Scott and Bryan Balcarcel, owners of Tullahoma Awards and Gifts (TAG) – a new trophy and recognition shop in Northgate Mall – came to town earlier this year through a process nearly as random as throwing a dart.
A little more than a year ago, the three Balcarcel brothers – Scott, Bryan and their younger brother Corey – gathered for Thanksgiving with their parents in Medford, New York. During the festivities, the family collectively decided that they were ready to make a fresh start by opening a business together in a wholly new location.
Though it was clear what they would likely do, it was less clear where they would do it. So, they pulled out a map.
State by state, they crossed off the places where, for one reason or another, they had no interest in living. When they were done, they were left with about 10 states, most of them in the Southeast. To narrow those down, rather than throwing a dart, they spun a bottle. When the bottle stopped spinning, it was pointing to Nashville.
Despite its location on densely populated Long Island, the Medford community is a relatively small one, with a population just over 24,000. So when the family started looking around the Nashville area, Scott volunteered what he knew about a little Tennessee town just south of it that was comparable in size. Every few years, when Scott would visit friends in Georgia, he made a habit of visiting Lynchburg and stopping for the night in Tullahoma. That, he convinced the family, might be the place to look.
And so for the next year, Scott said, “we stalked the town,” making several visits to learn about the area.
In October, Bryan spoke to Tullahoma Area Chamber of Commerce president Ken Keller. From then, he said, things moved quickly. Just two days after Christmas, Keller called Bryan with an offer of space in Northgate Mall. Bryan jumped. Within the 10 days, Bryan had put his house up for sale, rented one in Tullahoma, packed his wares and headed south. By Jan. 7, he was here, finalizing the paperwork and setting up the new shop while Scott closed up the old one in Medford.
By mid-February, Scott was here, too. The machinery – color and UV printers, laser engravers and the like – arrived not long after and by the first of March, the Tullahoma shop was open for business.
“We’re holding off doing a ribbon cutting ceremony until my brother gets here,” Scott said of Corey, who is expected to arrive by the end of April. “He’s still in New York, shoveling,” he joked.
And Mom and Dad are coming, too.
Family Operated for Two Decades
Though the brothers come from different professional backgrounds, they are by no means new to the recognition business. For nearly 20 years, the family has owned and operated Long Island Trophy and Awards.
It started as a hobby, Bryan said. When he was 15 years old, he opened a sports card and memorabilia store called Cardboard Sports. In time, his father Joe would start helping with the business.
Following his 1989 retirement from the police force, Joe began engraving the sports plaques that his son sold. But, within a few years, Bryan started a new career as a school teacher and closed his sports store. This, Scott said, left Joe looking for something to do.
“So we gave him the engraving machine, stuck it on top of my mom’s dryer and started (the company),” he said.
As Joe’s engraving business grew, so did his shop, which moved from the laundry room to a converted garage and, eventually, a small building of its own.
Over the years, Scott found himself helping his father more and more. But when Joe suffered a series of small strokes in 1999, Scott said, “He couldn’t do it anymore.” So Scott left his aerospace job of 19 years and took over the trophy shop. Several years later, when Bryan was laid off from his teaching job, he joined the family business that had evolved from the sports store he’d started as a teen.
Gifts and Custom Orders
With the move to Tullahoma, the business has evolved once again, primarily because the shop here is so much larger than the one they left behind.
“We had a full-service trophy and award shop before,” said Bryan. But in Medford, he said, “Our showroom was about the size of a one-car garage.”
In Northgate Mall, however, they have significantly more display space than they did before. About 2,000 square feet more. So, to take advantage of the extra space, they’ve opted to expand their offerings. It’s a move that also allows Bryan to revive his sports memorabilia store on-site, offering licensed products, cards and framed sports and celebrity memorabilia.
In addition to trophies and awards, TAG will put its engraving, laser cutting and UV printing services to use on products that range from custom-designed plastic industrial signs and name badges to a full line of canvas, glass and wood gifts that can be personalized in-house.
“We’re trying to not only have the full service, quality, custom trophies and awards, but we’re also expanding into the personalized business and gifts,” said Bryan. “We can do photos, we can do puzzles, we can do mugs — we can do all kinds of gifts.”
The display case in front of him bolsters his point, showcasing a wide variety of gift items that range from flasks and keychains to chess sets and golf equipment.
That Bryan refers to “custom trophies and awards,” is no hyperbole. More than adding engraved plates to off-the-rack awards, he said, TAG can design a custom-to-order recognition piece from the ground up.
In fact, Scott said, “The thing we were known best for in New York was our ability to make custom awards for people.”
A Fee-Free Experience
For all its history and service, it may be in pricing that TAG makes its biggest impression.
Other trophy shops, Bryan said, charge their customers fee upon fee after they’ve selected an award. There are setup fees and fees for logos, artwork and embellishments. There are even fees for each letter they print. “Things add up very quickly,” he said.
Scott agreed. “The name ‘Jennifer,’ at 20 cents a letter, is two bucks,” he said. “Imagine putting a paragraph on it.”
But Tullahoma Awards and Gifts doesn’t do that.
“We don’t believe in fees,” said Scott. “We do not charge a single fee.”
Instead, they charge a flat price for their pieces.
Bryan explained, “You charge a little bit more for the piece in the beginning – not a lot, maybe 10 percent more than your competitor is charging — but then you’re saving your customer 85 to 90 percent after all those charges.”
At TAG, Scott said, if a customer selects an 8×10 plaque that sells for $25, “That’s my price. I don’t care if you want a big letter ‘A’ on it or the Declaration of Independence on it. That’s what you get.”
Tullahoma Awards and Gifts is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Sunday hours are noon to 6 p.m. The store is closed on Monday.