“Mothers and daughters together are a powerful force to be reckoned with”
– Melia Keeton-Digby, author


They didn’t start out intending to build a business, oh no they didn’t.
    But, as often happens in life, personal experience led to an idea, which lead to action. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
    Bella Bridal Boutique was born in February 2006 to 57-year-old Lisa Westafer and her daughters, 31-year-old Heather Sward and 30-year-old Kirsten Walfoort. The Lake Elmo, Minn.-based business was the result of lackluster shopping ventures the family had encountered during the girls’ eldest sister, Amy’s, search for a wedding dress. One night, they were sitting around talking about the stores they’d visited and the experiences they’d had when someone lamented, “We could’ve made it so much better!” followed quickly by, “We should open a bridal shop!”
    They had no industry experience, mind you, but that didn’t matter. The mother-and-daughters trio was smart, full of ideas, and motivated to learn. By the end of February, they’d done their research, met with an attorney, picked out a name and filed paperwork with the state. What followed has been nearly 14 years of joy, to the point they wake up feeling blessed to have Bella in their lives. For this business isn’t just a way to ensure brides receive the amazing shopping experience they missed out on, but it has also provided opportunities to bond with family and give back to their community. The latter in particular is very important to them – treating the boutique as an extension of their family and using it for good.
    “At the end of the day it’s just about service – serving my customers and serving my family,” Lisa says. “That’s what I am most passionate about.”

Crafting the Perfect Environment
    From the beginning, Bella Bridal Boutique was a custom creation. After attending their first market in March 2006 in Chicago, where they found designers willing to work with them, Lisa, Heather and Kirsten began serving customers in their home while looking for a space to build out. Ultimately, they settled on a rented 2,500-square-foot storefront underneath an apartment complex in nearby Woodbury, and turned what was basically a raw space into their exact vision. It opened to customers in October 2006.
    “The environment we created for our brides was of really high importance to us,” Heather says. “That was one of the things we really felt was lacking when we went shopping with my older sister.”
    In particular, they wanted the showroom to be really large and open, and dresses to be viewable for brides.
    “A lot of stores bag their gowns so it’s hard to picture what they look like or look through them on the rack,” Heather says. “We really wanted to present them differently, hanging beautifully on the rack, so customers could look, feel and touch them as they were walking the showroom.”
    Individual fitting rooms were made quite large to give brides space to comfortably try on dresses, whereas the viewing area was very open and more communal. They included plenty of seating so the special people a bride brought with her would be comfortable and enjoy their experience too.
    “Some of the best compliments we’ve gotten from customers over the years have been that when they come into our store they feel like they’re walking into our living room,” Lisa says. “They feel welcome, they feel relaxed, and it’s just a really nice experience. That’s what we thought we could do that none of the stores were offering at the time.”
    For 13 years, Bella remained in this location, expanding a few times as needed. With time, however, they noticed the area, the industry and, most importantly, their brides were changing. They, too, wanted something different to better reflect these changes, however their boutique had already been modified as much as possible. Their only option was to find something else.
    That turned out to be a 4,100-square-foot brick-and-stone storefront in nearby Lake Elmo, which opened to customers on May 1, 2019. Like Bella’s first location, the new store, less than a mile away from their old one, was a raw space they completely built out and designed from the ground up.
    Only this time, Kirsten says, they were smarter with the square footage. They created a very different layout: the new location is less communal and features more of an individual suite setup. The goal is for brides to feel like they’re having their own private appointment, she says.
    The overall look is more industrial, chic and contemporary, and while there’s still a very large showroom, the amount of inventory displayed is limited. The idea is not to overwhelm brides but instead rely on their staff’s in-depth knowledge of the inventory to pull from backstock as needed.
    “We’ve gotten really great feedback on the new store,” Kirsten says. “Most customers comment on its size, and they think it’s beautiful. We’ve actually had someone come in and ask if we rented out the space for special events because it’s so beautiful. It’s been really, really positive.”

Creating an Amazing Experience
    Of course, the physical environment is only part of the experience at Bella Bridal Boutique. Equally if not moreso important is the way customers are treated.
    This is the key thing, after all, the women felt was lacking from their family shopping experience: personalized attention that made the bride feel really special on that day.
    They go overboard to provide it to customers now, and it starts before the appointment. They call brides ahead of time, try to get to know them better and see if there’s anything special they can do. This might involve researching their wedding venue or the colors they’re using – anything to help provide a better experience and find the dress of their dreams.
    Additionally, Bella Bridal Boutique is picky about who they hire, and they put consultants through extensive training.
    “We want girls who are really passionate about bridal and providing that experience,” Kirsten says. “We want them to be really knowledgeable about our inventory and also custom changes because a lot of times girls don’t come in and find something absolutely perfect. They want to tweak it, and we want to answer their questions as to how they can actually achieve that.”
    Compensation is structured to alleviate stress and discourage pushy sales behavior: employees receive bonuses but aren’t on commission.
    “There are a lot of stores where if the bride buys on her first visit (employees) get full commission but if she buys the second time they might not get anything so that kind of lends itself to not giving as good of service that second or third time a bride comes back,” Kirsten says. “We definitely don’t do that. . . we want to provide great service every single time.”
    And that philosophy extends to every bride, regardless of budget. In 2017, they introduced a concept called Bella Bargains. The idea was to help get rid of sample or discontinued gowns while providing great price points for all brides.
    Bella Bargains gowns start at $199 and go up to $2k. They used to be housed in their own location but, with the move, are now all-inclusive in the same store. It’s simply a different type of appointment – bridal, bridesmaids, bargains.
    “Whether a bride is spending $200 or $3k, she still gets the same beautiful store, the beautiful suite and a knowledgeable consultant along with the ability to shop in her price point,” Kirsten says.
    Of course, the reality in this day and age is that, budget aside, not every bride buys in-store. As such, Bella Bridal Boutique has incorporated a brick-and-click model. Their approach?
    While continuing to emphasize the experience, they have created a way for brides to order online. It isn’t a full-blown e-commerce site; rather it’s geared toward the bride who, after an appointment, wants to sleep on her dress but can’t easily return to the store to buy. The order form is meant to keep her a customer but it’s not something they push people toward, unless they’re already in-store.
    Overall, about five percent of brides place orders online, the majority having first been in-person customers. Every once in a while, they’ll encounter a bride who wants to order without coming into the store but that’s rare. It’s a different dynamic with bridesmaids, where about 30-40% of business is conducted online. Typically, this is because the bride has selected a gown at Bella that she wants her party to wear but some live out of state and can’t make it into the store.
    “We wanted to make it convenient to order online but not so much that it takes the focus off having that experience,” Kirsten says. “And luckily, I think most brides these days are still wanting that.”

Bonding with Family
    So much of Lisa, Heather and Kirsten’s efforts over the years have been focused on creating an exceptional experience for brides. However, they are also acutely aware of and incredibly grateful for the blessing of working with family.
    “(Family) has the same passion and dedication to a business that’s hard to find in an employee who comes in as a stranger,” Heather says. “That’s nothing against our staff because they’re amazing and we’re so lucky to have them but I think working with family you know at the end of the day that no matter what happens, they’re always going to have your back.”
    While there are some tasks the trio share, a clear division of responsibilities keeps things running smoothly.
    Kirsten, who began working at Bella at 16, is sales director. She’s in charge of all consultants and tasked with coming up with promotions, pushing sales and, if needed, assisting with appointments.
    Heather, in college when Bella began, is director of operations. Her responsibilities are more behind-the-scenes: Maintaining the website, determining sales goals, doing payroll and inventory.
    Lisa, who prior to opening the business had retail, bookkeeping and fundraising experience, is primarily in charge of ordering and receiving.
    There is also a fourth key member, Susan, who isn’t related to them. She has been with Bella since shortly after the business opened and is tasked with general store management and customer service.
    “We’ve been really fortunate to have Susan for a really long time; she has been a huge part of our overall success,” Lisa says.
    Aside from the four core team members, there are the Bella Bridal Boutique consultants. It isn’t uncommon for them to stick around 10-12 years, a rarity in the retail industry.
    “(It’s because) we treat them like family,” Heather says. “They’re such huge assets to us and are oftentimes the first impression and face of Bella when brides come in. We really value our employees and want them to feel like they’ve been welcomed into our home.”
    As for the owners, although they may have different tastes and opinions at times, they’ve been fortunate to avoid huge disagreements. Sometimes to keep the peace, they have to incorporate the two-against-one rule (“It’s nice we have an odd number!” Lisa jokes).
    They all appreciate the flexibility a family business offers. Heather and Kirsten have been able to work out schedules that allow them to spend ample time with their young children – Heather and her husband, Erik, have two boys: 3-year-old Shay and 1-year-old Braeton; and Kirsten and her husband, Andy, have an 8-month-old girl, Esme. Lisa’s husband, Mike, has his own business as well, which is on an opposite track in terms of busy season, so she admits they’re somewhat consumed by work.
    In fact, the family’s biggest challenge has been knowing when to turn off the “work brain.” Sometimes, after being at the store all day together and then gathering socially, it seemed like the shop talk never stopped.
    “For the first few years it was a learning curve to understand that we all have our own life outside of work and it’s OK to turn it off, have a break and just enjoy being with each other,” Heather says.
    That said, there are times when it’s wonderful to have family around: their husbands help out occasionally if extra muscles are needed, and the littlest ones are already experiencing the Bella Bridal world firsthand.
    “We’re still getting all of our stuff out of our old space and just today we had Heather’s oldest here helping us move things, vacuum, clean and carry stuff,” Lisa says. “They’re still really young but they’re learning to be part of this business in small ways.”

Giving Back, Moving Forward
    When they first started their business, Lisa, Heather and Kirsten wanted to create a better experience for customers than other stores were providing. But over the years, an unexpected opportunity has presented itself: different ways to help brides.
    There are the little moments: assisting a panicked bride who comes in days before her wedding knowing her dress has been lost or ruined. There are also much bigger ones, such as the cancer-stricken father who enjoyed a special dance with his daughter in their store (see sidebar below) or the bride whose mom suffered a stroke in their parking lot before coming in to shop. She ended up in hospice and, later on, the women brought dresses to that bride’s house so she could still enjoy the shopping experience with her now-bedridden mom.
    “That was really, really special,” Kirsten says. “We want to be able to use our store for good and for people…it’s hard to advertise but we’ve been blessed to have those opportunities present themselves. I think it might be more of a blessing for us than even for them.”
    This attitude of service carries over to home, where Lisa has invited nine Vietnamese exchange students and two employees to live with them at various times throughout the years. One of those exchange students, Thu, has essentially become a member of the family, living with them all throughout high school and undergraduate. She’s now doing a medical residency in Wisconsin and when she comes home for the holidays, it’s to Lisa’s house. Amy, Heather and Kirsten view her as another sister.
    “I honestly believe God put me here to be a mom,” Lisa says. “It just worked that our home was big enough and I was willing to take them. . . family has really always been my biggest passion and I think it continues to be, even in this business.”
    As for Bella Bridal Boutique, it continues to thrive. Their best customer remains a referred customer, and 60-70 percent of business comes from word of mouth. Lisa, Heather and Kirsten have learned the importance of not trying to be everything to everyone, but rather focusing on the niche they’re most passionate about – bridal – and excelling at it. As well, they have successfully combated their biggest challenge – high inventory and minimum requirements – by focusing exclusively on the designers that do really well for them.
    Most importantly, they’re enjoying every step of the way.
    “The fashion industry is really fun to be a part of,” Kirsten says. “It’s an ever-changing business, which is nice because I think it’d get boring if it didn’t change. It’s exciting to see those changes every year and how they do and, especially in Minnesota, what trends are going to take and which ones aren’t.”
    Moving forward, while trends come and go, their focus will remain steady: providing an amazing experience for brides. In their new location, they want to do more events, like holding a bridal market-type fashion show to introduce customers to new lines or renting a suite out on “Vendor Saturdays” to expose brides to other helpful wedding businesses.
    Whatever they decide on, one thing is certain: they have the commitment to make it happen and the faith to believe it will. “We’re a strong Christian family and we believe God has blessed us every step of the way in this journey,” Lisa says. “We’ve made mistakes but He has really protected us from making lethal mistakes that would cause us to have to close our doors. He’s continued to help us make decisions that are good for our business, and we can stand firm knowing we’re a business of integrity and customers trust us. (Bella) has been an amazing experience that has blessed us back in so many ways.”


Most Memorable Moment
    Mother-daughter owners Lisa Westafer, 57; Heather Sward, 31; and Kirsten Walfoort, 30 have experienced many memorable moments since opening Bella Bridal Boutique in 2006 but one stands out above the rest.
    Several years ago, an oncology nurse reached out to the boutique in hopes of doing something special for one of her patients. Sarah* was a young girl in her twenties who was terminally ill with cancer. She loved everything about weddings but was not a bride and knew she would never have the opportunity to plan her own wedding or help her friends plan theirs.
    So the trio decided to do a mock bridal appointment. They invited Sarah and five of her closest friends and family to come into the store after hours and helped pick out wedding dresses for each of them. After each said “yes” to a dress, Sarah picked out a ballgown that she loved, saying “yes” to a dress she knew she’d never get to wear.
    Having lost her husband to cancer with three young daughters still at home, Lisa really wanted to create a special memory for Sarah’s dad as well. So, at the end of the appointment when he surprised everyone by coming to see his little girl in her wedding gown, the owners turned down the lights and played “Cinderella” by Stephen Curtis Chapman so they could have a father-daughter dance.
    “There wasn’t a dry eye in the store and it was truly one of the most amazing moments I think we will ever experience,” Lisa says
*Name has been changed for privacy.

All images except for "The youngest family members" are courtesy of ©Spacecrafting