Play Money: Online toy retailer wins $30K grant

TRAVERSE CITY – The owner of an online retailer of children's green and natural toys has a "grown-up" problem: How to keep accommodating her businesses' continual growth.

Sheri Novak, owner of Hazelnut Kids, recently received the National Association for the Self-Employed's 2008 Achievement Award, which included a $30,000 grant. Hazelnut Kids was chosen out of 23 applicants nationwide for its excellent small business practices and contribution to the community.

As a member of the NASE, Novak first received a $5,000 business development grant in May 2007. She used the funds to move her business from her home to a warehouse at 807 Airport Access and to purchase office and warehouse equipment. This allowed her to focus on marketing and to stock inventory, which tripled the business in less than one year. The impact made on her business prompted the NASE to select her for the second grant of $30,000.

"When they called to tell me that Hazelnut Kids had won the Achievement Award, I was floored! It came at a great time (again), as we were already outgrowing our new space and needed to invest a lot of money in keeping up with the growth of the company and in continuing to grow the company through new marketing avenues," says Novak.

In 2003, Novak and her husband gave up big-city life to live closer to nature – Traverse City. Now with two sons, Michael (7) and Ryan (4), Novak says that living here has strengthened their commitment to caring for the environment, which led to choosing products for Hazelnut Kids that are safe for children as well as for the planet. (Husband Kirk is owner of The Northern Angler on Union Street in downtown Traverse City.)

All of the toys offered are created by companies that follow strict safety standards. The web site includes a brief synopsis on each of these companies.

"I decided to create a natural children's toy store because they were the type of toys that I bought for my sons – toys made of natural, non-toxic materials (not plastic) and that did not have lights and sounds – and I wanted other families to have better access to these toys," says Novak.

A few things you find on her site: organic toys for children and babies, such as cotton-stuffed animals, Waldorf dolls, wooden toys, natural baby toys, wooden play kitchens, organic dolls and beeswax art materials.

Some toys may seem pretty basic, but without batteries and plastic parts, they allow for a more creative experience, she said. "Children who grow up using their imaginations rather than pressing a button on a battery-operated toy and waiting to see what it does, become adults who can dream and create and who aren't anxiously rushing from activity to activity trying to figure out what to do with themselves."

Hazelnut Kids donates one percent of sales to land conservancies, and for every item purchased, one tree is planted by Trees for the Future. They provide gift wrapping with recycled and recyclable wrapping paper.

Hazelnut Kids' pick-up spot is at 807 Airport Access Rd. (at Parsons). Local residents can waive shipping fees by placing orders online and picking them up at the new location. Visit www.hazelnutkids.com or call 888-869-1901. BN

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