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Delicate Dishes provides settings to make a meal memorable
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Teapots and teacups stand ready for a high tea or special tea event.

© 2019 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

As Kirsten Smith scrolled through Pinterest one day, she noticed pictures of china that a California company rents out for tea parties and events, and it inspired her to do something: collect china and put on a tea party for women at church, some of whom were in recovery from drugs or alcohol and others who couldn’t afford such an occasion.

“I wanted to do a fancy ladies’ tea so that people could feel special — because God treasures them,” Smith says. “I wanted them to know how much they are treasured.”

After that tea party, Smith became motivated to do something else with the china pieces from the tea party, realizing that renting them out could turn into a business. When Smith expressed this business idea to her husband, Scott Smith, she recalls him asking, “Is that a thing?”

She told him about the company in California and did research to uncover local market potential.

“He’s like, ‘Go for it,’” Smith says, so in 2015 she launched Delicate Dishes, a Kalamazoo company that provides vintage china, ivory china, vintage glassware, serving pieces and flatware rentals for small or large events.

As fate would have it Smith has always admired china. As a child, she would gaze into her mother’s corner china cabinet, especially at one teacup in particular that didn’t match any of the other dishes. So in 2015, when Smith sought china for launching her business, it seems fitting that the first pieces she discovered and purchased had the exact same pattern as that teacup.

“I happened to be in a store that had a teacup that looked like that one pattern that my mom had,” Smith says, “so I bought it. And then I found another one. And then I found a plate in the same pattern.”

After that, things fell into place easily. In October 2016, Smith launched her website, delicatedishes.com, and “right off the bat” professional photographers started calling. The photographers, including Sandra Vue, of DreamBox Photography, in Grand Rapids, wanted to use her dishes for styled photo shoots. After visiting France, Smith says, Vue had an idea for a Marie Antoinette-styled wedding shoot.

“So she came back (from France) and she was looking for things and she saw my dishes and said, ‘I think your dishes would lend well for this,’” Smith says.

Photographers give credit to those who provide items in photos, and word spread about Delicate Dishes. The professional-quality photographs of her pieces attracted attention because “people are so visual,” Smith says.

“I just feel so unbelievably fortunate that they (photographers) chose to ask me,” she says.

Perfect timing

Shopping at thrift stories like Goodwill and Salvation Army, online at Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, and at estate sales, Smith nabbed dishes at affordable prices when people weren’t interested in owning china anymore. That situation has since changed.

“Those same sets that I could get for somewhere between $25 and $75 are now starting at $150 up to $400, $500 dollars because people are now interested in them again,” Smith says. “Just like the colored goblets. Before, Goodwill practically couldn’t give them away because nobody wanted them. Now they’re selling for $5 per goblet, where before they were 50 cents.”

The same thing goes for doilies. Her husband’s co-worker received a box of them from a relative. Smith purchased it for $5. “Now it’s hard to find doilies,” she says.

When she bought dish sets, they often came with serving pieces, and Smith wondered if she should get rid of them. Her first wedding provided the answer. The bride wanted a family-style dinner and asked, “Do you have platters and serving bowls?”

“We had to work with the caterer, and we had to have those things set up so they were not only using serving pieces, but then I had to collect all the flatware like the serving forks — the fancy ones — for all the meat and potatoes,” Smith says.

That first wedding also showed her what questions to ask for future weddings, such as: How will dinner be laid out? What does the caterer do or not do?

“It was trial by fire, but it went really well,” she says.

Overflowing with dishes

Smith’s learning curve came at the right time. Now Smith rents her dishes out not only for weddings but for baby showers, bridal showers, harvest dinners, tea parties and other events — like a donor luncheon put on by Western Michigan University.

When Smith’s basement started overflowing with dishware, she transformed a spare bedroom in her Kalamazoo home into a sample room, decorated with vintage china, table runners, napkins, doilies and signage. “This is where I bring people if they want to see items,” Smith says.

Smith has had customers travel from Detroit to use her dishes for parties. One client even traveled from Harbor Springs to rent items from Delicate Dishes for a “Marie Antoinette-style dinner,” Smith says. “I guess people came in full costume.”

Smith will be involved as much or as little as a customer desires. Delicate Dishes will deliver, set up the dishes, and clean and clear for weddings and other events of up to 225 people at venues within an hour radius of Kalamazoo. Customers may also opt to perform those duties themselves.

“Sometimes they’ll start off and see what all the services are and see if they can fit it into their budget,” Smith says.

Creativity and collaboration

Delicate Dishes does more than simply rent dishes because there are many creative and logistical aspects of an event to consider, Smith says. Her creative background — she initially enrolled as an art major in college — and extensive customer service management experience help her in assisting customers with their events. To help customers narrow down ideas for dish choices, Smith asks questions like, “Do you have pictures? What colors are you using? What’s your theme?”

Then she treads into the functional aspects of the meal.

“There’s certain things that the brides and grooms aren’t thinking about,” Smith explains, such as: Will there be flower arrangements on the table? If so, there might only be room for one plate. Are water pitchers needed? Is the caterer clearing plates? When will that happen?

“Sometimes they (customers) want multiple glasses for different drinks,” Smith says. “It looks pretty in pictures, but if you don’t have the space for it, you’ve got to look at function.”

At the same time, Smith often collaborates with other companies that do the same thing she does to get pieces she may need or provide some that others need. On a recent day, Becky Karle of Elsie’s Cupboard, in Three Rivers, visited Smith’s trove of dishes to see what she had.

“I keep a list of rental vendors who have inventory that is similar to mine so I can refer people to them if I am not available to help them or if they are looking for something that I don't carry,” Smith explains. “I have even worked with other vendors when one of us doesn't have a large enough quantity in our inventory. We definitely strive to live out ‘collaboration over competition.’”

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Look West….

To anticipate what future customers want, Kirsten Smith watches wedding trends in California and Texas. Trends start there first, she explains, and then slowly head to the rest of the country. Weddings in those states have switched from rustic to glamorous, using crystal and fancy china.

“Even in a barn it was more like barn glam instead of shabby chic,” she says.

That trend is just starting to hit Michigan, Smith says. “You still have the farm tables — the wood ones — but you’re mixing it with fancy goblets and fancy dishes,” she says.

“People are into doughnuts now,” she says. “I did a doughnut bar last year where we had a big cut-glass-looking serving plate and stands in the back. It was tiered and full of doughnuts.”