ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS - Growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Meg O’Donnell was an industrious child who enjoyed art, and she successfully capitalized on those traits with her launch of Little Chicken, an Atlantic Highlands store that offers customized kids’ apparel and accessories as well as fun event space.
“I was always driven to create things and loved art as a kid, especially painting and sketching,” said O’Donnell, 37, an Atlantic Highlands resident. “I also loved to work and the feeling of accomplishment I got when people liked the job I did.”
After graduating from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., with a dual major in fine arts and art history, she took a job in fashion PR, a role which involved traveling to Europe with clients. “It was very interesting,” she recalled, “but I ultimately realized that it wasn’t for me because I missed creating my own work.”
O’Donnell went back to school, graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City with a degree in accessories design, and has worked in the women’s fashion industry since 2008.
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In 2010, O’Donnell and her husband, a professional mariner, moved to Atlantic Highlands, and, shortly after welcoming kids Olivia and Jack, O’Donnell was inspired to create a business of her own.
“We used to call my daughter ‘Little Chicken’ as a nickname when she was a baby and I actually registered the name of my store in 2017, long before I owned it,” O’Donnell explained.
“At that time, I was feeling uninspired and wanted to do something cool with a kids' brand," she said. "I put the thought aside when we had our son and the pandemic happened, but as COVID simmered down a bit, I went back to the idea. Being in the women’s fashion industry and traveling to Asia a lot, I began speaking to factories overseas and started designing kid’s shoes,” she said of her foray into genuine leather sneakers for kids at an accessible price point.
“I’d noticed a lot of young families with little children moving to Atlantic Highlands during the pandemic, which inspired my interest in a brick-and-mortar location,” she continued. “The store that we now occupy — formerly a nautical outlet called The Skipper Shop — became available in 2021 and when I saw the ‘For Rent’ sign, I told my husband that it would be an amazing location for a children’s store.
"I liked the space because it was dual purpose," O'Donnell said. "The front is retail space and the back is an event space for hosting kids’ birthday parties, music sessions, sewing classes, mommy-and-me yoga, toddler open play, and even speech therapy,” she said of the communal space that gives kids a place to gather, learn, and play. “The one thing in town that I thought was missing was something for kids, so I storyboarded everything out and we opened Little Chicken in November 2021.”
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'See each kid’s personality through their jacket'
Today, in her 2,400-square-foot space which caters to kids from infancy through age 15, the store’s Little Chicken brand offers “a huge line of personalized products for children, including kids’ denim jackets with different patches,” O’Donnell said. “We partnered with Levi’s and are now the largest independent purchaser of Levi’s denim jackets for kids in the country,” she said of her jackets, which are priced at $46 plus $5 per patch they select.
“We have over 200 different patches to choose from — from initials to soccer balls, lightning bolts and much more — and you really get to see each kid’s personality through their jacket,” she said.
“The jackets have become enormously popular and make an excellent gift because they’re very personal to each kid,” O’Donnell said. “We affix the patches with a heat press in our store and our seamstress, Natalie, who also runs our kids’ sewing classes, can additionally stitch each patch on for extra durability for anyone who wants that option.”
Colorful T-shirts are another big seller at the store.
“My husband has always loved screen printing, and when we decided to open the store, he bought a printing press and launched his own business called Shirt Locker Printing,” O’Donnell said. “Together, we design the Little Chicken line of graphic apparel and he creates them by hand in his studio. Our most popular graphic is our white ‘Snacks’ T-shirt with red letters, but we have 30 to 50 different styles, including shirts and sweatshirts with holiday themes this season.
“We also carry kids’ accessories like tote bags, pouches and backpacks, and our line of $12 beanies can have a patch added to make a great customized gift for under $20,” she said.
“We take pride in putting out a unique product at an accessible price point and are especially proud of our website, which took our business to another level since we launched it this past March,” O’Donnell noted. “Over the past nine months, we’ve shipped custom denim jackets and graphic T-shirts all over the world and even to some celebrities, including Nicky Hilton.”
Little Chicken also features an event space that O’Donnell describes as a ‘happy place’ for kids and adults alike.
“Our back room is bright and modern,” she said. “With a pop of colors and interesting hardware and accents that I pulled together from my background in art as well as cool music playing, from David Bowie to Taylor Swift, it’s a fun escape from the world outside for all ages.”
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Among trends, O’Donnell said customization, individuality and acceptance of people are all so important right now. “It’s kids just being themselves, saying ‘This is what I’m about,’ and letting people know,” she said. “Fun, bright colors are also in, along with tons of smiley faces, lightning bolts, neon, glitter, sequins, etc. It’s an ‘everything goes’ time with a lot of different textures and colors. These kids’ parents grew up in the 1990s and it’s a return to that era and a new nostalgia.”
As for challenges, O’Donnell has come to understand the ups and downs of retail.
“You learn that sales will ebb and flow based on circumstances beyond your control, including the weather, the pandemic, holidays, etc., so it’s about managing the highs and lows,” she said. And while supply chain issues are improving, she added, “shipping costs have gone through the roof and product costs have gone up as well.”
'A store people talk about growing up with'
Supported by four employees (including store manager/customer liaison Julia D'Aguanno) plus an events director who schedules the back room and works with instructors and a party planner, O’Donnell is a jack of all trades.
“I do everything from ordering Levi’s jackets to designing T-shirts, shipping items, and taking out the trash — whatever needs to be done — but we have a great staff who interact with our customers on a daily basis and create a great shopping experience,” she said.
Looking ahead, “we’re always adding new products and classes and hope to continue to grow our website,” O’Donnell said. “On December 8th from 6 to 8 p.m., we’ll be holding our next ‘shop and sip’ in our event space. During that time, kids’ jackets will be designed, pressed and sewn in our relaxing atmosphere complete with complimentary champagne and appetizers and you’ll walk out with the perfect gift.”
“Down the road, I hope that Little Chicken can be a store people talk about growing up with and a place they can’t wait to bring their own kids to someday,” O’Donnell shared. “Our brand is currently available at Maisonette (a high-end digital marketplace for kids), but this is just the beginning for us and we hope to become a nationally recognized brand available through Amazon, Zappos, Nordstrom and more because we have such a unique and popular offering.”
Ultimately, “I enjoy making people happy with items I create and it’s exciting to see how much kids and parents love our store and products,” she concluded. “Seeing a kid love our product and wear it to school every day is truly awesome.”
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Location: 35 First Ave., Atlantic Highlands
Owner: Meg O’Donnell
Opened: November 2021
This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: How Little Chicken in Atlantic Highlands raises children's fashion