By: Rachel Winner
Ellen Winner used to wear pantyhose that clung damply to her hips and thighs in the Florida heat. At the other end they were tucked gracefully into heels that clicked along the drab corridors of commercial warehouses. She spent her days brokering sales of commercial space in the geographical limbo between receding wilderness and encroaching civilization. She realized that with every deal, she was bouncing back with a little less spring. She also developed a refrain, only half-jokingly, that the more she worked with people the better she liked dogs. Then she hit a choice point: she acknowledged the need for a career change at the same time that her husband’s 25-year-old company merged yet again. Her kids were at transitional years in their education. She realized that if she didn’t rip off the pantyhose and dive into a new life right then, the life she wanted would pass her by. Ellen says that she knew the change was critical and imminent when she realized, “I was more afraid to not live the life I wanted than I was to take the risk of starting over.”
Ellen and her husband, Michael, sold everything, packed up their two kids, dog and cat and moved to the mountains of North Carolina in the summer of 2003. In a business model that would marry her love of pets and her inability to converse with people before morning coffee, they decided to put a spin on the bed and breakfast industry: guests in their own fully equipped and furnished vacation cabins would make their own beds, cook their own breakfasts, and congregate out on the lawn while their dogs played. The idea came from their annual family vacations to a resort in Minnesota – a magical place that has drawn Michael’s family to the lake every summer for over 50 years. It’s a summer camp for the whole family where memories are created – weenie roasts, Bingo, first kisses (not within the family, they swear) and boat rides. The one flaw in these idyllic reunions was that dogs were not allowed. Ellen would spend more time worrying about when she could liberate Snickers from “doggy prison” in town than she would spend relaxing. Dogs are part of the family – why can’t they have a vacation, too? So they created a goal to develop a pet-friendly mountain retreat. (The tag-line was reconstructed as a “dog-lovers’ vacation retreat” after the pot-bellied pig incident and an inquiry from the simian society for their annual gathering.)
Ellen and Michael put a contract on a 7-acre property with a pond and one cabin in Mills River, and then backed out for fear of losing their shirts. “This was a complete departure from what we knew and totally outside our comfort zone,” says Ellen. In the meantime, they bought a home to fix up right across the street from the land, along with two other houses to renovate and sell. She recalls breaking up studs from the basement and bringing them upstairs to burn for heat in the middle of winter. They dealt with foundation crises, floods, Ellen falling through the bathroom floor, and the drama of relocating two adolescent children. The retreat idea lay dormant for about six months.
Then serendipity kicked in. The land owners called and told Ellen and Michael that they believed in their idea and thought they would be good stewards of the property. The deed was signed in September of 2004—right before the hurricanes hit—three of them. Hurricanes weighed heavily in the Winner family’s decision to leave Florida in the first place, but as they saying goes, you can never really leave your baggage behind.
Amidst antique signs and license plates hung on the property’s little red barn was a sign that read Barkwells Antiques. She knew immediately that it was a sign for the right place at the right time with the right name—Barkwells. (www.barkwells.com) Ellen undertook development and management of Barkwells while Michael established a real estate publication. The retreat was a long-term play and the publication provided regular income until it succumbed to the economy. As it turns out, Barkwells has such a unique niche (as far as they know, it’s the only business model of its kind in the country) that it has become popular beyond expectation and the nucleus of their efforts. Barkwells started with just one cabin on 7 acres, and has grown to 7 cabins on 9 fenced acres, with a flock of chickens, two fainting goats and a list of nearly 2000 guests.
Just like Minnesota for Michael’s family, Barkwells is more than a vacation accommodation; it is a space of collective memories. A family brings its dog here in its first weeks, and in its last. Couples who’ve never taken a vacation because they couldn’t leave their dogs will unleash both pets and worries as they enter into this “heaven on earth.” Many families return annually to reunite with friends (both two and four-legged) that they’ve met during their visits. The guests and staff alike understand the special relationship between dog and owner. That’s why the people who work at Barkwells pay special attention to details that make the site luxurious for guests and furry guests of honor. The dogs get it, too —repeat guests often say that their dogs wind up with excitement as they approach Barkwells Lane and realize they’re at the gate to freedom. The space is a haven, but so is Asheville itself. While it feels secluded, the property is five minutes from the interstate and a quick drive to downtown Asheville, Hendersonville, the Biltmore and the Blue Ridge Parkway; but many guests don’t commute further than from the rocking chair to the hot tub on the front porch.
The creation of a safe haven is an integral component of the circle of values that shape Barkwells. Identifying a set of values was the first step in creating a mission and vision of the business and these values drive every decision. Other values in the circle are sustainability, community, the empowerment of women and, of course, dogs. Michael still refers to this approach as “woo woo,” but perhaps it’s just to push her buttons because he also affirms that sticking to these values has helped them shape and maintain the essence of Barkwells.
She says of the greenness of her business: “It came from the realization that even in our small operation we are having an impact… [We saw] the volume of trash coming out of just a couple of cabins. I wanted to walk the talk. If we can Influence people through our own practices, or at least make them mindful that they’re also making a difference, we might be able to positively impact the future. Barkwells uses all natural cleaning supplies, high efficiency washers, organic or all natural amenities of detergent, coffee, filters and soaps in the cabins. Several cabins have alternative energy hot water sources. One of her next projects is building a street lamp powered by methane from dog poop. What could be more appropriate?
She is a strong proponent of buying local: office and stocking supplies, natural cleaning products, organic coffee and t-shirts, cabin amenities and doggie treats all come from Asheville or a regional provider. She frequently explores ways to encourage her fellow small businesses or entrepreneurs. She and her office manager/cookie-goddess, Bobbi, are expanding the market for Bobbi’s (to-die-for) cheesecakes to Barkwells guests; Ellen has offered to sell crafts made by other artistic team members at the office as well. Ellen sees her business as an opportunity to support other women’s talents and aspirations.
This perspective emerges from her own acceptance into an environment of friendship, encouragement and enlightenment from women she met after moving to Asheville. Stranded in the front yard on a John Deere lawn tractor with a broken strut, Ellen was thrilled when her daughter’s friend’s mother, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Suzanne Hall showed up to skillfully guide her through the repair. “I felt like I was I was being led through a surgery, elbow-deep in tractor parts and tools. That was one of the most empowering moments of my life—when I realized I could fix my own tractor—and I could do all sorts of things I had never imagined doing!” Ellen recalls. Sandy McLeod, who owns Willow Winds Vacation Cabins, was a terrific mentor—freely sharing information on the hospitality industry and referring pet-loving travellers to Barkwells the day the doors opened. Lisa Black, a friend and organic farming entrepreneur, facilitated a visioning workshop. Womansong, the Asheville women’s chorus of which Ellen is an active member, was going through a similar process to redefine its mission and Michael’s former business partner, Barbara Koenig, weighed in with her expertise in branding. These parallel procedures were instrumental in helping Ellen and Michael identify their values, visualize their goals and create a Barkwells brand. With these bonds, she finds herself surrounded by a community of women to lift her up in every aspect of her life.
In turn, Ellen feels compelled to perpetuate this positive cycle by putting women to work. Many women don’t acknowledge their own strengths and gifts. She wants to empower these women to realize their value. Of her all-woman crew, Ellen says: They have so many talents; we have devoted grandmothers, bakers, painters, organizational queens and visionary gardeners. They remove the toughest stains, connect with guests’ interests to direct them to the best of WNC, resurface hardwood floors, splint broken chicken legs and duct-tape cuts on a catfish. She is inspired by her staff’s incredible resilience and work ethic and appreciates the dedicated and efficient team of women who care for the property and its guests.
Ellen says she is working harder than she has ever worked. However, the business itself is incredibly gratifying and she is never as stressed as she was when she was working where she thought she should be working. And she never wears pantyhose. But there really was no wrong turn: she is using every skill and experience in the history of her resume—real estate acquisition and development, management, photography, writing, marketing, even bed-making. When she was cleaning rooms at the Ramada Inn at 17, she never thought she’d be making her own beds forty years later (or telling other people how she wanted her beds made, for that matter). That list is ever-evolving as Ellen and Michael look to grow Barkwells in other markets. This is their toughest challenge as the economy continues to resist growth. They have to work creatively to expand this success story into the next location and the next chapter. But there are signs of hope: the bank has approved financing for Cabin #8 and it will be up and running in the spring. Ellen is the living lesson that fulfillment comes from doing what we love and following our aspirations even when we are afraid. And that Mom is boss. Always.
Rachel Winner moved to Asheville from Tampa, Florida when she was 16. She graduated from Dickinson College with a degree in International Studies and recently returned to Asheville from a volunteer assignment in Mexico. While at home, she is developing a website content business, interning at Carolina Day School and helping out the family business. She hopes to return to Mexico this spring to continue non-profit work and tortilla consumption.