Kevin Smith is moved by the moment when he makes the plunge into a smallbusiness
venture. Selling turkey tenders at fair and festival concessions helped
launch him on a trail entrepreneurial conquests. Photo by Kent Darr
Kevin Smith is moved by the moment when he makes the plunge into a smallbusiness venture. Selling turkey tenders at fair and festival concessions helped launch him on a trail entrepreneurial conquests. Photo by Kent Darr

Kevin Smith makes no bones about it: "I've always been pretty lucky at spotting a dollar."

That's as in "a dollar to be made."

For the last 19 years, a good many of those dollars have been turned in the form of grilled turkey drumsticks and tenders (that sweet white meat near the wishbone).

Smith doesn't talk just turkey. He is a model of small business diversification, operating a variety of food and drink concessions, leasing and selling "construction condos," operating a vineyard, even providing the beer truck at Des Moines-area concerts and other events.

He doesn't follow a business plan, never has, probably never will. He spots an opportunity and responds this way: "Shoot, I can do this."

Smith and his wife, Jane, started Turkey Time concessions in 1989 after brief stints as an over-the-road trucker and, later, as an owner-operator. He counts ownership of his own trucking company as his only business failure.

"I got out of that in a hurry," he said.

But with one thing leading to another as it so often does, Smith sold his trucks and used a spare $12,000 to buy an 8-by-12-foot concession stand, a pickup truck to pull it and some food preparation equipment. And he spotted an item that was missing from fair and festival foods: turkey. Grilled turkey to be precise.

"Back in 1989, nobody was selling turkey tenders," Smith said. "It used to be that you had to have a deep fryer to run a concession. We used to promote ourselves as the healthy alternative."

Turkey, he says, "has come a long way" since then. For one thing, turkey legs were 50 cents a pound in 1989; the going price today is about $2 a pound.

Smith got the idea to enter the concessionaire trade after working for a friend who ran a food stand.

"He warned me that we could never do this fulltime," Smith said. But, after 19 years, "it's been very good to us."

Smith is a fixture at the Iowa State Fair. In addition to Turkey Time, he operates concessions selling strawberry smoothies, strawberry shortcake and chocolate-dipped strawberries, not to mention Kettle Korn and the wine tent for the Iowa Wine Growers Association. The Pork Palace provides grilled pork loin sandwiches at the Drake Relays and the state high school track meet. Strawberry Smoothies show up again at Wells Fargo Arena, Veterans Memorial Auditorium and Iowa State University's Jack Trice Stadium and Hilton Coliseum.

He recently launched Cold Beer Here after finding out that the beer vendor at local events was a company out of Colorado. "I told the promoters, "I can do this,'" Smith said. He bought a semitrailer, worked with Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. in its design, and sold 31 kegs of beer during Des Moines' cold and rainy St. Patrick's Day festivities.

Smith's business outlook goes beyond food and drink.

He operates State Fair Storage at 203 S.E. 34th St., where he rents parking and storage space for events at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, including the state fair. He manufactured neon signs before selling the business.

In 2003, Smith planted one acre of grapes after reading about a lack of production for the state's native wine industry.

"When I opened that first box of grape vines, all I saw was what I thought were dead sticks," Smith said. "I thought I'd really been "slickered.' Well, we put them in the ground and they grew."

Smith now manages eight acres of grape vines at Middle River Vineyards near Carlisle. He sells to Jasper Winery, which will open Des Moines' first winery in late summer after operating the last five years in Newton.

Mike White, a viticulture specialist for the Iowa State University Extension Service, has watched Middle River Vineyard grow into a model operation, one that he includes on vineyard tours with prospective grape growers.

Instinct led Smith into another venture. In 2005, he teamed up with a business partner to buy land from Knapp Properties Inc. in the Metro East Business Park in Pleasant Hill. The partner, Karl Anderson, suggested selling storage space to owners of camping trailers. Smith nixed the idea.

"I know campers and I couldn't see them spending money on that," said Smith, a camper himself.

Then the idea struck to sell "construction condos" to contractors and other small business owners who couldn't afford a full-blown office and storage complex. "I said "I'm in.'"

Smith and Anderson, operating as Andersmith LLC, launched Pro Condos, a 16-unit facility, with each 1,250-square-foot unit selling for a base price of $70,000. The units have water, sewer and electrical connections, but buyers are responsible for final build-out, though Smith can provide that service, too.

Bud Stinde bought a unit for his company, Controlled Access Corp., which designs industrial and commercial security systems.

Stinde said he suffered sticker shock when looking for a new location for the business, with price tags for abandoned gasoline stations and other small buildings in the $250,000 to $500,000 range.

"There was nothing feasible in my price range without doing a major remodeling," Stinde said. He put his business in storage until coming across Pro Condos. With three employees, Stinde said he now has all the room he needs.

Smith said he has another seven units left to sell in the original building and recently received approval for a second 16-unit structure.

What's next? Smith says he'll know another business opportunity when he sees it.

"I've never had a business plan to anything I've ever done," Smith said. "I have a vision."

Getting rid of what bugs us

Spring has sprung, and you know what that means. It's time to consider the mole.

Using little more than very active webbed feet, it virtually swims along below the surface of tidy lawns searching for its favorite food, the earthworm, and causing lots of alarm to lawn owners.

Aaron Steen is a hunter of moles. In fact, he is a hunter of bugs and beasts that cause alarm to a great many people. Some cause bodily harm, such as recluse spiders and the occasional rabid bat. Others, such as termites and carpenter ants, can cause costly property damage.

And others, well, they're just pests.

Steen knows them all. He is the owner, one-man crew and marketing arm of Smart Pest Solutions, an exterminating company that is in its first full year of operation.

A quick glance at a Des Moines business directory suggests that the young entrepreneur entered a crowded field of bug killers. He competes against at least 40 other pest-control companies, some that carry nationally recognized names.

"There are a ton of pest companies out there," Steen said. "It's probably not worth it for me to be in the phone book. For me, it's all referrals and word of mouth."

He is not intimidated by the competition. This is a man, after all, who rid an Illinois home of bats after a young girl stepped on one, thinking it was a toy, and had to undergo rabies vaccinations. He is certified by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to live-trap critters that get too close for human comfort. He is also certified to use the chemicals necessary to eradicate the termites, spiders, beetles and other bugs that cause discomfort.

Steen borrowed about $30,000 to buy sprayers, a truck, chemicals and traps. He didn't spend a lot of money on advertising. Instead, he spent about five months prior to making a full-time commitment to the business just letting people know about his plans.

"I do a lot of networking," Steen said. "My brother gave me a list of people when I started. I called and said, "Can I have coffee with you?' Referral networking has been great. Sometimes I would just get a few people together and go meet for supper."

He said that approach might work better with a certain age group.

"I think it's more for the younger generation," Steen said.

His word-of-mouth approach has resulted in a client list of 80 customers who get a year's worth of pest-control treatments for around $350. Animal trapping is extra, as is termite control.

Steen wasn't a complete novice entering the business world, but neither is he a natural-born entrepreneur. He graduated from Minnesota State University with a degree in resource management and later worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Saylorville Lake. He also worked for another pest-control company before striking out on his own.

He has tapped his family for business advice. His father, Tom, is a venture capitalist who owns Transition Capital Management in West Des Moines. His brother, Adam, and sister, Hannah, work with their father, providing the rapid-networking, frequent-blogging approach that seems to turn heads among younger entrepreneurs. They are both preparing to launch small businesses.

It is an approach Aaron Steen has applied to his business. His "Thursday Thoughts" blog at www.smartpestsolutions.com carries observations about his quarry, including "flies and priests can enter any house," "even good dogs have fleas" and "where there are girls there are no spiders."

The Web site also offers insight into Steen's business services and descriptions and photographs of the various bugs and beasts that pester us.

Steen brings another element to his business. He likes to talk about bugs. Termites interest him, as do citrus flies. Around people, he is affable and chatty, qualities that would qualify him as a "people person."

Those qualities, plus a desire to provide a needed service and to do work that shows fairly immediate results, could give him an advantage against his larger competitors.

"This fits him, fits his personality, fits his passion," Tom Steen said. After a career helping people accumulate wealth, he noted that he would begin advising people to follow a business path that suits their personality and interests.

"If I had to mentor anybody else, I'd say let's make sure that you're doing what you want to do," he said.

So it was that on a rainy spring day, Aaron Steen was following a mole path along an otherwise well-kept Warren County lawn. The critters are most active in spring and fall, and this mole was impersonating a subterranean plow in its search for worms.

Steen was hoping to trick it into eating a poison-laced morsel that bore a startling resemblance to gummi worms candy. He poked holes in the mud with a piece of rebar, stuck the poison strip in the hole and marked the spot with a white flag, where he would return later to find out whether the mole had made its final surrender.

He noted that the rain could lead to an increase in business.

"This rain will bring out the termites and carpenter ants," he said. Work should be so much fun.