Lemon Tree, sweet smell of success

December 17, 1991|By Deborah Johns Moir

Ted McGhee caught the entrepreneurial bug during the weekend of AFRAM, the yearly black festival held in downtown Baltimore, in 1982. The following Monday, he went to his job of six years, packed up everything in a cardboard box and quit.

What had caught his attention was a "jewelers rolling mill," a 500-pound machine with which he and a friend could turn dimes into flat, sailboat-shaped charms for earrings and bracelets. While that particular project fell through, it served as an introduction into the world of being his own boss. Today he owns the Lemon Tree in Mondawmin Mall and says his success stems from his belief in God, the help of family and friends, and satisfied customers who spread the word.

Mr. McGhee is a congenial, "prematurely gray" man of 42. His wife Angela, 40, teaches at Morgan State University and is working on a doctorate in the Temple University extension program. She was born in St. Thomas, he was born in Alabama. His family moved to Philadelphia when he was three. The McGhees were college sweethearts and graduates of Temple University.

Lemon Tree is on the lower level of the mall across from BG&E. It is a bright, warm, pleasant smelling haven. Its slogan "We make good scents," is evident in products such as oil-based incense, alcohol-free perfume oils, hand-poured, scented candles, potpourri and room deodorizers.

There is refreshing peppermint "pure castile" soap, which comes in a $2.75 size to a $27 size. Lemon Tree also markets its own products, including the pleasant scent of "Tunisian Honey Lotion with Aloe Vera." A three-ounce bottle is $4. There are gift packs made on the premises, Caswell-Massey grooming products, jewelry, artwork and lamps. Prices range from $2 for incense to $200 for some of the lamps.

Mr. McGhee credits the quality of the products with keeping his regular customers, and they, in turn, with providing word-of-mouth advertising which brings in new customers. A key is that Mr. McGhee recognizes the importance of customer service: clients are greeted when they enter the store and are given personal service. They exit with quality products.

Before Lemon Tree, the McGhees lived in Atlanta where Mrs. McGhee was pursuing a master's degree. A fried called Mr. McGhee in 1975 to tell him of a temporary job with the Urban League. He moved to Baltimore in June and Mrs. McGhee followed that September. He was in charge of a supervisory training program for six months, then become a contract specialist with the Mayor's Office on Manpower before spending six years in job development with Airco Technical Institute.

After the 1982 rolling jewelry mill experience, Mc. McGhee got to know local jewelers and began making earrings out of brass and sterling silver. He became a street vendor, complete with a peddler's license, selling on college campuses, at craft shows, festivals, bars -- wherever the potential clients were. "I was chased out of some of the better places," he says with a smile.

In those days, street vendors had to keep moving; they could stop when they got a sale. One particular time, he spent what he had -- $200 -- on supplies. With about $10.70 left in his pocket, he hit the thrift shops looking for something with wheels on it. He found it on a top shelf. It was a wheelchair.

"I started laughing," he says. "I said, 'It's no way in the world that I can use this wheelchair.' But then I started visualizing 'I can get a shoe bag. Incense can fit right in the shoe bags, and across the top I can have oils and things, and I have a board for ear

rings.' I said, 'This might work.' "

"And here's where my faith in God comes in. I asked the lady, 'How much is that wheelchair?' She said $10.' " Mr. McGhee cleaned it up, set up his wares -- you couldn't tell it was a wheelchair under them -- and moved all over the city. "It worked out great," he says. "I really got some basic training in."

In 1985, Mondawmin Mall started a cart program, allowing vendors to set up shop in the open spaces. Mr McGhee applied, was turned down (60 applicants for two carts). He reapplied again in 1986 and was accepted into the program. He was told there were too many jewelry stores in the mall, so his focus became incense and oils.

He established a relationship with a vendor from Philadelphia who sold oils in fancy cruets, "Which is what you don't see on the streets," he says. "They usually have the bottles. I was impressed. And he would pour on the spot, whatever size bottle you like. I thought that was a novelty."

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