Gloria DeBenedet can laugh at something amusing, just like the rest of us. But she's going to be almost constantly in stitches for the next year — and this is no joke.
DeBenedet, 59, has until July 2014 to make alterations for a new uniform order for every member of the Minnesota National Guard 34th Red Bull Infantry Division — more than 5,000 troops, the St. Cloud Times reported.
"I did the math — there was a lot of number crunching," said DeBenedet, who makes routine trips to Camp Ripley to gather measurements and take stock uniforms back to St. Cloud for alterations. "I know I can do it. I might never want to sew another uniform again after I'm done, but I'll make it somehow."
DeBenedet moved to Sauk Rapids about a year ago and worked at an alteration shop but couldn't get enough work to pay her bills. So she started investigating a couple different options. First, she learned of the new Army Service Uniform project that affects all service members, including those in the National Guard and the Reserves. Millions of personnel have to comply with new regulations calling for a blue uniform to replace the former green ones by July 2014.
After a few phone calls, DeBenedet wound up working on part of the project as a subcontractor, then got possession of the full contract last October after others weren't up to the task. Since then, she started looking for space to house her project and hit on the idea of starting a second business to offset the first.
That's how Willow Tea came to be. You might walk past it on Germain Street without knowing half of what goes on inside. In the former space of the St. Cloud Downtown Council, DeBenedet has seating for 12 customers and sells varieties of loose and bagged teas, in bulk and other quantities, as well as miscellaneous tea accessories like pots, infusers and warmers. The most expensive item on the menu is $2.95 for an in-house pot of tea. She complements her teas with baked goods using organic flour from the Swany White mill in Freeport. Cookies cost 75 cents.
But it's what's behind a wall midway through the store that reveals her true mission.
DeBenedet, who grew up in International Falls, had a contractor for a father, and three of her four brothers were business owners. She previously owned Zoomski's Coffee Shop for eight years in Little Falls before selling it in 2011. After identifying the space for Willow Tea, she ripped up the carpet, built a partition and installed some kitchen equipment — all on her own.
It's here that rack after rack of uniform coats and pants stand at attention. She has several tables and sewing stations, stacks of patches next to a chart indicating rank, and rolls of piping and braid.
Page 2 of 3 - DeBenedet opened the tea shop in late May, hired two employees, and said she expects it will show a "nice loss." That's OK because it will offset the profit from her Army uniform contract. The Army values it at $435,000, though it's unlikely to return that much.
Each service member has a list of potential alterations that can be made. If all of them are required, they would total $93.50.
"I can see how they arrived at it, but I'm averaging about half that on each one," DeBenedet said. "And I don't know if I'll really wind up working on 5,000. Some soldiers have decided to take care of alterations on their own, rather than bringing them to camp. And they might have to extend the contract because of back orders. Who knows?"
Nonetheless, she could earn well into six figures for about 18 months' work. She has hired someone to hem pants and may add more help as the deadline approaches — although she'll be careful because the contract mandates she pay any employees at least $19.82 an hour.
DeBenedet estimates 80 percent of the stock jacket sleeves need alterations.
All pants and skirts need to be hemmed, and about 20 percent of the pants need to be taken in or let out. Then there are the patches.
Uniforms can require a combat service identification badge, overseas service bars on the jacket sleeve for both enlisted troops and officers, and distinctive unit insignia on the shoulder loops of the blue coat for enlisted troops.
Service members are expected to possess the entire uniform by July 2014. The two key components of the uniform, the coat and slacks, cost around $140. Enlisted troops receive an increase in their annual uniform allowance to help offset the expense, including the alterations.
Chief Warrant Officer Dan Bednarek, an Army spokesman at Camp Ripley, said he was aware of DeBenedet's efforts.
"It's a good story," Bednarek said. "Camp Ripley has a $312 million economic impact on Minnesota, and this is a small example of it. It's an ambitious project all around. There are millions of soldiers who will have to be in compliance with this soon. You'd wear this type of uniform to any dress event. I'm sure (DeBenedet) and a lot of other people are busy making it possible."
DeBenedet turns each uniform around in a few weeks. She's kept up so far, though she's required to get each done in 90 days.
"It's a lot of hard work, but what have I got for overhead? Thread and my time and the tea shop," DeBenedet said. "A lot of people across the country are making money on this, and I think that's a good thing for job creation."
When her Army adventure is over, DeBenedet says she wants to launch a line of plus-size women's clothes. She's already looked into options for manufacturing the goods in Chicago. She would create the designs in St. Cloud.
Page 3 of 3 - "It means a lot again now when something says 'Made in America,' " she said. "And I'm sure I'll continue doing military alterations, too. I'm smart enough to know this (tea shop) isn't going to support me. There's also something special about being able to produce these uniforms. They make the guys look nice, and I feel incredibly honored that I can do something for the people who are serving our country."