At some point most diehard Disney fans have uttered the phrase "I wish I lived near the parks!". The husband and wife team of David and Katie Trauffer not only said it, but turned those words into reality, all while turning a hobby into their full time jobs along the way.
When did you both discover your love for Disney?
Katie: I went to Disney with my Dad my entire childhood. I’m a New Jersey kid and he was a public school teacher so every teacher’s convention in November him and I would fly down. It’s always been my happy place. David knew how much I loved it, so between that and constantly showing him all the Disney snacks, he started to love it too.
When did you launch Once Upon Apparel? Did anything help you take the leap?
We started Once Upon Apparel in January 2016 on the kitchen table of our, like, 500 square foot Philly apartment. I was home on medical leave after hip surgery and David was in school to get a PhD in Chemical Engineering. We had just come back from a Christmas Disney trip in December and I wanted to start a gluten free Disney blog. I thought it made sense to have a little shop on the side with the blog and since I was home I started some googling. By the time David got home that night I was like “Hey! I have this idea, it’ll be like $300 and could be such a fun hobby and I already have three designs, look, see!”. Well it was NOT $300 and very quickly was WAY more than a hobby, but that was the leap!
What was your first product?
"I Like My Food Mickey Shaped!" It was the very first tee idea I had because I had been saying over and over to my family leading up to that December 2015 trip how much better Mickey shaped foods are. Mickey Bars were the first food I found out were gluten free. My gluten intolerance hit as an adult and for a hot second I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to go to Disney anymore. A Mickey Bar was even our logo for a while!
David: Yup, it all started with a Mickey Bar.
Looking back what would you have done differently in those early days?
Katie: On the one hand we’ve learned SO MUCH in our two and a half years and when I think about some of the ways we did things back then it’s definitely cringy. But at the same time, I think there’s a lot we got really right, like immediately focusing on the customer experience and customer service, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without every learning curve along the way.
What where some of your early growing pains?
Oh gosh, SPACE for sure. We’ve always been an “always open” shop meaning we always have everything in stock. Well that means every design x every tee style x every tee color x six sizes, it’s a whole lot of shirts! We moved out of that tiny apartment within two months of opening to a bigger, but still one bedroom apartment. The entire living room became the shop. So then we moved down to Charleston, South Carolina, we got a two bedroom and the shop had it’s own whole entire room and we thought we were set. Not even close. Coming to Florida we got a three bedroom and the shop has two bedrooms and STILL gets our living and dining room most of the time. We’re currently building a house, which will hopefully be done in September, maybe October though! The shop will have it’s own detached garage with bonus room and separate office upstairs so HOPEFULLY that’ll finally, two and a half years later, resolve the space issue but we’ll see.
What has stuck with you from day one that still drives your success today?
One of the very first customers we had described receiving her package “like opening a present on Christmas morning” and that has absolutely branded in our hearts. We are more thankful than I can adequately say for every single person who chooses to buy from us and support us and the way we show that is through our packaging and customer service. We sincerely hope that opening your Once Upon Apparel package is like getting a present from us and is just full of magic because it’s our way of saying thank you.
When you first started out the company was originally called Once Upon A Mickey Tee. What prompted the rebrand?
We had been talking it over for nine months before finally reaching out to Adam Grason, who seriously made all our branding dreams come true! It was a couple factors, we thought our original name was a bit bulky and most of all we just really wanted our name/brand to represent the future and be something that could grow with us.
Were you nervous about a potential loss of name recognition?
Absolutely! I felt like every day of those nine months was another day of new people hearing about us and needing to transition with us. It was the right move for us though and we didn’t see any noticeable drop off, so we’re really thankful we took the leap and trusted our customers to leap with us!
What’s been the biggest risk you have taken with for Once Upon Apparel?
Moving to Florida was by far the biggest risk either of us have ever taken in our entire life, let alone the shop! David had a great chemical engineering job lined up in Charleston and gave that up to work full time with me in this crazy dream. Coming down here was 100% the right call for our business and for us personally too, because it’s let us start building a life that is so unique and incredible, but it was scary and even now sometimes is a little scary still. We prayed about it a LOT before coming down and still pray about it all the time, but ultimately we’re Christians and we trust that there’s a plan in place that is bigger than we can see. Especially when we get nervous “did we make the right call” we just turn back to trust in that bigger plan that led us here today.
Most people who start a business or side project dream to turn it into their full time job someday. What is has been the best part of being your own boss?
Well the best part is definitely the family life we will be able to have. Since we're pregnant, expecting in March, both of us being able to work full time from home is just the most incredible blessing. We'll be able to parent together and work together and just do it all together in ways that are so rare. This was actually a major factor in our decision for David to leave engineering to do the shop full time with me because we both wanted to have really big roles in our childrens' lives, especially at a young age, and being our own boss lets us do that!
What about the most unexpected?
The most unexpected award definitely goes to how hard it is to put work down. David says it as "how rarely I actually feel like my own boss" because we're constantly in our work. There's always work to do so it gets really hard to say "no, I won't answer that e-mail now" or "no, I'm not going to pack that order" when we want to help our customers and do everything we can for them. Finding a balance is something we have not at all figured out. Although I'm sure baby will teach us, this pregnancy sure is for me! Our friends and family always tell us to set working hours and then "go home" but in practice it's surprisingly hard to do when you care about what you do so much!
What do you do for inspiration for new ideas?
Our inspiration process goes a little like this…
Katie: “We need to do a new design”
David: “Okay, what about?”
At this point there’s usually a specific thing, like a holiday coming up, driving it.
Katie: “So what do we love about whatever that thing is?”
David: “Okay well last time we did X and Y and you really liked Z.
Katie: “AHHH remember when you ABC”
Trip down memory lane ensues
Katie: “Okay I like this concept, let’s start working on phrases.”
And from there we play with different ways to express whatever that happy memory or feeling was. I start putting together a mood board or a writing down details and off we go! Sometimes it takes a lot more workshopping and back and forth, other times it’s just immediately "YES THAT’S IT" but it always stems from thinking about what brings us joy and the memories we’ve made.
Unlike most brands, you actually do your own screen-printing. What advantages do you find in keeping your printing, shipping and handling in house?
This has always been a cornerstone of our business. It’s so important to us that every single order that goes out is something we’ve done. You’re not just buying from shop on the internet and Instagram, you’re buying from us, Katie and David, who are real people working hard and grateful for your support. So keeping as much in house as possible helps us feel and build that customer connection. ALSO! It lets us do such fun things! We can do custom orders for any combination of tee colors and styles. We get some families that really make creative use of that flexibility, but we’re only able to do it because we’re the ones making the shirts. We can also do fun things like our special editions and will literally have times where I say to David on a Monday morning “Hey, can we do XYZ this week?” and he’ll check supplies and be like “Yeah! I can have those in on Wednesday” and bam Wendesday night special edition is previewed and Thursday they’re available. It’s so exciting and fun and keeps us on our toes in the best way.
Your photography is on another level from your lifestyle shots to your flatlays, how important is not only great photos but having a signature style?
Aww, thank you! I was actually a health food blogger before we started the shop and so my photography perspective definitely rolls over from there. Being an online company, all people really know is what things look like in pictures so I think showing off your products well is absolutely critical to running a business like ours. I don’t really think of myself as having a signature style but more just being authentic to what I find aesthetically pleasing in terms of layout and editing and as long as I’m just listening to that intuition I think it all comes together to create something cohesive.
You've lived "vacation distance" away from the parks, as well as in central Florida. There are naturally unlimited upsides to living next door to the magic. What is some advice for someone working on their brand who isn’t a local?
That was a struggle for us until we moved here so I would suggest really driving customer engagement to get customer photos you can use, as well as really focusing on getting a lot of good shots whenever you visit. When we lived in Charleston we came down to Florida nearly every month and would always try to come back with lots of good content. It’s definitely a struggle though and with the market being as saturated as it is, I would really just say more than anything else, work on having a truly UNIQUE perspective with your products and people will gravitate towards that.
What do you want people to think of when they think of Once Upon Apparel?
Sentimental. That’s my key word. I want everything we do to remind people of happy memories they’ve had with loved ones. Or by themselves too! I also want people to know they’re valued when they think of us, whether it’s through their interactions with us, or just their experience ordering and receiving their package.
What’s next for the brand? What do you want people to know?
Besides the house and maybe, finally having enough space there's some REALLY BIG things coming! We just announced our pregnancy and that is changing a whole lot around the shop. We haven't announced this on Instagram yet so it's a bit of an exclusive but we also are hiring our first full time team member, someone a lot of people probably know, Abby Corkins. She's one of my absolute best friends and is such a hard worker and so dedicated, she's been helping out for a while and so now we could not be more excited to have her on the team full time! We can't wait to welcome her into this new role and see all the ways we'll grow and expand with her help and support! We've got plenty more magic coming to the shop over the next few months but this Fall especially is going to be a time of huge, incredible changes that we've looked forward to for so long and we are so thankful for all of it!
Favorite Walt quote?
"It’s kind of fun to do the impossible."
Mickey Bar or Mickey Pretzel?
Mickey Bar for us both!
Dole Whip or Citrus Swirl?
Katie: I go back and forth.
Favorite Disney restaurant?
I’m a food blogger you can’t just ask for one!
David: Gaston’s, it’s not real food but that Cinna-Loaf, as we call it, is meal sized!
David: Raglan Road
Fancy Date Night
answers link to Katie's Disney food blog, Fairy Tale Foodie.
Favorite park and attraction?
Katie: Favorite park is Magic Kingdom but since taking pictures of balloons probably doesn’t count as an attraction, I’ll say the Safari in Animal Kingdom is my favorite actual ride.
David: Animal Kingdom and Flight of Passage. Not a fan of the lines though.
Favorite holiday in the parks?
Katie: Halloween. I actually like Christmas more but I can never get over the colors and fall theming of Halloween.
David: Christmas. The food and decorations combined with it being cool enough to actually enjoy them.
Who do you want to see interviewed next?
Leo and Britt from the Main Street Press! I think theirs would be hilarious and such a fun read!