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Queens of Sustainability: A Woman-Owned Business Makes Zero Waste Its #1 Priority

Season 2: Episode 9


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Earth & Me owner Kayli Kunkel brought her mission of sustainability to New York City, creating the first zero-waste store in Queens. The store encourages customers to be environmentally conscious with refill stations for reusable items in sustainable containers and partners with other local, eco-friendly brands. Hear Kayli and Yelp Elite reviewer Lina A. chat about what sustainability means to them and how this woman-owned business is bettering the community by educating one customer at a time.

On the Yelp Blog: Discover how Kayli created a wow factor and experience that keeps customers coming back.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.

Occasionally, I also talk to industry experts who have additional insights into things like customer experience, small business technology, or general advice for running a successful small business. Today, we’re featuring a conversation I had in-person back in April with both a business owner and consumer together in the studio. Kayli Kunkel, the owner of Earth & Me was joined by a New York Yelp elite, Lina A. Let’s give our conversation a listen.

EMILY: Thank you so much for both joining me today. To have a business owner and a reviewer in the room together is always a dream of mine. It makes the conversation so fun. So to set the stage, let’s talk about who we have with us today. Why don’t you start?

LINA: My name is Lina A. and I reside in Brooklyn, New York.

EMILY: And you are a Yelp Elite.

LINA: Yes. For nine years.

EMILY: Nine year Yelp Elite. We will dig into a little bit more about what that means, but that is incredible. That’s a veteran in the room with us. And then…

KAYLI: I’m Kayli. I am the owner of Queen’s first zero waste store, Earth & Me. Yeah, and that’s what I do.

EMILY: I can’t believe that we’re having this conversation during Earth Week, which was not really intentional, but it’s very fitting that we’re talking about your business.

KAYLI: I know it worked out.

EMILY: It’s awesome. So why don’t you start by telling me about how you discovered Earth & Me. Where did you first learn of the business and that experience you had for the first time when you went in?

LINA: Okay. So I discovered Earth & Me through a Yelp Elite event. I had never heard of a business like that business. And what stood out about the business was that it was women owned and it was sustainable. That’s what I loved about it. So it was about a year ago that I went to the Yelp elite event to attend, and I fell in love with the store.

EMILY: Kayli, give us some of the origin story. How did Earth & Me come about? What’s your background that made you passionate in this area?

KAYLI: Sure. I grew up in a place surrounded by nature. I grew up along the Mississippi River and I did a lot of hiking trails with my dad. I always really was a girl who loved nature and just to be outside and found a lot of peace there.

In my late twenties, during the height of the pandemic, a few years back I was working full-time as a marketing director in tech. So something totally different. And during covid a lot of people were, their lives were upended and mine was in a big way. And I was based with this opportunity to figure out my next step.

So I was just very lucky to have the community that I have in Queens that was really excited about my idea. And I started with doing popups. I had boxes in my apartment of all my inventory. I was riding my bicycle around to Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan delivering things. And it eventually became the store that you were able to visit.

LINA: That’s amazing.

EMILY: I love it. Kayli, describe for me, especially for the listeners who maybe can only see the Yelp photos, what’s it like in there?I wanna give the listener that idea.

KAYLI: So Earth & Me is all sustainable items. We really wanted to create that atmosphere that feels very natural, feels very peaceful almost. You’re on this busy street in Queens, but you step inside and it’s very peaceful. It’s relaxing, it smells really good. The mix of all of our natural soaps and candles and all of that stuff. So we really just wanted to have an atmosphere where people just feel really comfortable, happy, and relaxed, coming to.

EMILY: Yeah, and I think a lot of people don’t know of businesses like yours because they really don’t exist in a lot of places just yet. Describe for me what that sustainability concept is and how your consumers interact with the store.

KAYLI: So the sustainability aspect of the business is basically that we stock only items that help you make your life sustainable. So we do everything from cleaning products, to gifts, to personal care, makeup, and all of that stuff. And all of our items are handmade with care. We vet all of the makers very carefully to make sure many of them are women owned. You appreciated that. We do have a lot of good feminine energy in the store, handmade items, natural ingredients, and none of the packaging is plastic. That’s our real benefit for the consumer is that you can come and shop and know that you’re doing good by the earth. You don’t really have to vet products because we’ve done that for you.

EMILY: And also the way that consumers can take some of the products teaches them about sustainability, right? [Mm-hmm.] Like if they’re gonna use some of your lotions or shampoos, they’re taking that home in an item they can come back with and refill. Right?

KAYLI: Yeah. Our refill station is the most exciting thing about our store, I would say. I don’t know if you got a chance to check it out, but I’m sure you saw it. So basically it’s all of these large glass bottles with pumps and people always get really interested. They’re like, ‘what is this? I’ve never seen this before.’ But the idea is that, when you buy something like a lotion or a shampoo, usually at the store you’re buying a big plastic container, then you’re using it and throwing it away. Well, we just reduce that life cycle to refill. So you get a nice bottle or you bring one from home, you refill it with a natural product, and then you come back and refill when you’re done.

EMILY: Lina, bring me back to that first elite event, and actually, let’s tell our listeners what elite events are. Give a little insight to these opportunities you get to go to because you are an Elite Yelper.

LINA: Okay, so Yelp Elite events are events where the community managers for different boroughs like Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, they arrange these events at local businesses along with Yelp to bring foot traffic to businesses. And through our reviews, we helped generate customers, new customers, that did not know about these businesses before. And we are able to partake in these services. They’ll shut it down. It’s a private event just for Yelp eliters, for us to partake in those businesses, and I love it. I try to go to as many as I can and I give honest reviews and I just love it.

EMILY: Well, and what I love about it is you go and you experience this business through the event or the elite experience, but then oftentimes you go back on your own. And I know you did go back on your own because you wrote a consumer review in addition to your event review. [Yes.] Can you read that for us?

LINA: Yes. I stumbled across this while attending a Yelp event, which was awesome, to support two women owned businesses. I love everything about this business. I purchased a few items, but it was so easy to lose yourself in the store and go overboard. I love how you can have your purchase poured into recycled reusable bottles, or you can purchase new ones.

Customer service is top notch. They are helpful and friendly. Earth & Me is pretty cool and the decor is beautiful.

EMILY: Five star, right?

LINA: Yes, five stars.

EMILY: You hit on so many things. What they’re selling, the vibe and interaction with the service that’s being provided. Tell me why those things are important to you as a consumer. What made that Earth & Me experience really pop when you were there?

LINA: Well, it was like a lot of things going on, but me, I’m a girly girl, so I love things that smell good. So walking into the store and just smelling the aroma was just so beautiful. I do purchase things in plastic to be honest, but to walk in the store that’s completely different than what I’m used to going into that’s what intrigued me. And then the refill station as Kayli stated, was just awesome. It was very unique. I’ve never seen a store like that. And it was very beautiful. I love the candles, the lotion I bought. I think I bought some candles. But I just love everything about the store.

EMILY: And I think Lina’s experience is probably in line with a lot of your customers. Maybe they’re not even aware of all the plastic and waste that they’re producing. How do you see education as a part of your role as a business owner?

KAYLI: Yeah. Well, I love what Lina said. You know, you’ve never seen a store like that because a lot of our customers are kind of in the same way. Like they may care about the planet and they may like to recycle or do some things, but they’re not, maybe familiar with all of the ways that you can reduce your waste. So to me it’s really exciting to just have people stumble upon the store like you did and have that exciting, wow factor. Not only is this good for the planet, but this is also really fun. It smells good, it’s good for me. That’s why I named the store Earth & Me because it’s like I’m doing good for the planet, but also good for myself.

EMILY: So Kayli, when you started Earth & Me, you just had one small pop up. How did you decide to make the jump to a full-blown brick and mortar store? I can imagine that’s scary.

KAYLI: It is really scary, especially in the aftermath of COVID, there’s a lot of risks that you undertake. But I will say people like you who come and check it out and are excited to tell people about it, really gave me the confidence to move forward because, yeah, it’s true because you. I had this idea and I loved it and I’m passionate about it, but if it doesn’t resonate with my community, then what’s the point? So having that early feedback from my pop-up markets and we had a smaller location before the one that you visited, getting that feedback was just so critical to me making that big move.

LINA: That’s amazing.

EMILY: Well, and you just mentioned a transition from a smaller spot to where you are now. Talk to me about that. I mean, just even the real estate and it can’t have been that long. I mean, we’re talking about the pandemic, which is a three year window, so [mm-hmm.] You’ve been moving and grooving.

KAYLI: It happened really fast. Yeah, it’s been a wild three years. But, I wanted to just do a small store, not a huge lease burden to get started. So I found a space that was an old cell phone store. It needed a lot of work. It was bright purple and our vibe is not very bright purple. It’s very earth tones and everything. So it needed a lot of work, but it was in my budget where I was comfortable with.

So we started out there and within the first month we had lines out the block and we could only have three or four people in the shop at a time. It was so tiny. It was like the size of this room almost. And so I knew right away, it’s a good time to expand.

And I happened to tour the location that we’re in now on Steinway, which is a very busy street. Lots of big box stores, lots of well-known brands, not a lot of small businesses as you may have seen. And so it felt like a big risk to do that. But, I went into the space. It was just bright and airy and the windows were so tall and it had a backyard. I dunno if you saw the backyard garden. [Yes.] But it had a, it wasn’t a garden at the time, but it was a backyard. And so I felt we could do a lot there with our community. So that’s how it happened.

EMILY: That’s awesome. And when you have something like in a community event, I mean, you need a gathering space for that. And it sounds like you all really got to move throughout, see the different areas. Tell me about how that may have impacted you when you’ve come back as a consumer. Do you go in and gravitate towards certain spots? You check out new things?

LINA: Yes. Yes. I loved the candle section and what also stood out to me during that first visit, where you could come home with a plant, the plant clippings area. That surprised me. Cuz I’m a plant mom. So when I saw that, I was like, how much is that? It was free. You didn’t, you really didn’t have to pay for that wow.

EMILY: You were just drawn in from all different areas. And I think that shows the breadth of what Earth & Me offers. Have you expanded into different areas? Did it start primarily as one thing?

KAYLI: Yeah, that’s a great question. So we started out just selling mostly personal care. So like your skincare, your bath, things like that, and some cleaning items. But pretty soon I realized if we really wanna be a zero waste business, we should be doing the refills. So that was, we got into shampoos, body wash, things like that when we moved to the new store we had all this space to play with.

So we introduced a woman-owned cafe inside the store. For a long time she sold gluten-free, healthy sorts of cookies and snacks, which were delicious, as I’m sure you haven’t forgotten.

We also introduced some really cool community programs. So we have the community garden in the back, which we’ve cultivated and planted, with a bunch of native plants that are good for pollinators and things like that. We also try to do a lot of community, free swapping programs. So we have the plant propagation wall where people can bring in cuttings of their plants from home and give or get a plant for free. People love that. It’s free. They’re like, it’s free, really? I’m like, yes, it’s free. We wanna share this with you.

We introduced a vintage clothing section, a vintage home goods section. And, just a lot more products, some food, spices, pastas, all in bulk. So, and we actually have since launched a second store last November, also in Queens, and we’re about to open our third location in Brooklyn next month.

EMILY: Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that.

KAYLI: Yep, yep. Wow. Fresh off the press. We just announced it.

EMILY: Yeah. Was expansion always a part of the plan?

KAYLI: No, no. I mean, I guess like in a part of my like soul, I was like, this would be so fun to just take this everywhere because like you’ve said, Lina, it really doesn’t exist very widely. And when you’re refilling, you’re bringing these glass bottles to the store. Probably gonna go two boroughs over to do that. So it really does have to be almost like a bodega model where it’s everywhere, it’s on every corner, everyone can refill. So that’s really become my mission with Earth & Me.

LINA: That’s amazing.

EMILY: That’s awesome. Yes. Okay. Lina, I wanna bring it back to you. You mentioned the customer service while you were there. Yes. Tell me about that and why that makes an impact at a business.

LINA: For me, customer service is everything. The business is important, and what the business offers. But customer service to me is very important. That sells your business. That makes me want to come back. I’m very strict on that wherever I go. I’m big on reviews and I’m big on customer service. I don’t care if it’s a shabby business, but if the customer service is good, I’m coming back to that business to give them another chance.

EMILY: Absolutely.

LINA: That’s me.

EMILY: And as a business owner who’s now expanding, and I mean sitting with me on a Tuesday. [Mm-hmm.] You obviously have a team. [Mm-hmm.] How do you build a team that can create these experiences for the consumers that are almost an extension of you?

KAYLI: So to me, having a team with good energy is everything. I Always pick people for the team that I start out just getting to know on a friendly basis. Like, let’s get coffee, let’s hear how much you care about sustainability personally. I really just want people who care and who like to make people feel welcome. And who understand, like you mentioned, we are in Queens for the most part. It’s a very big melting pot. You get people who are from all different backgrounds, different languages, and with different expectations of what we do and what we sell. And it’s just so important to us to just be just an open door and a friendly place to come into. [Mm-hmm.] So, The first and foremost thing that I look for with our team. [Mm-hmm.]

EMILY: For sure. Now, Lina, you review tons of places and you include a lot of information in your reviews. I always feel like you’re really educating people who are reading it, but what are the key things that you like to hit on? What motivates you? Like do you review every place or just stick to the ones that shine out with a great experience?

LINA: No, I take reviewing seriously. I review everywhere. A lot of the places that I tend to go to on my personal time, I look at the reviews before I go in that business. I take it very seriously with Yelp, with my reviews. I review everything.

I think that’s my way of giving back to the business owner because see, my dream is to become a business owner. So the same thing that I’m giving out to someone else, I would want them to give it back to me. So I believe in the energy that you put out, you get that energy back. I take it seriously, I don’t do negative reviews if I didn’t have a negative experience. I just don’t do that. I don’t like when people do that because the business owners rely on that stuff for you to be honest.

EMILY: Well, and also, you’re not very negative in general. I think, if anything, I would call it critical feedback [Yeah.] that you write. And it sounds like you always do it in a tone that is trying to help them not criticize that. [Yeah.]

LINA: Yeah. I’m big on that. Most of the time, sometimes at the end of my reviews that I’ll tell ’em, Hey, if you haven’t stopped by, what are you waiting for? Go stop by. [Mm-hmm.] Go patronize the business. I do reviews everywhere. Everywhere.

EMILY: I love it. Yeah. And how about you? I mean, you obviously get a lot of reviews. [Mm-hmm.] But you’re also a retailer, you know, we’re not dealing with huge volumes [Mm-hmm.] like maybe a busy restaurant. How do you approach your reviews? You read them, do you use them?

KAYLI: Yeah. Reviews are everything to me. Every time I get a review in, I’m like, ‘oh my gosh, what does it say?’ It’s kind of a giddy moment because you get that direct feedback with customers and you get to see what’s on the other side of someone, just with fresh eyes coming into this experience. So to me, I love getting reviews. We have generally tended to have really positive reviews. Sometimes you get one or two or someone was having a bad day or something goes wrong and it’s really scary and very emotional to have those reviews because this is like my baby. And so it’s like, oh my gosh, just please like my baby but they’re all learning experiences really.

EMILY: Is there a review that sticks out in your mind that you maybe didn’t agree with at first, but eventually just let it go? I could see being emotional or upset at first, but then in the end maybe something valuable came from it?

KAYLI: I think it’s interesting because with customer service, you always wanna meet people with what they expect and what they want. But everybody wants something different. So some people wanna come in and just don’t be bothered. They just wanna read all the labels and smell all the candles and just don’t really talk to me too much until I wanna check out. Some people want you to sell every single item to them and just be very engaged.

So we don’t always get that right because you’re always adapting on the go. And as a small business owner, I’m also unpacking inventory, doing marketing emails. So it’s hard sometimes to balance all of that. But I think, when I’ve had customers leave reviews that say, oh, I wanted more attention, I always try to take that and say, okay, next time I’m gonna knock that outta the park. So it definitely motivates me. Yeah.

EMILY: Something you mentioned early on was you wanna drive more foot traffic to businesses that you think are great, and you do that by spreading the word about them. [Yes.] Talk to me about beyond just writing the review, photos, social media, is there anything additional that you do to bolster what you’re sharing online?

LINA: Well, I do take a lot of photos. The photos are things I’m big on. I’ll take photos of everything to include because it’s one thing just to use your words, but people need to see visuals. You can talk, but if you show them visuals, some people just don’t hear by words. They need to see what it is that you’re talking about. So I always include my reviews with photos. That’s important.

EMILY: It’s so important. And I think a lot of consumers don’t think about that or sometimes we make fun of the friend that the camera eats first. [Right, right.] Like, gotta take pictures of the food before you dig in. [That’s me.] Well, and let me also say like, That’s a way to help you write a review later. [Yes.] Help you remember. [Yes.]

And for a store like Earth & Me, photos are very impactful. [Mm-hmm.] Especially if you’ve never been to a business like this. [Yes. Mm-hmm.] You gotta know what it looks like. Totally. Talk to me a little bit about for you, obviously foot traffic matters, but you have a digital element to your business as well.

KAYLI: Yeah, so social media is our huge touchpoint with our customers. So we have over 11,000 people on Earth & Me that we connect with to share things about social justice and environmental justice, things they can do, sign petitions, street tree care, like so many things you can get involved in. So we try to keep that conversation open with people and then we’re always sharing about our new products and how to use things cuz a lot of the items are novel and new to people and unfamiliar. So I’m always trying to get behind explaining how things work and seeing it in action. So social media to us is just, it’s really everything to our business.

EMILY: Yeah. Something you also mentioned in the beginning was, Being a woman owned business stood out to you, you really liked that and gravitated towards that.

LINA: Yes. So when I found out that it was woman owned, I was all for it. Nothing against men. [Mm-hmm.] But I believe that women, we need to stick together. With the Yelp Elite, That was included in the description of the event. So I was like, yeah, I’m putting in for this. This is exciting.

I’m big on support. Anybody that knows me, I’m that person. I’m your biggest supporter. Even if Kayli doesn’t know me, I’ll support your business.

EMILY: Yeah. And something that I think is so crucial here is your enthusiasm matches the business’ enthusiasm. [Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.] To be there. [Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.] And that’s what makes a pair. [Yes. Right.] And I know for you, Kayli, it’s important to be women owned and support other women in the store. [Mm-hmm. Yep.] Talk to me about how your identity comes through in your business.

KAYLI: That’s a great question. Being a woman-owned business is, it’s so important to me to use that space to really elevate women in our community who are doing the work. Other women-owned businesses, women-owned artists, makers, and so yeah, it’s a diverse community. It’s not just women, of course, but it’s led by women for sure. Yeah. That’s very important to me.

EMILY: Earth & Me is not just a standalone. I mean, the amount of partnerships and collaborations. And even businesses that you have in your business. Is more than the average collaborating business, I would say. Talk to me about why being a part of your community is important and how that really enriches what you’re doing in your own walls.

KAYLI: Yeah, totally. I mean, we are just one piece of this puzzle of sustainability and we couldn’t do what we did without vendors and makers who care about the planet and like the ingredients they use and the handmade items, and they’re just attention to giving back to their own communities. So we source from people all across the country. We do local as much as we can, but with every person that we work with as a partner, we just, we wanna share that same spirit for sustainability.

EMILY: To close us out, I wanna talk a little bit more about this continued relationship between being a consumer and having a business. And even though the two of you maybe didn’t know each other or meet before today, you were cheering her on [Yeah.] before you had met her. Why for you, as a consumer and a reviewer, is that a part of your day to day? Like, why should we encourage other consumers to behave that way? What motivates you?

LINA: What motivates me is just life. I just love life and I love every aspect of life. And I just believe the world will be a better place and we just continue to support each other. We can’t get ahead without support. Support is key for everything. I just love what I do. And I love it because most of the time with a lot of my reviews, a lot of business owners reach out to me. They’re like, thank you so much, for a great review. And it means the world to me. You know that they saw that and they acknowledged it, so

EMILY: That’s such a good point. And it makes an impact on other consumers, I mean, When we look at businesses, cuz we’re wanting to find a place to go and we see the business responds. That makes them seem trustworthy. [Yes. Yes.] How about from your perspective, Kayli? How do you show up online in a way that continues this relationship and this cycle between someone walking in the store and staying in touch or coming back?

KAYLI: I think online is really important, but it’s also just being able to say it with you and say, thank you, Lina, for making such a great, an attempt. Not attempt. A true, successful effort to promote my business. [You’re welcome.] It means the world to me and to other small business owners, and we don’t always get the chance to in person say that back to you. But I do try to respond to as many reviews as I can just from the bottom of my heart, say, thank you for supporting my dream.

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