A FOUR-PART SERIES
Part 2: Commiting to Your Community
After taking an assessment of your business, its physical location and gaining an understanding of what steps can be taken to improve your business, let’s look at how community involvement can strengthen your ties to the people that comprise your customer base.
Deciding How to Get Involved
Finding the right way to become involved in the community is the first problem many businesses face. To figure out the best methods, I asked Lily Kerrigan (LK), PreGel’s events and marketing coordinator, how she assesses community opportunities.
LP: What suggestion do you make most often for businesses to involve themselves in their communities?
LK: I recommend that businesses find an aspect of their community that they feel strongly about and then ask how they can get involved. You never know what need you might uncover! For example, if your interest lies in art – check out local galleries to find artists you like and invite them to exhibit their pieces on the walls of your shop. [Remember] being truly involved in your community is a long-term endeavour, not a short-term goal; just make sure to focus on what you find to be important and don’t overcommit your time and resources.
LP: Which suggestions have you seen that work the best?
LK: An example that I particularly love is one of our local Charlotte organizations, Beards BeCAUSE. This group advocates against domestic violence and raises funds for local abuse shelters in a fun way – by growing beards! Restaurants sponsor male participants that compete to grow their beards the thickest and longest. All the proceeds support women battling domestic violence.
LP: Which suggestions have you seen that didn’t work?
LK: The biggest hurdle is remembering that once you’ve committed, you need to stick to it. Before you get involved in any community activity, make sure you have the time, manpower and resources. If you spread yourself too thin, your business, the charity or event you are sponsoring, or both will suffer.
“Going local” (briefly discussed in Part 1) is something many consumers are concerned about these days for a variety of reasons. “Going local” is about supporting locally produced products, thereby boosting the surrounding economy. The blog, Sustainable Table: Serving Up Healthy Food Choices, shares that “annually, Americans consume more than $600 billion in food. In most communities today, food is purchased entirely at a grocery store or market, with only about 7% of local food dollars staying in the community.” The big move towards supporting local business is one that can help dollars stay within your community. Sustainable Table also references that if consumers purchase produce from a local farm, 90% of that profit goes back directly into the hands of that local farmer. Take this same concept and apply it to local businesses such as pastry shops, gelaterias, ice cream shops, local breweries, cheesemakers and more. If you utilize local farmers, not only are you reaping the benefits of fresher ingredients, but you are also contributing to the sustainability of your community. In a time when most people are concerned about the welfare of their future, investing in a local business adds comfort to members of the community who may feel that their local economy is unstable. When a fresh product spends less time in holding (either freezer or otherwise), the product tastes better, and that equates to higher quality. Consumers are usually willing to buy something that seems a little higher in price if the quality is better.
Pairing the products you produce alongside other locally produced products is a great way to spread the word for all parties involved. Building from the first installment in this series, locations can also be a challenge, especially when you consider the weather. It can be difficult for a business to sell gelato during a Chicago blizzard! Adding other local products to your menu not only diversifies what you have to offer customers during all seasons, it also provides other reasons to make your shop a destination.
“Back of the house” is another type of partnership. A “back of the house” partnership refers to a business that utilizes the products you produce as an item offered on their menu. For example, if you make an excellent mousse cake and you know of a restaurant
that does not have the capacity to make their own, you can offer to supply your desserts to them. Additionally, you can custom-produce products for another business; in doing this, not only is your business being advertised, but you are also showing customers that you have the capability of producing items they might have never seen in your shop.
Sponsorships are a great way to get involved and demonstrate to the community that you are not just concerned with the bottom line. Supporting your customers, their concerns and interests allows you to further build and solidify your relationships with them. There are plenty of charities and groups to support in any community, including sports, theater or even a community charity or local chapter of a national charity. There is no rule as to which event or activity you should sponsor; pick something that is important to you or your business. Remember, if there is something at stake for you, something that connects to you personally, you will also be more likely to stick to whatever you are sponsoring.
Every community has some issue that demands attention. Common examples are safety and the environment. If your community has taken a step toward becoming more environmentally friendly, make sure you endorse recycling by including recycling bins next to the garbage containers for customers. You can also choose to use eco-friendly service items such as napkins, plasticware, and to-go containers.
A word to the wise: While being involved in issues in your community can be a very positive move for your business, there are always issues that are more emotional and controversial. It may not be beneficial to vocally take part in issues that are known to cause anger or confrontation, such as religion and politics.
While these issues may be important to you, remember that you are still representing a company and not a personal opinion, and being too vocal about risqué issues might cause irreversible damage in the long run.
Taking part in local events, such as fairs, festivals and farmers markets, is a great way to get outside of the business and into the community. To get an idea of just how important local events can be for a business, I spoke with Leslie Cooperband and Wes Jarrell (WJ), co-owners of Prairie Fruits Farm, LLC, in Champain, IL. Leslie and Wes own an organic produce and goat farm; they take part in a local farmer’s market and host their own slow-food dinners at their farm.
LP: How has your involvement in the local farmer’s market helped the awareness of your products within the community?
WJ: Nothing beats meeting the customer, talking with him/her about how your products are made, how to use the products, how the animals are managed, etc. Until last year, we did tastings, which were essential to get most people aware of how good goat cheese can be and how many varieties of goat cheese there are. Without tastings we would have had much more trouble getting into the university market …
LP: What has been the response from the diners of your slow-food dinners? Can you see a change in their awareness of local food?
WJ: The response has been phenomenal. Early on, we recieved comments like “the best meal I ever had,” “looks a little like Sonoma County.” Now we get “why couldn’t I get a seat,” [and the answer is] because we sold all 500+ seats for the year in the 36 hours after we put it up on the Web.
LP: How does this impact your business?
WJ: We’d like more farms to do this, but it’s even more difficult to pull off than it looks. First you need an excellent chef, which we’re lucky enough to have.
I think our charismatic herd of goats also does a lot for the customer experience, and we have several levels of stories to tell about the farm, the landscape, the local food scene, etc.
This sort of community involvement is great, especially in areas where food education and culture is important. More and more people are becoming more aware of where their food is coming from, how it’s produced and how it ends up on their table.
People are becoming more and more involved in their food. It is important to involve you customers in your business. Not only do they want to know what they are eating, but where they are eating it and who is behind it. Showing support for community causes shows current and potential customers that you care about their needs. Involving customers within your business lets them know that you want them to take part of your vision and that you are not solely interested in their monetary support of your business. Part three of this series will take an even more in-depth look at the practical ways to involve customers in your business.
Wes Jarrell and Leslie Cooperband. Prairie Fruits Farm, LLC. www.prariefruits.com.
Sustainable Table: Serving Up Healthy Food Choices (2009). Economics of Local. Retrieved from http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/whybuylocal/#econ.