GOOD Maker Challenge Winner: Minnesota Toy Store Brings Play to Children and Adults
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This June, we announced the GOOD Maker Happy Side of Business challenge, which asked small business owners to tell us why they had the most innovative and outstanding customer service. We received a ton of great submissions, and we are excited to announce the winner of the $10,000 grant as Air Traffic Kites & Games of Burnsville, MN.
Air Traffic Kites & Games is on a mission to enrich people’s lives through play. And, fittingly, the idea for the store all started from a day at the beach. In 1987, owner, founder, and kite enthusiast Jim Henry began teaching curious strangers on the beach how to fly trick kites. And now 24 years later, Henry has gone from selling trick kites out of the back of a van to having six Minnesota-based toy stores that any child or adult can feel at home in.
Company owner and founder Jim Henry flying a kite (a Prism Snapshot 2.5, to be precise) at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. While it looks small in the photo, this kite can lift you off the ground in strong winds.
As you might imagine, the store is filled with items that make play fun. Shoppers will find classics like yo-yos and Frisbees, juggling equipment, and the latest specialty board games lining the walls of the stores top to bottom. But before shoppers get overwhelmed by the jam-packed shelves, Air Traffic’s incredibly helpful staff is ready to step in and offer guidance. “Air Traffic has, from its earliest days, been shaped by the staff members who so lovingly throw themselves into their work, and bring a passion for play to the table,” says Elissa Schufman, communications officer at Air Traffic.
The employees at Air Traffic go through two months of specialized training, including a crash course on European clown techniques. Yes—clowning. “We realized many of the principles of European clown would help employees navigate the chaos of retail, while encouraging them to respect customers, be genuine, and have fun,” says Schufman.
Air Traffic staffers at a kendama (Japanese wooden toy) competition. Left to right: Manager Kris Johnson; Ringmaster (a.k.a. Director of Operations) Jeff Kasper; Ian Tonkinson; Chris Jost; and Connor Neal.
Aside from clowning, employees-in-training learn the FISH! Philosophy, which is an employee training program based on four foundational principles: Play, Be There, Make Their Day, and Choose Your Attitude. The company has found that by empowering employees to be present and authentic during interactions customer smiles will follow. Shufman says, “Employee faces are priceless when they realize, ‘I’m being asked to have fun, play with customers, and make the world a brighter place!’”
After an employee has gone through the two month training course and heads onto the store floor, their job is to make sure every toy that goes into the hands of a child or adult is the best one for them. But don’t think it’s an easy in, easy out at Air Traffic stores. Employees have played and tested every toy in the store, and they want you to, too. The employees will demo anything they have in stock, all you have to do is ask.
Outside of the store, the team connects with the community through free and low-cost events to encourage play for all skill levels. With the $10,000 GOOD Maker Challenge grant, Air Traffic hopes to continue this tradition. “Because so much of our teaching is often physically tied to our stores, we miss out on teaching some of the kids who would most benefit from play role models,” says Shufman.
Air Traffic hopes they can reach more adult and kids from the Twin Cities to show how play can enrich their lives. “Air Traffic has purposefully cultivated an environment of whimsy, play, and expertise. When your story begins as ‘a guy selling kites out of the back of his van,’ how could you not?” says Shufman.
Watch the video above to learn more about Air Traffic Kites & Games. View their winning submission here.