Keep It Local Blog
Stories, interviews, and local insights that we hope will inspire you to support the local shops, restaurants, and services that make Oklahoma unique.
We love the courage and grit displayed by small business owners who are following their passions. At 23 years old, Ashley Ray (with her husband, Austin) quit her media job to pursue her dream of opening a loose leaf tea house in Stillwater, OK. We asked Ashley to help us get to know her and Simplicity & Co. Tea House a little bit better:
Name: Ashley Ray
Business: Simplicity & Co. Tea House
How would you describe your business to someone who hasn't had the chance to visit yet?
We're a modern loose leaf tea house in Stillwater, OK. All of our teas are all-natural, fair trade and organically grown. We serve tea drinks and have cultivated a cozy, inviting space for guests to study, read, spend some good time with a friend or just relax. We also offer tea event bookings in our Fireplace Room with vintage teacups, scones and decor. Our goal is to make tea approachable to anyone and bring it back to the modern day. Tea isn't just for grandma anymore!
Tell us the origin story of Simplicity & Co. Tea House.
My husband and I dreamed of a loose leaf tea house in Stillwater because we had to keep going to the city (Oklahoma City) to purchase our loose leaf tea. There's just something about seeing it and smelling it that makes all the difference. We also craved a quiet, calm space to spend time in and read together - all the coffee shops in town always played loud music and had tons of busyness going on. We wanted somewhere really calming and peaceful for people to relax. We came up with the idea during my senior year of college. I worked for Oklahoma State University in media for about 6 months before quitting to go open the shop. I was 23 (years old). I couldn't believe how many people we talked to before we opened spoke so rudely to us and looked down on us. They never thought we could do it. It drove us (and still does!) to push even harder to make it happen - if nothing else just to prove them all wrong! We really believe young people are the future of entrepreneurship, especially in our small town - us and other young families are what's bringing vibrancy back to our Downtown!
What do you love about operating a small business in Oklahoma?
I love meeting people I probably never would have otherwise. I also love meeting people when we're not at the shop that say, "You're the tea people?? I LOVE that place!" It's a huge honor.
What challenges or risks have you faced operating a local business?
Being in a small college town - we honestly don't make big bucks and it took us several years to make it through a studentless summer without taking out more loans. It's awesome to see, as we've become more of a local "standard", how our people have really taken care of us and summer doesn't scare us anymore!
What advice would you give to someone who dreams of starting their own business someday?
GO FOR IT! You'll never start if you wait until you feel ready. The best way to learn is just to do it. It's never going to work out perfectly, or the way you imagine, but it's so rewarding to be a part of something bigger than yourself. Your community will thank you!
What are the most popular items that you sell?
Tea drinks are our biggest selling item - during the summer our top selling tea is Watermelon Refresher and during the winter it's Butterscotch.
What’s your favorite thing about your job?
My favorite part of the day-to-day is doing photoshoots and scheduling social media. I also love getting our team together. We're so lucky to have such great people working for us - they're family more than employees!
What’s the hardest thing about your job?
Taxes, budgeting and making money decisions. Not my favorite parts!
Who do you admire in your line of work? Do you have any professional heroes?
I really admire what Erica with the Tea Bar in Portland has done. She also started her business at a really young age and has grown it so much. It's so inspiring. Being a young entrepreneur doesn't mean you can't be really successful.
Do you have any favorite moments or memorable milestones since opening Simplicity & Co.?
When we first opened, we snagged a spot in a shopping center that was already set up for a restaurant. We liked the idea of Downtown, but didn't think we could afford rent and a remodel. Well it turns out that the shopping center rent was what we couldn't afford. We wanted out but had NO CLUE what to do. One day, a woman walked in and asked me, "Are you Ashley? I have a spot Downtown for you if you want it!" I'd never met her before but she had a gut feeling about me and asked. We moved two months later and it's been the best thing to happen for our business. We love getting to be a part of the Downtown community and all the events held there. I love that all our business friends are a quick walk away. It's a crazy story and I'll forever be grateful she walked in that day!
What is something that people might be surprised to learn about your business?
People always think we're a chain! I guess because we have such high standards for our branding. It always makes me laugh. Sometimes I think we did TOO good of a job.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to travel and I NEVER wanted to work in an office. I always had tons of crazy business ideas as a kid and my parents always let me try them. Owning my own business wasn't ever even a question.
What was your first job?
My first job was working for a local studio photographer in Downtown Stillwater. (Right around the corner from our shop!) I edited and ordered images for them and eventually got to shoot a little too before they retired and moved. I'm so thankful I've always gotten to do something I've loved!
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to read and visit the library at least twice a week thanks to my three-year-old! I photograph a few weddings a year and love shooting new photos for S&Co. We are huge foodies, so if eating can count as an extracurricular activity - we're into that. We love visiting cities and trying local restaurants.
What motivates you to keep doing what you're doing?
Our Downtown community. We so believe in our town and see the potential it has to grow beyond just somewhere people live for four years while they're in school. I want it to develop it's own unique culture and getting to be a part of that is a huge honor.
In your opinion, why is it important for people to support locally-owned businesses?
The culture of towns and cities is BUILT on small business. You don't visit or go on vacation and eat at chain restaurants. You go and get a taste of the local culture. The same goes when deciding where to live. People want culture, they want relationships and they want to feel they belong. These aren't things you feel at chain businesses. You get that at small businesses. I think it's important to support them so they can stay open and BE THERE for their community!
Photography provided by Simplicity & Co. Tea House
Simplicity and Co. is a modern loose leaf tea house that features over 80 different teas, handcrafted specialty drinks like tea lattes & sparkling teas, and tea by the ounce. They also offer their private Fireplace Room for parties and event rental for up to 20 guests. Stop by and say “hello” to Ashley and the team at their beautiful downtown location in Stillwater, OK and make sure to show them your Keep It Local Card to receive $1 off any tea drink. simplicityandco.com
Ever wonder why supporting local businesses even matters? Well, here's 9 reasons:
When you "keep it local," you’re not just helping local business owners – you’re also helping yourself! You’re contributing to creating the kind of city we all want to live in, with unique character & culture, a strong & thriving economy, and a tight-knit community. The best part is that the more our local businesses succeed, the more we'll see new businesses open – making it even easier to continue shopping locally in the future! It's not just a trend, it's a choice.
(We'd like to thank Thompson Mitsubishi of Oklahoma City for providing this digital poster for us to share.)
You may have admired her artwork in local galleries, on the Plaza District's Plaza Walls, or outside OKC's 21c Hotel. We sat down to chat with Denise Duong, the local artist behind the 2019 Keep It Local Card design.
What’s your background and what led you to pursue art?
I’ve always wanted to pursue art. It was the only thing that I ever wanted to do since my first memories. I've been creating things constantly. I come from a Vietnamese family that immigrated here. They would question my decisions, but were always very supportive. (Of my dreams..not my teenage choices sometimes.) But good grades went a long way in our house. Just don’t royally f*ck up and you were good.
How would you describe your artistic style?
Narrative with humor, yet there is depth.
What inspires you when you’re creating art?
There’s so many elements about traveling that are inspiring. The people, the colors, nature, the air, the sounds, the buildings. The emotions of past present and possible future. I can be home and be inspired as well. I pretty much soak up my environment physically and mentally.
Who are some artists whose styles you really admire?/Is there any specific artist who has particularly influenced you?
I admire so many artists. I love styles that I can not do. I admire the detailed, the realistic, the simple and abstract. I was told my artwork is very French - one of the reason’s why I visited France. It seemed kind of like my past life. Haha. I like the multi use of materials that Rauschenberg does. And I love the strange sculptures of Modigliani.
What do you love about the current art scene in Oklahoma?
I love how supportive everyone is. Everyone is excited and its very energetic.
Do you feel that you have any limitations as an artist right now?
Not that I can think of. I feel grateful I’m able to do what I do and plus some! Well, of course there are always these grand ideas that cost money to do. So now, it's just about taking time to map out ideas and see how to fund some of them.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I just finished 2 murals at Plaza Walls (OKC).
I should be able to start my project with the Faces of the 47th in a few weeks. I’m wheat pasting 47 faces of public school kids on the old Jesus Saves building on NE 10th Street (OKC). Its just a reminder to voters in November to vote for pro public education. WE are 47th in the nation in the public school ranking.
We are celebrating a one year and 1 month anniversary at Little D Gallery on December 7th.
I’ve got a show in Seoul (South Korea) in March 2019!
Oh, and working with Lance (McDaniel) on some small animations for an opera in November.
What advice would you give to someone who is aspiring to make a living as an artist?
Persistence. Don’t let rejection take you down. And self impose deadlines - they work...at least for me. And be true to yourself. Find your lines and strokes and be true to them.
Where can people follow you on social media?
Facebook: I think I’m just Denise Duong
Twitter: I think it's @deniseduong ( I got my actual name because I signed up while living in San Fransisco in exchange for free drinks and food. Who knew it would get so big.)
Is there anything we haven’t asked you about that you want to tell us?
I have a bull terrier named Debo that I love. That’s about it.
Hope this isn’t all over the place.
Home improvement supplies could really be a big way to make a shift-to-local impact within our budget, but I admit this is an area where we have trouble keeping it local. For us, this goes beyond just home improvement as we also purchase supplies for art projects and my husband’s business on a regular basis.
In an effort to explore how we can do better, I’ve done a little research on some possible alternatives to Lowe’s, Home Depot or Ace Hardware, which is where we are mostly purchasing these supplies currently. So, the below local businesses are not necessarily recommendations as we have not been customers at all, but I’m hoping this list will help us try out some new businesses.
Whitton Supply Co.
While specializing in power tools, they appear to have a great selection of general tools and hardware. They even have a repair center for tools as well! I’m glad I came across it, we definitely need to go check it out. Unfortunately, they are not open on Saturday or Sunday which could make it difficult for weekend projects.
The Light Bulb Store
I have heard of this store through my local loving friend Allison Barta Bailey. With light bulbs lasting longer and longer, and along the way the prices rising, it might be time to think of purchasing light bulbs as an intentional stop rather than just picking them up when at a big box store. I’ve heard they have every light bulb you can imagine, specialty bulbs as well as lighting fixtures. Not open on weekends.
The Lumber Shed
Locally owned lumber yard offering lumber, siding, decking and hardware, in business since 1936!
Fox Building Supply
Specializing in Lumber Products, Insulation, Siding, Roofing, Windows, Doors, Fencing and Decking Material, Plumbing and Electrical Supplies, Hand and Power Tools And More! Open on Saturdays as well.
Kitchen, Bathroom, Flooring, Interior doors, tile and more. Open on Saturdays and Sundays as well.
CD Faucet & Parts
Our kitchen sink handle broke off, and we couldn’t find the part in stores or online. We just bought a whole new faucet set, I wish I would have checked here!
TLC, Marcum's, PreCure & Pam’s Plants
There nurseries are a must when it comes to garden projects. They have everything you need and huge greenhouses with quality plants, many of which are grown in their nursery. Pam’s plants has less of a selection, but it’s close to my home and I can always get the basics (including pumpkins right now!)
I couldn’t find a local resource for new appliance stores, but I did purchase my dryer from Ted’s and it’s lasted several years!
Hopefully you might be able to try out some of these businesses too! I would love your feedback if so. I would also love to hear your recommendations for businesses I missed to add to my list!
Home Improvement Notes:
What does shopping more local mean for a millenial(ish) couple who are striving to have a more minimal lifestyle when it comes to material things?
Most purchases for home improvement needs are rooted in fixing what we already have and taking care of our current material things. While there is certainly alot of extra stuff you can purchase in a big box home improvement store, visiting some of these more specialized store could help curb the desire to pick up a few extra things you didn’t plan for.
What is the feasibility of a commitment to shop local for those that do not have much flexibility or resources? For the single mom, the family living paycheck to paycheck, the person without access to reliable transportation?
When it comes to home improvement, the convenience of a big box store definitely wins out in this context. I don’t believe there are enough local options to make shopping local in this area a true alternative.
I’m not much of a shopper when it comes to clothing. I typically purchase only something I specifically need -- a dress for an event, athletic shoes, a work jacket that goes with everything. I’m pretty practical when it comes to clothing and how much I buy, so this allows me to be more strategic about where I shop. Here are a few examples of strategic shopping where I was able to #keepitlocaler.
This summer I was specifically looking for a hat to wear on a vacation, and Shop Good came through. They’ve got a wonderful selection of accessories, t-shirts and hoodies. What’s better? Your t-shirt purchases support a good cause.
Blue Seven / Just OK
I purchase a pair of raw denim jeans every other year. I don’t formally participate in the Clean Start Project, but I do my own version. Spending a decent amount on quality jeans is definitely worth the investment. They keep their shape and I rarely wash them (my husband blogged about this here), which makes getting dressed so much easier. My 2 year old jeans literally busted last night. Time for another visit! They’ve also got a great selection of casual clothing, shoes and accessories.
Red Coyote Running and Fitness
I’ve just gotten back into running this year, so after I’d kept the habit long enough to justify new shoes, I went to Red Coyote. New shoes were way overdue. The staff was super helpful and gave me informed advice that catered to my specific running style. They’ve got a thorough selection of shoes and brands along with clothing and accessories for every level of runner.
I’d been on the hunt for a new work computer bag for several months. I’d been using a tote bag not meant for a laptop for 2 years, and my coworker was growing tired of my over-dramatic exclamation that this bag is ruining my life. I hadn’t planned on going in to Fruition to find a bag, but they had the perfect size leather bag for only $100. Even better, the Carry 117 bag was handmade by women in Ethiopia and my purchase supported their work. The store also carries home goods, artwork and gifts from talented artisans.
Admittedly, the biggest challenge I have for local clothes shopping is finding my age/work appropriate clothing. I feel like a majority of boutiques cater to younger audiences and there isn’t much selection when it comes to finding work clothing that fits my style. I’m a regular at Nordstrom Rack, Modcloth and Name Brand Clothing, but I always try and hit up boutiques to see if I can find what I need there first. Also, my husband and I are pretty active outdoors. We’ve loved going to Native Summit, but it’s so far from our home. We’d love to have more options for outdoor clothing to purchase locally. So, I’ve found the best way to go about it is to mix it up, save my big purchases for local shops and just do what I can. Remember, the shift is about moving just a percentage, not the whole nine yards. I don’t have much advice when it comes to men’s shopping. My husband pretty much only wears t-shirts from his old store and local artist friends. I’d love to hear your recommendations on local men’s shopping!
What does shopping more local mean for a millenial(ish) couple who are striving to have a more minimal lifestyle when it comes to material things?
Planning to purchase only what you need, but being able to invest in a higher-quality products is an excellent way to limit an overflowing closet. Planning to purchase these items from a local shop is even better.
What is the feasibility of a commitment to shop local for those that do not have much flexibility or resources?
For the single mom, the family living paycheck to paycheck, the person without access to reliable transportation? Local thrift stores are probably the best way for those who don’t have much in the way of resources to shop locally.