Since the time Jennifer Stewart, OD, sold her practice in 2022, she’s been deeply immersed in other facets of optometry. She became the professional editor of Independent Strong. She still owns Performance 2020, a sports vision training program and a practice consultant. But she began to miss patient care. “I live in the community where I worked, and when I volunteer at school, just about every mom and teacher is a patient. Plus, being in the industry and hearing about all the developments, I kept thinking, ‘I wonder how that would work.’ I missed the business aspects, too,” she says.
She began to talk to her husband about what it would take to get her back into practice. “If I did it, it would have to be exactly the way I wanted,” she says. She already had the vision of the space and feel: a retail-oriented area, with big windows fronting a pedestrian-heavy area. Her previous office had been on the third floor of a medical complex, so there was no real walk-in traffic. If she was going to do it again, she wanted the boutique appeal of a high-end optical. “We decided we’d start looking to see if the space I had in mind even existed,” she says.
SEARCH FOR SPACE
Dr. Stewart identified two towns: Darien or New Canaan, Connecticut. They’re both affluent and could support the kind of practice she was envisioning. Plus, they’re both close to where she lives. She worked with Erich Mattei at Akrinos to help define her plan, and she’s a member of IDOC.
She originally had a broker looking for spaces with 2,500 square feet. She was moving forward with lease negotiations for a space in Darien, but little issues kept bringing them back to the drawing board. “I learned so much about leases and negotiating, and I realized it really shouldn’t be as hard as this process was. We decided to pull back and redirect the search.”
She was willing to compromise on space but not on the other elements of her dream. Her broker began looking for spaces between 1,500 and 2,000 square feet. New Canaan, a charming town with a mid-century modern architectural vibe, seemed promising. “I created a list of available properties and drove to New Canaan on a Sunday and walked by all of them.” One spot on Forest St.–the town’s restaurant row- seemed perfect, for the future home of Look New Canaan, set to open now at the beginning of 2024.
At 1,875 feet, the space was smaller than she had hoped for – but “it’s like a Hallmark movie town. People from the communities around here all come to this place, and the town has a lot of independent businesses,” she says. In addition to the multiple restaurants, there are three dance studios on her street, coffee shops, nail and beauty salons and a high-end gym inside the same building she was viewing.
“It was perfect. The whole front and one side are windows. The inside had two stone walls. There’s this beautiful light in space we would turn into the optical,” she says. As it was built in 2016, the building itself was also relatively new.
MAKING THE VISION REAL
The space had been a pet food store previously, so the floor plan was wide open. That meant that there wasn’t as much demo work that needed to be done, and Dr. Stewart, her contractor and her designer could start their plans.
Dr. Stewart says working with the right people is critical. She spent time with her contractor and designer, sharing her general vision and letting them manage the details. That allowed her to focus on other tasks, such as selecting the frame inventory.
In the year between her undergrad graduation and starting optometry school, Dr. Stewart worked in a Sterling Optical. She went to a local mall for a study break and walked into the optical “literally in my pajamas” to ask for an application, and they wanted to interview her on the spot. In that year, she did a little bit of everything: insurance verification, contact lens training, edging and frame inventory.
“I have always loved the optical,” she says. She’s intrigued by the metrics of it as it’s such a huge revenue source for practices. But she also immerses herself into the frame stories. That’s something she wants to train her staff on. “I want our opticians to know why I picked a brand and what sets it apart. We’ll lean into the vendor representatives for that, but opticians and I should be well-versed on the beauty, craftsmanship and components of every brand,” she says. She is also using Kayla Ashlee of Spexy for optical consulting and team training.
One bucket-list item for Dr. Stewart has been to introduce her own brand of eyewear. It’s happening. She has partnered with third-generation optician Travis LeFevre, of LFVR Eyewear in Utah. She has a limited series in The Look Collective ready to sell in her practice. “It was a lot of fun working with him on the colors and styles I like. They’re one-of-a-kind frames, and I hope to continue to add styles,” she says. The Jennifer is a pair of blue frames that he made specifically for her.
The boutique style optical is a key element of the business’s look and feel. Although it will feel like a high-end optical, she notes that she has brought in independent eyewear brands to help her hit a range of price points. She has selected Lindberg Eyewear and will carry Tom Ford and Maui Jim, but other than that, she’ll carry almost exclusively independent lines.
Dr. Stewart is also looking forward to adding myopia management into her list of primary care services. “We’ll be taking very little insurance; it’s mostly private pay. We are completely transparent with our pricing on the website, and we are letting patients know that we can help them file for their reimbursement if they have vision benefits.”
In early December, Dr. Stewart was waiting for the delivery of two lanes of Marco digital refraction lanes (a third lane will serve as storage for now, until she hires an associate). Other equipment and product vendors include Optos, Optovue, MacuHealth, Twenty Twenty Beauty and Optazoom. Doors will be put up, walls painted and and furniture deliveries are all scheduled for the first half of December; once that’s complete, she’ll make more décor choices.
“We’ll probably open our doors Christmas week, so we can do training and people can look around. But we already have a waiting list for an early January opening.”
Design With the Community in Mind
Dr. Jennifer Stewart and her designer had a pretty good idea of a look for the first practice site she selected. That location was in another “beachier” town, so they created a whole look around the beach vibe. Light-colored wood, blues and rattan dominated. But that location didn’t work out, and the design just didn’t translate well to the mid-century modern industrial feel of New Canaan.
New Canaan is home to The Glass House, an all-glass house built in 1949 by architect Philip Johnson, who lived there. It’s now a museum and owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. But this local landmark sets the tone for the town –and the beach feel was too far astray.
So they started over – and one step in the process was reading the design stories in Women In Optometry. “I went through every one of those. When I realized we had an optical with two walls of windows and two walls of stone, I went back through looking for ideas. I loved hearing how other people went through the process,” she says.
Note: We will update the story with new photos as Look New Canaan approaches its opening.
Read other design inspiration stories from WO here.
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