How an Ohio farmer built lucrative wedding dress shop Formality Bridal

Penny Bowers-Schebal says she begins “every morning in barn boots” and ends each night “in pearls.”

The 55-year-old lives on a goat dairy farm in Austinburg, Ohio, a rural town of less than 600 people roughly 50 miles east of Cleveland. She tends to the goats and peacocks at sunrise, then travels drives seven minutes to Genova, home of her wedding gown shop Formality Bridal.

The shop, located in a 4,000-square-foot abandoned church, has a simple, profitable business model: Buy discounted last-season sample gowns from major retailers, and sell them to local brides for up to $999. That’s nearly $1,000 less than the average wedding dress, according to research from The Knot.

Formality Bridal has brought in more than $313,000 in revenue so far this year, according to documents reviewed by CNBC Make It. The five-year-old business, which has five employees, opened a second location last week in Erie, Pennsylvania, an hour’s drive away.

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Bowers-Schebal pays herself about 20% of Formality Bridal’s annual revenue, which last year shook out to approximately $57,000. It’s not the most money she’s ever made, but she works less than 25 hours per week, has a growing business and feels fulfilled, she says.

“We’ve always been able to pay our bills, pay our employees, and then there’s some left for me in my pocket, too,” says Bowers-Schebal. “That’s how I define success of a small business.”

Here’s how she juggles farm life with her bridal shop, and how she built a profitable business with “no experience,” she says.

From goats to gowns

Bowers-Schebal and her husband took over the 33-acre goat farm in 2016, when they inherited it from his mother. It looked held “together by duct tape,” she says.

At the time, the husband-and-wife duo owned and ran a wine shop in Lake County, Ohio. They sold the shop, and invested the proceeds — $158,000 — into farm repairs. They decided it selling corn and soybeans would be more cost-effective, and currently earn just enough from the crops to break even, says Bowers-Schebal.

“I call It an expensive hobby farm,” she adds. “I suspect it will be a work in progress until the day we leave or die.”

In addition to leading Formality Bridal, Bowers-Schebal lives on and helps run a farm in Ohio.

Penny Bowers-Schebal

Living off the land made Bowers-Schebal consider sustainability of all kinds, not just farming and food.

She thought about the short shelf-lives of bridal gowns — typically only worn once, and deemed out of style within weeks of hitting shelves. She also thought back to a previous job at insurance giant Progressive, where she learned to cultivate “strategic relationships,” she says.

Eventually, she sent a pitch to boutiques across the country: Don’t throw your out-of-season dresses away, I’ll buy them at a discount. She only reached out to larger bridal shops that weren’t in neighboring cities — “from Maine to California,” she says — so they’d be less likely to view her as a competitor.

The farm wasn’t profitable enough to finance a brick-and-mortar retail space, but Bowers-Schebal had savings of her own: At age 30, she’d started saving $25 per month in a Dividend Reinvestment Plan, or DRIP account.

She withdrew nearly $25,000 to buy a 1,200-square-foot office space, and opened Formality Bridal’s first location, by appointment only, in June 2018.

‘Slow growth, to me … is success’

Within a year, the company gained enough customers to become profitable, Bowers-Schebal says.

Word-of-mouth marketing on social media helped a lot, she says. She also obsessed over the financials;. “I [paid] super close [attention] to my numbers, and could tell you on a daily basis how much I spent, what we had in the account.”

In 2021, Formality Bridal outgrew its office space. Bowers-Schebal put $48,000 down on the abandoned church in Genova, which made the Formality Bridal experience, by her estimation, more immersive.

There are racks of gowns where the pews used to be, and brides-to-be literally walk down an aisle surrounded by 150-year-old stained glass windows.

Shortly after Bowers-Schebal moved her business into an old church, she brought in $10,000 in weekly revenue for the first time.

Amanda Rose Photography

A couple weeks after moving, Formality Bridal brought in $10,000 in weekly revenue for the first time. Bowers-Schebal felt like “a millionaire,” she says.

Maintaining that trajectory is imperative. Two years ago, Bowers-Schebal’s husband suffered a stroke and couldn’t work his full-time job at an airline repair center. He maintains the farm and receives disability benefits, but the couple largely relies on her income.

That makes opening a second location extra risky. But Bowers-Schebal says it’s her company’s logical next step: The average wedding in Pennsylvania costs $7,000 more than the average wedding in Ohio, according to The Knot, indicating a larger potential market.

Formality Bridal’s two locations could bring in a combined $1 million in 2024 revenue, Bowers-Schebal estimates.

“Slow growth, to me, especially when you’re starting out, is success,” she says. “I don’t love meteoric rises because that tends to fade very quickly. I am hoping [with] this newer, bigger store in Erie … that growth will happen much more quickly than in my very first darling boutique of 1,200-square-feet.”

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