In the hipster neighborhood of Hampden on Union Avenue, a small company with big ambitions is doing what so many others only dream about: being their own boss and succeeding.
Husband and wife entrepreneurs, Mike Pararas, 56, and Kim Strassner, 48, started their business, Words With Boards, stemming from an idea for fun gifts for their families. Finding themselves with some leftover butcher block wood from a kitchen project, Strassner suggested they make some cutting boards with words cut into them, an idea that harkened back to her ninth-grade shop class project.
"I made a cutting board with the word 'chop' on it and gave it to my mom; she still has it," Strassner said, laughing.
A big hit with family, the Hampden couple expanded on the idea and started frequenting farmers markets and high-end craft shows to sell their nascent product. One company that discovered them was "Uncommon Goods," a catalog and online retailer that sells their cutting boards and has been getting glowing reviews from customers.
"We're the only company in the world who is doing this," Strassner said, referring to the precise process using a skill saw for cutting words onto each board. "We're the only one who is cutting words into butcher block wood," Pararas added. "It's hard work."
Their first big break came when a friend of the couple who knew a producer for Martha Stewart, the doyenne of DIY and all things crafty, put one of their boards into her hands.
"She loved it," Strassner said.
Their boards have been featured several times on Stewart's Instagram page and on the marthastewart.com website. Independent of this, the couple also entered Stewart's American Made contest online and were chosen to be a finalist by one of the judges. Although they didn't win, the exposure and being endorsed by Stewart was a thrill. "To be able to say that is huge," Strassner said.
Married for nine years, the couple met when Strassner, who was working for a design and manufacturing company in Annapolis, was using Pararas, who has his own advertising agency, for a project her company was planning. Pararas, a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), designs a lot of the pieces. Strassner said her design and manufacturing experience was a natural transition to starting their own company. Their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit have been a winning combination ever since.
While many married partners might find going into business together a relationship killer, the couple, who also live in Hampden, said that although it has its moments, they still enjoy it — although one of their boards does say, "Eat, Drink and Remarry."
"We fight but we get over it quickly," Strassner said. "And we don't hold a grudge."
"She's pretty chill," Pararas said.
While they have been successful in boutiques around the country and local stores in and around the Baltimore area, what really put them on the map was being featured in last year's O, The Oprah magazine's holiday issue.
As with a lot of ventures, hard work coupled with luck can bring success. In April 2015, Strassner went to New York City to pitch their cutting boards to a popular store in Manhattan. She was one of 50 companies invited to present their product to the owner of the Story store and a guest judge, she said. Strassner had prepared the required three-minute sales pitch, but when she started, the response was so enthusiastic that she didn't get to present. Instead, she spent the whole time answering questions.
"I didn't even get to do my spiel," Strassner said. "They kept firing questions at me left and right — it was really fun."
One of the guest judges was the creative director for O, The Oprah magazine, Adam Glassman. "We knew he'd be there so we made a board for him and the owner," Strassner said. "They just went crazy."
They got a call from Oprah's team in August asking them to make some boards for Oprah's best friend, Gayle, and for Oprah herself, and they had 24 hours to get it to them. The official announcement that they had made Oprah's prestigious Favorite Things List came Nov. 1, 2015, and from then until December the couple was inundated with hundreds of orders.
"I was really confident," Strassner said of their being chosen as a favored item, "because of the response from Adam (Glassman)."
The couple had been using their basement as a workshop to cut the boards; then they took them to another facility where they would dip them in an oil mixture, before putting them on a rack to dry. Back home, they would pack and ship them.
Last August, they moved to their new work space in order to handle the increased volume. Strassner said that since they began three years ago, they and a handful of employees who help cut, sand and oil the boards have produced about 6,000 of them.
The entrepreneurs also are developing a couple of new products, such as puzzle pieces of the cutouts from the boards that come with a paint kit for kids, as well as some ornaments and trivets. They also continue to attend high-end craft shows such as the American Craft Council's.
Pararas said the response from the local community has been so positive mainly because their product is handmade and unique.
Carmen Brock, owner of the store Trovh in Hampden, said Words With Boards meets the benchmarks they look for in a supplier.
"They are functional, utilitarian pieces of art that can be used every day," Brock said. "And they are local."
"I love the product," said Sandi Kroh, owner of The Boxwood Collection in Glyndon. "And I love that it's a Baltimore company."
For Pararas and Strassner, their commitment to the community is evidenced by their hiring autistic adults from the nonprofit organization Itineris, also located in Hampden, to help with packing and shipping.
"We love having them on our team," Stassner said.