Jaime Kowal is a full time freelance photographer whose work has appeared in publications like The New York Times and Conde Nast Traveler-- snapping everyone from Reese Witherspoon the to Dalai Lama. But she's also a full time entrepreneur.
Just over three years ago, the business-savvy Canadian came to Palm Springs on what was supposed to be a ten day vacation, but every day found a new reason to stay: the weather, an exhibit, the endless supply of inspiring architecture. Six months (and one 0-1 Visa later) those reasons were business ventures.
She first struck desert gold with The Amado. A multifamily property build in the 1950s which she renovated, acting as both general contractor and interior designer, her photographer's eye lending its attention to detail to the project.
Next she and partner Chris Pardo opened Bootlegger Tiki, a "Tikeasy" as she calls it, located in the same space as the original Don the Beachcomber restaurant that opened in 1953, and the adjoining Ernest Coffee, which serves up Stumptown Coffee. Between these two spaces she has staff working almost 24/7. Ernest opens its doors at 6am, Bootegger at 4pm, and by the time the bar staff is heading home, the java crew is rising and shining in the desert light.
But why stop there? The Junipero, a six room boutique hotel which celebrated its opening this past week is, has been the focus of her last eight months. A Spanish Colonial property with Mediterranean architecture and easy Moroccan vibes (yes, please), it's proof that The Amado wasn't just a one hit wonder.
She has a renovator's spirit-- the kind of (perhaps mad) genius with the ability to breath new life into places, and it's attracting not only the OG Palm Springs crowd, but the cool travel-on-the-weekends LA kids. Between her ventures she served almost 100,000 people last year.
We caught up with the photog and proprietor to find out how she makes it all work, and why following that one crazy idea might be the best business decision you ever make.
Word is, you came to Palm Springs for vacation and never left. Can you talk about making bold decisions in both business and life and why they are important to you?
I was at the point in my life where I was ready to make some bold decisions. I had planted the seeds of research and exploration, and was clear about my goals. I believe the saying “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. It was the right time and place. I felt like I was jumping off a cliff and taking a chance but I completely trusted I would be supported. And it turns out I have been more than supported. The most wonderful things in my life have always come from making bold decisions and not looking back. I feel most alive when I’m taking a chance.
When you’re spreading yourself between multiple properties and businesses how do you stay organized?
I am disciplined with the systems I use to remember and prioritize action items. I get up at 6am every day to do a few hours of work before the barrage of calls, texts and emails begin. I have built a fantastic team and I am now able to delegate which helps tremendously. It’s not a perfect system. Like everyone else I wish I had more time in the day. My inbox creates the most stress as I can’t keep up with the volume. On occasion there are emails I miss or things that don’t get done and I’m learning to be ok with that.
How do you stay sane?
I practice yoga, eat healthy and go for acupuncture to balance my body physically. My mental respite comes from humor. It’s hopping on FaceTime with my girlfriends to break up my long days to talk about anything but business. We make jokes and laugh and it shifts my mood every time. Personal connection and quality conversation is important to me and I meet with friends or clients for dinner or drinks regularly. I love getting away for the weekend if I can.
What are some of the most challenging aspects of being a small-business owner?
It sounds cliché but for me the most challenging aspect is finding the balance between my personal and business life. Setting boundaries and finding time to relax or turn off is tricky. I haven’t taken a real vacation in two years. I’ve come to realize my business is my life. I apply my creativity and expression to the business. My team are my extended family. We spend so much time together it’s inevitable. The only way to handle the long days and constant demands is to be at peace with it and make it fun and meaningful. It’s a marathon. I feel like I’m surfing a really long wave…
What are some highlights?
I love bringing people together and building community. I genuinely love and care for the extended web of people in my life. I now have a staff of twenty and it has been fascinating to see their relationships grow over the past few years. We share similar values and support each other. That care extends to our interactions with guests at The Amado and The Junipero, and to our customers at Ernest Coffee and Bootlegger Tiki. We served almost 100,000 people last year! We literally have a personal connection with each and every one of our customers, and community and relationships have grown from that.
Secondly, we are offering products and services that make people happy. Everyone loves Palm Springs and we’re offering a beautiful place to stay, a caffeine fix, and craft cocktails. It doesn’t get better than that.
Were you always business-minded and savvy, or is it something you grew into?
I have always been entrepreneurial. I remember literally writing business plans for fun when I was a child. I see opportunity for growth, change, design, or efficacy everywhere I go. I have learned over the years that where many people see blocks I see a creative challenge. I’m not scared to try something new.
When someone comes to stay at one of your properties, what can they expect?
Our properties are design-driven and detail oriented. The Amado is a classic example of mid-century modern architecture and The Junipero was originally built as a Spanish Colonial home. The decor is inspired by the unique architecture of each property and provides a direct experience of the relaxed lifestyle that Palm Springs is famous for. The outdoor areas are built for poolside lounging and dining. We’ve integrated large-scale works of original photography and art throughout, integrated natural and organic materials and stocked the kitchens with all kinds of cooking utensils. Each suite is fully contained with a dining room, living room, bathroom, kitchen and king bedroom so guests have privacy but can come together in the common areas. We rent the entire property out to groups every weekend who are celebrating bachelorette parties, family reunions or birthdays. They love having their own private compound they can make their own for a few days.
Why do you think Palm Springs continues to be such a destination spot?
It’s the perfect storm. The weather is amazing. It’s within close proximity to LA, San Diego and Las Vegas. It offers great restaurants and bars, quirky day trips to the desert or mountains, incredible architecture, the best mid-century furniture and thrifting, cultural events and parties every night of the week and something new every visit.
What’s next on your Palm Springs takeover?
I do have a few exciting projects I’m exploring right now with different partners but it’s too early to talk about!! :) I can say they would be a natural extension of what we are already offering.
For someone looking to get into the hospitality business, what words of advice or encouragement do you have for them?
Trust your instinct and stay true to your vision. I had a lot of trusted friends, advisors and contractors challenge me in the beginning. They thought I was crazy and taking too much of a risk. But I had a vision and I stuck to it. And if you don’t know where to start, just start somewhere. Once you begin the process the next step appears.