Apr 29, 2022
GREEN, Ohio — Inside Celeste Brown's automated retail machines, you'll find chargers, umbrellas, her own brand of eyelashes, first aid kits, toiletries, and Play-Doh along with some jerky and honey from local companies. Brown, of Akron, got into the business after noticing similar machines from model Kylie Jenner at other U.S. airports.
"During my research, I found that it's a growing industry, gonna grow by $9 billion by 2024," Brown said.
Brown created Defining Enterprises and recently put two Defining Essentials machines—which also have advertising capability—inside Akron Canton Airport as part of a new business catalyst program aimed at helping minority-owned businesses get noticed.
It's the first company to be showcased through the idea. The exposure and the opportunity mean a lot to Brown.
"Sometimes you go to traditional banks and you feel like there are so many ramifications to get started. The airport, in this opportunity, kind of took away those struggles," she said.
And for now, at least, the price is right.
Rent is just $1 per 30 days for the first 180 days. After that, Brown has the option of entering into a more traditional concession agreement.
Airport spokesperson Lisa Dalpiaz believes the program is a win-win. It gives passengers more shopping options, especially for items they may have forgotten, and it helps minority entrepreneurs.
"We know that there are not as many financial opportunities for people who may be a minority or disadvantaged business owner," Dalpiaz said.
Brown said launching her business has been a challenge because she started it around the time the pandemic began in 2020.
"People weren't out. Retail wasn't big," she said.
Neither was travel. In April of 2019, the airport averaged more than 18,000 passengers in and out weekly. Now that numbers is around 14,000.
But travel experts expect a very busy summer season, which is good news both Brown and CAK.
"We see the light at the end of the tunnel. We're getting there, Dalpiaz said. "Right now, we're about 75% where we were in 2019. As long as we get more capacity in here and we have more seats, then we can get more customers."
The automated retails machines are just the start. The airport is working to attract more minority-owned businesses to help them get a jump start.
Brown hopes the program takes off and helps her reach more destinations. "I would like to see it in more regional airports. Universities are a potential—resorts, five-star hotels—anywhere there's a lot of traffic and people, there's a potential for a machine."