.”

INSIDE ‘OH, HELLO’

From wooden spoons and mugs to planners, cards, clothing and jewelry, Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts has it all.

Right now, the store is showcasing work from eight local artists, including a single mother who transforms damaged children’s books into buttons and miniaturized food jewelry created by 18-year-old Chloe White.

“Chloe actually does her earrings for her anxiety. It helps her to stay focused and calm down. And I just think that’s an amazing outlet, that you get to turn something that’s a negative into a positive and create something out of that turmoil within you,” said Kayla.

Oh, Hello Co.’s owners expect to more than double the number of artists in the store next month, with no limit in sight.

“There’s just so many different talented people that I’m just really excited to showcase them all,” said Kayla.

The Bendas are even in talks with a local musician who would like to have his songs piped into the store.

“That’s what I think we recognize in Grand Rapids, is we are a city of artisans, we are a city of craftsmen. We’ve got Furniture City, beer, you know craft beer brew. We have all this talent here because we are the best craftsman city in the United States, if not the world, in my opinion. So, why don’t we have a store that shows that?” Alex explained.

Visitors to Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts can customize their gifts on site with a laser printer in the store, which cuts ornaments and etches copies of handwritten messages into products.

“Because we are a city of artisans, having something that you can make art in the store was really important to us, that you can create something that you’ve designed or that we designed together with you and produce it right in the store,” said Kayla.

The Bendas also have a larger laser printer off-site for heftier orders, like tables.

Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts’ focus on Grand Rapids doesn’t stop with its merchandise.

“Everyone who works here is going to be a tourism ambassador. So people, even if you’re from Grand Rapids or an out-of-towner, you’re going to be able to walk in and ask someone in the front, ‘Hey, what’s a good thing to do within walking distance? Oh, it’s a Friday night, what can I do tonight? I’m bored.’ You don’t have to just buy something. We can literally be a concierge for the city,” said Alex.

He’s also creating a walking map that shows people how to use the free Downtown Area Shuttle to get to local businesses and where they can find some locals’ favorite Friday night activities. Alex hopes to release the guide in January—around the same time as the store’s grand opening.

The store also features a community workspace and will regularly host board game nights “because we are giant nerds,” Alex says.

THE ‘AHA MOMENT’

Kayla says her vision for Oh, Hello Co. started with a company trip overseas.

“I was in Italy and there was this lady who could not speak any English and she was like handmaking these journals. And I came back home and I was like, ‘I want to do this.’ Maybe a little bit bigger than a shoe box, but I wanted to have my own space to create things that were more than you could find at a grocery store or a Hallmark (store),” Kayla said.

“It was one of those like ‘Aha’ moments. This is what I wanted to do,” she added.

Kayla started selling on Etsy in 2014 and her business quickly climbed to the top tier for sales.

“Within the first three months, we were making more money than both of our salaries. So Alex quit his job first because I had better health benefits, and then shortly after, I quit mine. And we’ve been doing it ever since,” said Kayla.

BECOMING BRICK-AND-MORTAR: ‘IT’S BEEN A RIDE’

This is the Bendas’ first brick-and-mortar store.

“It just felt like time, I think. And we love Grand Rapids so much that we wanted to become a part of it and have a footprint and a place that we could call our own,” said Kayla.

The couple says they checked out places like Eastown and East Grand Rapids, but a potential incentive from the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority made their decision easy.

“We found out that there’s a grant that they were giving out that if you move a retail store downtown, they’ll give you half of your rent for 18 months, and that was huge. When you’re buying everything for a store—when we moved in, there weren’t even light bulbs in the ceiling — and we had to put everything in. That’s super expensive and not everyone is made of money and loans are hard, “ said Alex.

When the spot on Monroe Center near Division Avenue opened up, it seemed serendipitous.

“We sat outside and talked to people who were walking by and the majority of them were tourists, which I found really interesting because they were like ‘Oh, I got some spare time after a conference and they didn’t really have anywhere to go and shop for local items,” said Kayla. “(Also) there wasn’t really a place for locals to shop local as well. So we wanted to kind of get two birds with one stone.”

The Bendas have invested about $25,000 of their business revenue into the store, in addition to $20,000 of their personal savings.

Since the couple got the keys to their store, they’ve learned a lot, including why you shouldn’t paint color swatches outside in fall, when Michigan’s temperature can drastically change from one day to the next.

A Dec. 9, 2019 photo shows the storefront of Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts at 40 Monroe Center NW in downtown Grand Rapids.

“So many things they don’t teach you in school we have done in the past 40 days,” said Kayla. “I now understand all types of barcodes. That is the knowledge I’m willing to share to the one person who wants to know.”

An undated courtesy photo shows 40 Monroe Center NW at the start of the transformation into Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts. (Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts)

“YouTube is my favorite friend right now,” said Alex, adding that he learned how to create the store’s neon sign from a tutorial on the site.

An undated courtesy photo shows 40 Monroe Center NW at the start of the transformation into Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts. (Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts)

While ownership has come with lots of lessons, one thing hasn’t changed.

“I think our entire business model since Day One was support other businesses,” said Kayla. “There’s so many big businesses out there that are doing it cheaper, but the quality and the passion and the dedication are within those small businesses.”

“Oh, Hello Paper & Gifts is us, it’s the community, it’s people – your neighbors, your sister who is making things and selling them. You’re helping real people feed their cats. Our cats are very hungry critters,” said Kayla, eliciting a laugh from her husband.

“This space isn’t about us — we’re just the custodians. I really think this space is about Grand Rapids,” he added. “This store is about helping Grand Rapids realize just — we’re a mirror — how beautiful Grand Rapids is. And we just want to reflect that back.”

The Bendas have been documenting their entrepreneurial journey, which you can find on the Oh, Hello Living YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/UnderTheMicroscope22.

Oh, Hello Co. Paper & Gifts will celebrate its grand opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony on Jan. 10 at 4 p.m.