Regarding Recycling, ReStores Repurpose the Concept of Consignment Shop

Feb 21, 2013

The downtown Milwaukee ReStore doesn't look like your average consignment shop.
Credit Susan Bence

Recycling and repurposing materials can not only be a cost- savings in what is – for many people – tight financial times; it’s also becoming hip. Even Martha Stewart talks up repurposed furniture and décor.

ReStore is one of the local operations riding on the trend. What might appear to be a discount hardware store, actually sells new and “gently-used” building materials, furniture and the like. The proceeds help fund local Habitat for Humanity affiliates build and renovate homes.

And a couple of young Milwaukee professionals have been inspired by the recycling and repurposing movement.

Rauhut's recycling

When Katelyn Rauhut decided to “donate” her first year out of college as a volunteer. Conservation was her thing – a passion that took root during Rauhut’s childhood. Every summer, she jumped in the family camper with her mom and grandparents. Together they headed west to camp and hike national parks. But Rauhut decided to take on the challenge of working for what she calls a good cause. Yet somehow, graduating from Carroll University in May of 2012 with her bachelor's degree in environmental science, she didn’t picture herself in a sea of building supplies, furniture and rack upon rack of windows in this no-frills warehouse in the shadow of Highway 45.

More than 800 Restores dot the U.S. and Canadian map and many of the “worker bees” who make them hum are volunteers. Everything that flows in is donated and everything going out is sold.

"We’re able to have those items not end up in a landfill," Rauhut says. "Every penny that comes in is really supporting our mission to provide affordable, decent housing for the people of Milwaukee."

Rauhut found her way here through a one-year Americorp Vista stint.

"I’m the only Vista for a ReStore in the state that deals with recycling; they wanted someone to really focus on recycling," she says. "That’s one of the reasons I decided to do this; I mean I’m fresh out of college; I had learned all about recycling and the environment but I never actually go to go out and work it."

She calls her first recycling contribution a no brainer – Rauhut set up a internal recycling system, rather than just using the garbage dumpster at the store. Now when staff and volunteers are bustling around taking in and reselling donations, they can toss soda cans and newspaper wrappings in the proper “waste stream.”

Now Rauhut is focusing on expanding ReStore’s existing programs, streamlining them. For example, a semi is staged in the store's loading dock, where household items that have accumulated at ReStore - from clothing to DVDs - get placed. Then a partner agency, called Recycle That, comes and picks it up. And Rauhut says the agency ReStore by the pound for the stuff it hauls off.

ReStore also places supersized metal Recycle That bins at churches and other stores around the area, and Rauhut hopes to distribute another 10 to 20 bins to locations around the city in the next six months.

Rauhut is also pushing to increase the volume of “all things electronic." That's because the value of “e-cyclables," such as copper, can bring a lot of profit from another partner agency that pays ReStore for the items and collects them. The value even propelled a change in ReStore’s donation policy.

"Before would take items that were working, but now we’ll even take non-working items because that’s still another way for us to bring in profit to build more homes and help the mission of Habitat," she says.

"These items don’t have to end up in landfill and there’s a way to repurpose almost everything lately." -Katelyn Rauhut

Rauhut is especially keen to expand the store’s deconstruction program. It provides specially trained volunteer teams to handle “on site” removals.

"Let’s say you need to remodel your home and you want to purchase cabinets or whatnot; we can come in and take out the old ones and resale them; or we get a lot of people who are going to tear down their home, we can go in and take as much as we can – the windows, the doors – anything we can and resell them here or we can even take them to our local scrap yard," Rauhut says.

With a handful of months remaining in her ReStore stint, Rauhut hasn’t given up on conjuring up a way to stretch a core group of busy volunteers and a couple of trucks to expand its “deconstruction” capacity. After her assignment ends, Rauhut isn't sure what she'll do next, but recycling now figures prominently in her environmental interest list.

"I definitely want to continue with recycling – I really want to educate people on the ways to recycle and that these items don’t have to end up in landfill and there’s a way to repurpose almost everything lately," she says. "So it’s awesome."

Brandt's brainchild

Ten miles east, just below downtown Milwaukee on 1st Street, Jake Brandt is setting up a new ReStore.

"This ReStore especially is going to focus on quality home furnishing; furniture, décor, those kinds of goods," he says. "I mean we’ll still carry the kinds of stuff you see at the Wauwatosa ReStore like cabinetry, doors, lighting."

These building basics are artfully displayed out back, but its sun-filled storefront has a funky boutique air about it. Brandt, like Katelyn Rauhut, spent a year at the Wauwatosa warehouse as a Vista volunteer.

But his story, like this new store, has a twist. First of all, the 6’4", flowing-haired Brandt didn’t have a conservationist bone in his body.

"My dream, if I couldn’t make it as a rock star; was going to be to try to find a small business where I could do in-house marketing or advertising," he says.

But after finishing top of his class and graduating from UW- Whitewater with degrees in electronic media and advertising in 2008, Brandt says he couldn't find a job anywhere.

"This is not a rummage sale, this is a retail store and you can feel good about here because it all goes to Habitat for Humanity." -Jake Brandt

"I was delivering sandwiches for Jimmy John’s for a little while just trying to find something," he says. "One of my friends tipped me off on the program."

He had no inkling ReStore would be the perfect fit. Brandt has developed an eye for treasures among its donations.

"We get a lot from, say, someone at a home passes away and their family doesn’t need all the materials that are left over and they don’t know what to do with it or don’t feel like going through the process of selling everything," he says. "So they’ll give us a call and we’ll come right to their home and pick up everything we can resell and bring it to a store like this and give it a second life."

But the clincher came into play early during his Vista days; Brandt was given creative freedom to test out marketing schemes – as long as they didn’t come with a price tag.

"I had to try to find a way to attract the public that would be fun, hopefully garner us a little free press and this idea just popped into my head: a recycled art contest."

A previous year’s winner on display – a giant sunflower - has the base of an old stop sign and some steel sheeting, and leaves made out of old shutters. This year’s contest – the fourth annual – kicked off at the new ReStore Brandt is managing. The only rule: the art has to be created from material at ReStore.

Brandt seems to be building some buzz. Opening night, half of his inventory sold. Was it luck? Brandt thinks not.

"Setting it up like this to make it fun and inviting is the way to do it," he says. "This isn’t a rummage sale, this is a retail store and you can feel good about here because it all goes to Habitat for Humanity."

Last year volunteers worked along side partnering families to build 37 homes in the Milwaukee area. Brandt – who clearly has drunk the ReStore Kool-Aid - says that’s a little recycling going a long way.

There’s still time for the artistic and crafty to try their hand at a repurposed masterpiece - check out the rules here.