Vacant Old Building Inspires New Entrepreneurs’ 3 Dream Businesses

Susan and Brittni Blaser, founders of Casa Di Vite in Excelsior Springs, Missouri.

Vacant Old Building Inspires New Entrepreneurs’ 3 Dream Businesses

When Susan Blaser, 61, noticed a 4,800-square-foot historic stone building for sale in downtown Excelsior Springs, Missouri, she immediately saw potential for a business … well to be accurate, three businesses. Although the space had been vacant for over 30 years, Susan thought the former funeral home would be perfect for an intimate wedding and event space.

“My husband and I live on a 25-acre farm with a barn,” Susan says. “We’ve had large family get-togethers, weddings and murder mystery parties there. I love entertaining, so it made sense to use that interest to build a business.”

A budding business

In December 2019, Susan and her daughter Brittni Blaser embarked on an adventure to turn the dormant property into Casa Di Vite, a trio of businesses that includes a cozy international wine cafe on one side, an intimate wedding and event space on the other and an Airbnb upstairs.

“Brittni got the inspiration for the wine cafe from studying abroad in Italy,” Susan says. “I visited her there and fell in love with the laid-back culture. We originally had the upstairs as an event space, but there’s such a lodging shortage in Excelsior Springs that we decided to turn it into an Airbnb.”

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Susan retired from her 21-year career with Kansas City Power & Light in 2008. As the first woman journeyman lineman in Missouri, she was inducted into the International Lineman’s Hall of Fame in 2021. In addition to running Casa Di Vite, Susan works three days a week as the lineman program coordinator at Metropolitan Community College.

Despite her impressive professional background, Susan wasn’t experienced in owning a business. To get Casa Di Vite off the ground, she reached out to Downtown Excelsior Partnership, Inc., an organization formed by local businesses, individuals and building owners to revitalize downtown and shape the future of Excelsior Springs. She also connected with the City of Excelsior Springs’ economic development division, which empowers aspiring entrepreneurs to navigate the complexities of starting and expanding their ventures through personalized support and strategic partnerships.

“If you’re going to start a business, the best thing to do is get involved with your chamber of commerce and city officials,” Susan says. “They can help you learn a lot about grants and other resources. I got a lot of support and feedback on how to do things from the Downtown Excelsior Springs Partnership and the city’s economic development team.”

Lessons along the way

Melinda Mehaffy, economic development director for the city of Excelsior Springs, says Susan’s journey with Casa Di Vite should serve as a powerful lesson for aspiring entrepreneurs across all industries.

“Her story demonstrates that it’s never too late to pursue a passion or embark on a new entrepreneurial venture, even if it diverges from one’s previous career path,” Melinda says. “By embracing change and boldly transitioning into a new field, Susan showcases the limitless potential for personal and professional growth. Her willingness to seek guidance and assemble a capable team underscores the importance of humility and collaboration in entrepreneurship.”

Brittni wrote a detailed business plan, which enabled her and her mother to get loans from the U.S. Small Business Administration and Community of Missouri Bank. An American Rescue Plan Act grant paid for Casa Di Vite’s railings and exterior sign.

“Be prepared with your plan and all your documentation when you ask for funding,” Susan says. “Always ask for more money than you think you need because it’s easier not to spend the money than to run out and not have enough there. Building your business’s reputation and getting it to a good spot will likely take three years. You need to have a cushion of money to stick it out.”

Casa Di Vite exterior
Casa Di Vite

Navigating a transformation that honors the past

Rehabilitation was necessary to get Casa Di Vite ready for the public. The stone exterior and red roof were repaired, the structure was stabilized and all new mechanical, electrical and plumbing services were installed along with accessibility updates.

To manage expenses, Susan worked with Rosin Preservation in Kansas City, Missouri, to get historic tax credit expertise and accurately anticipate the time, costs and hurdles required to rehabilitate the building to fit her vision while still respecting the past. In 2023, Missouri Preservation recognized Casa Di Vite with an Honor Award.

“We didn’t change much on the inside, and I didn’t want to touch anything outside,” Susan says. “I was willing to keep everything required to get historic tax credits, which made the process easy.”

Shopping on Facebook marketplace and in secondhand and thrift stores saved Susan money on furniture and accessories.

“I didn’t spend much money on new furniture,” Susan says. “I recycled things that had the look I wanted. I couldn’t justify going out and buying new tables and chairs when there’s a ton of nice things on Facebook that are much more affordable.”

Although the project was ultimately successful, Susan encountered challenges such as having to fire contractors and discovering there was no waterline in the building when construction was nearly complete.

“If you’re going to purchase a building, ask a lot of questions and look at the property at least three times because every time you go in, you’re going to see something different and something’s going to come up,” Susan says. “Have someone else come with you to notice things you might not see.”

Connecting with a community and moving ahead

Building a support system is critical for any entrepreneur. Susan acknowledges the importance of her network, from her certified public accountant to her family, friends and other small business owners in town.

“I ask for help a lot,” Susan says. “The business community here is close-knit. Everyone knows each other, and we help each other. I reach out to people for advice and to kick ideas around. Also, I can’t afford to hire employees yet, so I rely on my family and a friend to help me run the place when things get busy.”

Two years after opening Casa Di Vite, Susan has figured out how to run her business most effectively. She’s embraced technology, using Google Ads, social media and the business’ website as her primary marketing tools. Susan uses Canva, an online graphic design tool, to develop advertising materials and Square, a business technology platform, to track her inventory, sales and taxes.

To enhance her skills as an entrepreneur, Susan takes advantage of free online classes available through Mid-Continent Public Library’s Square One Small Business Services program. She’s also invested in learning more about wine to provide the best experience for her guests.

“I’ve hand-selected and tasted every wine I sell,” Susan says. “I know what they pair well with. I was flying by the seat of my pants at first, but I don’t think anybody can be 100% prepared when they open something up because there will always be a learning curve. Thankfully, my customers were patient.”

The bar at Casa Di Vite
The bar at Casa Di Vite

Getting tactical

Another hallmark of Susan’s success is her ability to create a welcoming and engaging environment for her customers. She decorates Casa Di Vite’s patio with pleasing flowers to encourage people to hang out and relax with a glass of wine when the weather is pleasant. She also offers wine tastings, a customer loyalty program, holiday parties, a weekly chess club, psychic readings and more.

“Doing things nobody else is doing will give you a leg up and keep people coming back,” Susan says. “Excelsior Springs has four wineries but no options for international wines. Many people here are looking for something different. I’ve had an opportunity to introduce them to wines they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.”

With the wine bar doing well, Susan has big plans for the future. This year, she wants to focus more on growing the wedding and AirBnB aspects of Casa Di Vite. She is also working with her son to renovate a 1924 hotel in downtown Excelsior Springs. The boutique accommodations will feature the work of local artists in each suite.

“I like to keep busy with projects, and I want to leave these businesses to my kids for additional income into their retirement years after my husband and I are gone,” Susan says. “I’m having fun and making great friends. It’s fulfilling to contribute to the community’s economic growth and quality of life.”

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