20 years of Mimi

Mimi 20Th Year Logo Final
The untold story of how it all began

By Mitch Allen

This month marks the 20th anniversary of Mimi’s first edition, which published on June 10, 2003. The cover featured the late Dominic Cerino, grandson of Carrie Cerino and co-owner of her namesake restaurant in North Royalton. He was photographed by longtime Mimi photographer Benjamin Margalit as the smiling restaurateur stood over a delivery of fresh Copper River salmon.

It was Dominic who introduced us to Benjamin and his wife Lynn, who has served as our creative director for our entire 20 years.

The banner in those early days read, “Mimi Vanderhaven’s Fabulous Buys,” and in every story Mimi referred to readers as “darling,” often beginning her regular column with, “Greetings, kind reader!”

Here, from the bottom of our hearts, I want to thank you, kind reader, for reading our words and for supporting the local businesses we feature. And thank you to the thousands of local business owners who have allowed us to tell their stories.

In the Beginning…
When we interview a local business owner, we often want to discuss their origin story. It gives us insight into the company’s culture. Every business has an origin story, and it’s usually an interesting one.

Until now, we’ve shared the origin stories of many local businesses, but never our own. Here, then, is a peek back at 20 years ago (cue dream sequence music):

When my business partner called the Akron Beacon Journal in 2003 to speak with the newspaper’s Vice-President of Advertising and Marketing, he was told the guy had quit, and was now running a tanning salon in North Royalton.

It’s true. I had quit. And I bought the defunct tanning salon for $5,000 as a test of my entrepreneurial skills.

I failed the test. I was terrible at the business side of things. I thought “RITA” was some nice woman, but she turned out to be the Regional Income Tax Authority. That didn’t much matter. I had no income to tax, only mounting losses due to overinvesting in equipment. I chose the tanning industry as my experiment because I have suffered with psoriasis my entire life. The UV radiation helps a lot.

I left the daily newspaper business in 2002 largely because I could see the internet on the horizon. The pre-9/11 economy had been booming, businesses were frantically hiring, and the newspaper industry had survived on huge growth (and rate increases) in help wanted advertising, soon to be devastated by firms like Monster.com. That, and we were offering big advertising discounts to high-volume national chains compared to those we offered to locally owned businesses.

I didn’t think that was fair.

Supporting Local
I cannot tell you how passionate I am about local business. Mimi and I both abhor the blandness and ubiquity of national chains, preferring instead the unique offerings of passionate local business owners. Imagine, for example, if New Orleans’s French Quarter were made up of Starbucks, Home Goods, and Cheesecake Factories instead of Brennan’s, Café du Monde, Preservation Hall, and those voodoo shops.

I also quit because the pressure on our stock price (we were part of a large, publicly traded conglomerate) became more important than our readers, advertisers and employees. I also understood that advertisers were interested primarily in women readers because they make most purchasing decisions.

Two years before, I had led a discussion at a national newspaper publishers conference in Dallas where I asked the group whether they would rather own a newspaper read by 100% of the men in a community or 100% of the women. Without exception, the exclusively male gathering of publishers said “men,” representing a fundamental misunderstanding of their revenue source.

When I told my wife I was giving up a big salary, an annual bonus, and highly lucrative stock options at the very moment our teenaged daughters were about to start college, she said, “Say, what?” followed by her heartfelt commitment to whatever I needed to do. I love her so much. In a few weeks, we will celebrate 40 years of marriage, half of which has been spent with me sitting in a pink chair alongside Mimi.

“Whatcha Doin’?”
When my business partner finally reached me at that tanning salon, he asked, “Whatcha doin’?” In between tanning customers, I had been working on a business plan which I forwarded to him. It was for a publication dedicated exclusively to supporting local businesses (advertising from national chains would not be allowed). It was to be geared toward women, printed on pink newsprint, and sprayed with perfume.

After decades of publishing traditional weekly newspapers in Amish Country, his three-word response was. “This is crazy.” Followed by, “Let’s do it.”

He would handle finance and production (whew!), and I would focus on the fun stuff—editorial, marketing and sales.

We eventually ruled out pink paper because it was hard to read, and the perfume because, well, cheap perfume. A local postmaster later thanked me for not doing the perfume thing, explaining how nauseating it is to postal carriers when they have to deliver perfume samples. “It’s almost as bad as a malfunctioning greeting card playing the same tune over and over along an entire route,” she said.

By sheer happenstance, my wife had brunch with Mimi Vanderhaven in May of 2003 and mentioned my business idea of a publication dedicated to supporting locally owned businesses. I knew I didn’t want to be the face of the magazine, so after a second meeting with Mimi and me, she was all in. She’s been our inspiration ever since.

Our first salesperson, the late Kathy Peterson, had spent time in India in the 1970s, so our first paid ad—a black and white eighth-page­—was for an Indian grocery store. When we received the proof from our production offices in Amish Country, it featured a cornucopia and a Native American in a canoe.

We were horrified.

We fixed that error (and many others), and a couple of weeks later the first edition of Mimi Vanderhaven’s Fabulous Buys arrived in a few thousand Strongsville mailboxes.

During the early years publishing the magazine, we rode the same emotional roller coaster so many local business owners have ridden—fear, excitement, regret, anticipation, missteps, luck and, ultimately, the grace of God.

Many people think we are a national chain publication, but clearly, we are not. It’s just us. Right here. Making our way.

The Secret Sauce
Twenty years later, Mimi Magazine is now mailed to 277,000 mailboxes—19 different zoned editions in more than 50 Northeast Ohio communities—with a mission to bring together quality local businesses and smart consumers. That’s the secret sauce, the perfect combination. Good people finding good businesses and vice versa. No gimmicks, no shouting, no clichés, superlatives or exaggerations. Just tell it like it really is and people can decide for themselves if it’s for them.

We couldn’t do everything we do without a fabulous team of writers, editors, designers, photographers, marketing strategists, and an admin staff that keeps us all in line and ahead of deadline. To these folks, we also owe a huge debt of gratitude and I thank them all.

We never really did a lot of recruitment. Awesome people just magically showed up at the door saying, “This seems like a nice place to work. Are you hiring?”

Sure, can you start tomorrow?

Now, suddenly, the tomorrows have been strung together to create 20 years. Thank you so much for sharing the journey with us. We look forward to continuing to serve you for many years to come.


Categories: Smart Living