“Elegance and class without the high prices!” That’s the selling point of the newest Ballet Boutique in a spanking new shopping center in downtown Doral, FL, a fast-growing city near Miami. Entering the spacious store is like walking into a theater. A 4 1/2–foot rosy pink moiré satin curtain hangs from the high ceiling, and five delicate chandeliers light the stage. Behind the curvaceous white checkout desk straight ahead sits owner Gabriela Martinez, who does much of the pointe shoe fitting herself at her two stores in Florida and three in Mexico. To scale the brand, she has also sold a franchise—her first—in Veracruz.
The secret to her success? “Desperation,” Martinez says, with a rueful smile. When a divorce left her with three boys to support, her earnings from teaching ballet didn’t cover her expenses. So she began to visit ballet studios in her native Yucatan Peninsula to sell pointe shoes from the back of her old car.
Decades of performing and teaching ballet made her sensitive to the plight of dancers suffering from poorly fitted shoes. “It’s a myth that ballet has to cause pain and destroy your feet,” she says.
Winning customers with well-fitted shoes, Martinez soon closed her ballet school and devoted herself to the art and science of pointe shoe fitting. Her university studies in business helped, and a higher degree in marine biology inspired her to take a scientific approach. “I have over 4,000 charts so I can track individual customers’ histories,” she says. “My stores carry all the major brands of pointe shoes and keep a huge inventory, more than 600 pairs, in stock.”
At the barre where she fits the dancers, there’s a sign stating that she charges $30 for the fitting if the customer doesn’t buy the shoes. But, she notes, this has never actually happened. The attention to customer service may explain why. “I’ll open the store for teachers at 8:30 am. I want every customer to leave satisfied,” she says.
Martinez recently lectured on fitting methods at the Florida Dance Education Organization, and she trains employees, and now franchise owners, in fitting technique, including padding selection, which she feels is as important as the shoes themselves.
Dance moms are her best source of customers. “If a girl is dancing in pain and I fit her, both she and her mom stop crying,” she says. “The word of mouth spreads fast.”
It was the cost of pointe shoes that inspired Martinez to open her first U.S. store in South Miami. “Because pointe shoes are not manufactured in Mexico, I need to pay for them in dollars, so to have enough margin to grow, I need to earn dollars,” she says. She had a rough start when a couple of Miami landlords refused to lease her prime locations because she was Mexican.
Once the South Miami store was profitable, she cast her net to Doral, a growing community with a large Venezuelan population. “It’s home to young two-income families who want their kids in cultural activities, to be well-rounded. I was the new girl in town, so when I opened the store, I visited 30 dance schools in the area.”
To help combat prejudice and establish her image, she framed dozens of large photos of herself performing and posing with star dancers from august companies, such as American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Cuba and Paris Opéra Ballet. “I don’t have photos in my stores in Mexico,” she says. “There everybody knows me.”
Martinez pulls out a stack of pretty handwritten thank-you notes ready to be mailed out to the dance teachers she’d met with. “Small details count,” she says.
So does giving back, through simple things like volunteering to put the dancers’ hair in buns before a recital and contributing to schools’ silent auctions. There is also a Ballet Boutique scholarship award in the U.S. and in Mexico. A public art school chooses a ballet student who is very talented, has good grades in school and is struggling financially. The prize is all dance attire for a year. In the U.S., the award is presented by the head of the Mexican consulate.
Martinez planned the award program with her three sons, now all professionals. Her youngest works for her on Saturdays and travels with her to Mexico, where she goes every other week. And she’s now been remarried for a year, to a banker who helped her with her first U.S. store.
Not Just Pointe Shoes
Six months after opening, the Doral store is covering rent and payroll, and business is expected to double or triple soon. While pointe and other dance shoes are the main profit center, each store—which has its own manager in charge—adapts to the local market.
In South Miami, a lot of the customers are gymnasts. In Doral, there is more interest in flamenco and ballroom dance. Martinez works with the teachers to design and choose fabrics for flamenco costumes, which she manufactures in a small factory in Mexico. “Flamenco skirts need artistry for the ruffling and can be very expensive and are not found easily online.” The factory also makes Ballet Boutique’s own brand of ballet slippers, jazz shoes and flamenco shoes.
At the Doral shop, dance uniforms can be embroidered with the schools’ names. In February, the store window was full of warm-up booties, another popular item. She carries racks of fancy tutus for ballerinas-to-be, which are mainly purchased by grandmothers. And there was a big stuffed dog in a tutu and hair bows sitting on a tiny chair outside the store.
For the sheer pleasure of it, Martinez teaches a baby ballet class for 2- and 3-year-olds early Saturday mornings in the store’s small studio. Her goal is simply to instill a love of ballet. And,
of course, by inspiring very young dancers and their mothers, she hopes
to see them back as customers for years to come.
Ronni Sandroff, an award-winning writer and editor, now covers artistic events and practitioners in southern Florida.
Store hours: Monday–Friday, 10–8; Saturday, 10–5
Store size: 1,600 square feet
Number of employees: 1 full-time, 2 part-time
Typical number of customer visits each day: 20
Busiest time of day: the half-hour before closing
Busiest time of year: August and September
Typical customer: 10- to 18-year-olds, although the store serves 3-year-olds through adults
Average purchase: $100 for pointe shoes and accessories; $30 otherwise
Best-selling brands: MolMar flamenco dance shoes and skirts
Most successful promotion: Early-bird special: Come in your PJs before the store opens and get 20 percent off pointe shoes. “There was a whole line of girls in pajamas; they looked so cute. I asked them to share their pictures, and the one whose friends gave her the most likes won a huge bag of dance merchandise.”
Biggest competition: Online discounters. “But customers often have a bad experience, so in a way it helps our stores,” says Martinez.
Photography by Mayra Roubach