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Chelsea Treehouse, Claire Myers, Michele Balaka

>Thriving in Jackson: The Chelsea TreeHouse on a successful path


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Don’t try telling Michele Balaka she’s a success.
She is the owner of Nickelodeon’s “Parents’ Pick Best Indoor Play Place/Space” award for Michigan in 2008. She hosts dozens of parties each week at the Chelsea TreeHouse.
Balaka also opened the Chicago TreeHouse in Lake Zurich, Ill., in 2009. She is primed to move her Chelsea play café to a much larger location close to I-94.
She might smile at the thought of how her “expensive hobby” has transformed since her first location opened in 2006, but she’s waiting for the day when she can open new TreeHouses all over the country to call her journey a triumph.
FYI

• What: The Chelsea TreeHouse

• Where: 320 N. Main St., Chelsea; Lake Zurich, Ill.

• Years in business: Five

• Employees: More than 40 at both locations

• What it does: 
Indoor playground for children

• Why it made the list: A popular hangout for parents and children for a birthday party or a few hours of high-energy play. The Chelsea site will be moving to a larger location this fall.
Balaka notes she once worked 377 straight days and is constantly reinventing her business to make a profit. She has yet to give herself a paycheck in four years because she’s always planning for potential failure.
Some might call Balaka borderline crazy for throwing money at steel play structures and banking on gourmet sandwiches, soups and coffees to put her business over the top, while others might revere her as a visionary.
Still, satisfaction has yet to find its place in the business plan for the mother of two.
“You go to work everyday and expect a paycheck and vacations and days off — who doesn’t?” she said. “When you decide to take this type of money from the bank and do something like this, you can bail, like everybody does, or you can see the vision and follow through.”
Overcoming adversity
The Chelsea TreeHouse opened in 2006. The next year was full of surprises.
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer left Ann Arbor and several Jackson-based manufacturing plants shut down. Balaka said many young professionals were suddenly out of work, leaving the state for new jobs. With them went the children.
Things started well in 2008, but the bank crisis made it difficult for her to secure the loan she needed to fund the Illinois location. In September when the banks were finally cooperating, it got worse.
“At 8:30 in the morning on a Monday — a super, sunny fabulous day — my brother (Jack Middlebrook) was driving a vehicle that weighed, like, 2,000 pounds that he and my husband had made into, like, this four-wheel drive tinker toy,” she said. “A lady pulled in front of him … and he was almost killed.”
He was in critical condition for days before being released from the hospital with brain damage that caused him to have to relearn how to read, write, walk, drive and feed himself.
A natural landing spot for Balaka’s younger brother was her house.
“It was round-the-clock care between my mom and I. And guess what else I did that month?” she said. “I signed everything for my Chicago location and started my build-out.”
A silver lining in the calamity was Middlebrook’s newfound knowledge of his sister’s business. Today, he lives in Lake Zurich, running the day-to-day operations of the Chicago TreeHouse.
With her brother rehabilitated and the money for her new location secured, Balaka had one more hurdle to clear. In the midst of frequent four-and-a-half hour trips to Lake Zurich, putting the finishing touches on her new location, she thought she was going to die.
In August 2009, Balaka found a “golf ball-sized lump” in the side of her breast. Her first reaction? “I am too busy for something like that to happen.”
She called a University of Michigan doctor on Monday and made the trip from Lake Zurich to Ann Arbor for testing the next day. “I felt like oh my gosh, I’m dying — I’m dying because seriously, who gets an appointment the next day?”
On Sept. 19 — the day she opened the doors to her new location — she learned her fate.
“So an hour before I’m opening the doors in Chicago I get a call from a nurse at UM,” Balaka said. “She said, ‘The biopsy came back and I’m going to give you the news, and I had to call you before I left.
“It came back negative, you’re totally fine.’ ”
Doing things her way
Balaka calls herself a “control freak” and says she doesn’t need caffeine to keep energized.
She earned an economics degree from the University of Michigan, but she laughs at the thought that her business acumen is “by the book.”
She has two requirements for employees: They must be independent and inspiring.
“I’ll do something myself before hiring somebody that doesn’t make my customers feel amazing,” she said.
Even though most of her employees are high school students earning minimum wage, she has high expectations and isn’t afraid to fire someone on the spot.
Chelsea High School senior Claire Myers said she gets excited about work, but the job is not right for everybody.
“It’s kind of something you have to fit. We’ve had a lot of kids come in and try and it just doesn’t work out … Michele has a certain way of working set in her mind and either you get it or you don’t,” Myers said.
Balaka said employees such as Myers are great at taking charge and adapting on the fly, qualities she’s prided herself in maintaining over the years.
“My favorite quote is, ‘Overnight successes take 10 years,’ ” she said. “Everybody thinks they are Google or Facebook, they really do. You know how it really works? It takes a lot of very hard work.”
It also doesn’t hurt to be frugal.
The steel play structure at the Chelsea TreeHouse cost $175,000, so saving money in other areas is imperative.
Balaka said she looks for recently closed businesses to buy necessities for “pennies on the dollar.”
Buying $70 chairs for $2 is standard for Balaka. She said she bought her “$15,000 espresso machine” for $1,200.
Balaka’s husband, Jeff, has owned a moving company for 18 years. She is able to buy things at auctions and have them hauled away to storage until she needs them.
“There’s nobody, other than an architect, that I could be married to that could help my business more,” she joked, noting she can attend an auction, make a phone call and a truck is on its way. “It’s like magic. I could never do it without my husband.”
What’s next?
The new Chelsea location, set to open in October, will be just off of I-94 and will use every inch of its 9,000 square feet.
Building on her success of serving Zingerman’s coffee drinks, homemade panini sandwiches, soups and several organic offerings, Balaka plans on adding bakery services to the TreeHouse’s repertoire.
She said products will be completely nut-free and she will not even cook with partially hydrogenated soybean oil, to steer clear of any possible allergy complications.
Myers said that attention to detail is not lost on Balaka’s loyal customer base.
“Even when I’m just walking around cleaning I hear people saying, ‘Wow, this place is fantastic and the service and quality of everything is so great,’” she said. “(People) love that we have healthy choices for food, things you wouldn’t get at another kind of kids play place.”
Balaka doesn’t see herself as “just another kids place.” She has plans to open one more location in Michigan and “four or five more” outside of Chicago.
“I was staying at home raising my kids for five years when I said there is no way I’m sitting on a folding chair with nasty carpet, eating concession stand food every time I go to a kid’s place,” she said.
“It’s going to be upscale and I’m going to change the way the whole entire country looks at the consumer as a stay-at-home mom with kids. They count still.”
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About rjwalters

I am what you think I am — a journalist. Actually when I was hired at my current job, which by the way is Sports Editor of the Hillsdale Daily News in Hillsdale, Mich., I applied for a position titled "Wordsmith", so at my best I'll call myself a writer attempting to be a wordsmith extraordinaire.

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