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Kayli Kunkel, founder of Earth & Me / Photography by Adeline Artistry

From Pop-Up to Permanent: a Zero-Waste Shop Plants Roots

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | In Queens, an eco-friendly lifestyle store is growing into a community gathering spot and small business incubator. Published: November 16, 2021

Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday. Thanks for reading!

Hi everyone,

This week, I’m featuring Earth & Me, a zero-waste lifestyle shop in Astoria, Queens that opened during the pandemic. Launched by Kayli Kunkel, an ex-marketing professional who lost her desk job due to COVID-related layoffs, the store is a testament to the unexpected opportunities that upheaval can create. Kayli is by no means an anomaly; I did the math, and roughly one-third of the 75 businesses I’ve featured thus far opened after March 2020. This isn’t to dismiss COVID’s enduring devastation — Debbie Downer that I am, I firmly believe that the net impact is negative — but evidently, it has also created conditions for some especially springy entrepreneurs to take up space. In fact, research shows that constraints can engender innovation and creativity (to a point, of course!). After speaking with Kayli and others like her, I’m ruminating on what constitutes a fruitful constraint, and how much it depends on the stories we tell ourselves about the limitations we’re up against. I don’t have the answers, but maybe you do? Keep reading for my conversation with Kayli.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What motivated you to launch Earth & Me?
I opened Earth & Me around the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Prior to that, I was a marketing director at a tech-adjacent company, but I was let go. The nature and timing of that, combined with living in the middle of a social and racial justice moment in the country and being in lockdown in New York City, created this perfect storm for me to evaluate what I was doing and my values. I was reading books on how to make my own things at home while trying to shop from small businesses and small makers as much as possible, especially Black- and women-owned businesses, because they were really struggling at the time, and still are. I was seeing a lot of PPE littered around the city, and the city was cutting budgets for things like compost. One result of that, especially in my neighborhood in Queens, was a surge of community programs, compost organizations, and mutual aid. It was unfortunate that the city was not able to provide those programs and resources, but I was really inspired that my neighbors took those on. It felt like a good moment to get into it, so that's how it started.

How did you turn the inspiration into a bonafide business?
An awful lot of research. It’s important to me that the products I sell hit a lot of different check marks: one, sustainable packaging; two, ingredients that are as natural as possible; and three, the people who actually make them — is it a person based in the country or locally within New York State who I could get to know? I also want to prioritize women and women of color. I reached out to folks on Etsy and Instagram and started to build relationships with about two dozen small batch makers. I didn't have a physical space [at first] — it was COVID, so there were a lot of vacancies, but no one was able to shop retail — so I started out as an online business; thankfully, my marketing background paid me some favors with launching a website and an Instagram account. Pretty early on, I did a fundraiser for Astoria Pug, which is a local grassroots composting group. I designed a sustainable tote bag for them and donated half the proceeds to their operations, which was a good way to get into the community right away. I was doing deliveries locally on my bike. My one-bedroom apartment was filling up with boxes ... I was popping up at different local businesses and the reception in the community was really good, so I took the leap of getting a small retail space in Astoria. After 10 months there, we were running out of space, especially in our refill station, so that encouraged me to move to a bigger store. We opened the Steinway location on September 15th.

What are your core products?
We have two different areas of the store. One is retail, which encompasses personal care and cleaning products, gifts, and some clothing, all of which are made consciously. We also have a few businesses that are semi-permanently popped up in our store: LE and LO Goods, which sells vintage clothing, and Belles & Whistles, which is vintage home goods. Secondly, we have the refill station where you bring your own containers. We have a growing selection of dry shelf staples like pastas, beans, spices, teas, coffee beans, and we also have cleaning and personal care refills. We have a cafe in the store, too, run by my good friend, Danielle. We first met in a parking lot on Halloween last year — we were both popping up there. With all the space in this new store, I asked her if she'd like to sell treats, and now she’s independently operating her brand, Eat Well with Danielle, inside.

IMG 2668 A selection of inventory at Earth & Me / Photography by Kayli Kunkel

Have you had any pandemic-related supply chain issues?
Absolutely. Last year, it was especially tight around the holidays. We opened our [first] store on December 10th, and we were really lucky that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez came on opening weekend. I had no idea she was coming, but she came, bought some things, and then she promoted it on her Instagram, which has millions of followers. The demand was high, but the supply chain problems were really tough. I've been seeing some memes saying, “Shop local because you won't have supply chain issues,” but that's not true, because even small local businesses need their supplies and not everything is made locally, like jars, containers, closures, and some raw ingredients. It was a lot better this year than last year, but I think we’ll see some issues getting into the holidays. What I see a lot of small businesses advising people, and what I will echo, is to shop early.

Your new location has a beautiful garden; what are your plans for that space?
It's a public space: day to day, folks are coming and going, bringing books, drinking coffee, taking phone calls, and coming with their kids. For the few months that we've been open this fall, we’ve tested out a variety of events to see what resonates with people … but it's about to get a little too cold for outdoor events, so come springtime, we’ll do more robust programming. We've had local artists and performers present work, we had a reading, and we've done educational workshops around plant medicine. I'd like to make sustainability-focused events a primary focus. We recently launched “Community Climate Hour,” where folks can come for free and learn for an hour about what's going on in local legislation around climate and waste [issues] and share snacks and drinks. We have a long list of suggested events that I'm going to try, like sustainable crafting, clothing swaps, and kid’s events.

How would you describe your local community of small business owners?
We have a really open and supportive group. On that note, I'll do a little plug for QNS Collaborative, which is a group that I was part of starting with around 10 neighbors in the creative community. Right now, we’re popping up and sharing space at the old Earth & Me location. Our whole motto is community over competition — it’s a co-op, so everybody helps run the store and we all support and uplift each other. The more one of us grows, the more all of us grow. We do events together, like the Shop Small Astoria retail crawl, which is organized by the owner of The Brass Owl, a long-standing business in Astoria [editorial note: the fall retail crawl will be held November 26 - 29].

Does it feel like the pandemic has pushed people to consume more sustainably?
There are a lot of things going on — some are really positive, and some are more concerning. We saw a lot of hoarding during the pandemic, which I would say is a negative, because it's not getting to the heart of supporting your neighbors and your community, which is how we get through these crises. A positive [shift] is that we have realized that our neighbors are the people who are there to take care of us and the people we depend on in a life or death way. I think that has affected people's willingness to shop local and support small businesses. Another wonderful thing that happened when everybody was locked down was people started developing new creative passion projects, which many have turned into small businesses. A lot of our vendors are people who just started doing what they're doing last year. Danielle, the baker at our store, began baking last year — though you'd never know it because her stuff is absolutely unreal. My hope is that sustainability is not just a trend towards buying things that are able to be recycled and reused and refilled, but one that is also [about] buying local. I think COVID and some of the [supply] shortages were a good wake-up call for us about that.

What’s your advice to people who want to live more sustainably, but don’t know where to begin?
I always advise people to start small. If you’re interested in making your habits more environmentally conscious, take an audit of all the areas where you are producing waste and set some goals. Maybe it's just your kitchen; you could swap out plastic sponges for something natural like a loofah. Or maybe you just refill your shampoo and conditioner. All of those little steps really do add up, while also getting you more in tune with the issues at hand so that you can be an advocate for good climate policy.

What's next?
This holiday season will be really cool because we've expanded to many different makers and product categories that I'm excited for people to come see and to gift. I hope the gifting of small batch items from our store starts conversations like, “I got this at a small business and it was made by this individual whose name I know, and it's sustainable ..." I’m also really excited for the spring, when we’ll have more events and chances to gather. I'm not sure what comes next; I don't have a grand vision, because we just expanded and I'm still wrapping my arms around it. But I would love to open more stores or do more consulting for folks who want to open stores in their own neighborhoods.

How to help:

  • Visit the shop at 3038 Steinway St in Queens (open Tues - Sun, 11 a.m. - 7 p.m.)
  • Shop online
  • Follow on IG

Until next time,

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor

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