Every year, this weekend is the official time to celebrate small businesses. In preparation for the holiday gift giving season it was somehow decided that it was appropriate to recognize those private businesses within your community by stopping in to say hello, thank them for all that they do, and spend a little money. After paying that small bit of tribute it is back to business as usual – spending money with the familiarity of chains, well known and heavily advertised brands, and buy on-line (yes even on-line business with restaurants through apps like GrubHub).
What we lose sight of is that small business is, and always has been – the backbone of our economy, and the heart and soul of small communities throughout the country. A small business is the American Dream – the opportunity to put a plaque on your door that says – “this is what I represent, this is who I am, this is what I love to do.” Without small businesses – communities would lack personality, a common signature, and the warmth that neighborhoods promote.
The funny thing is that these small businesses – in this case – restaurants – cannot survive on that once-a-year recognition, or even the occasional special event. The heart of a small restaurant is a steady flow of support, not only to reach financial stability, but also to do what they do best – bring people together.
I try, whenever I travel, to find those small, privately owned, interestingly unique bistros, trattorias, and cafes that are the soul of a community and the lifelong dream of a chef or restaurateur who views this as his or her mission – a chance to bare it all and sign every plate that leaves the kitchen. I enjoy taking it all in – talking with the server about the history of the place, watching kitchen staff concentrate on every plate, and absorbing the ambience and looking at the details that are always a reflection of who the people are that own and operate the business. I try to feel their pride and invest the time in really reading the menu, checking out the flatware, plates and glassware – looking for art work or materials that may have a connection to the owners dream, and –whenever possible asking to peak in the kitchen so that I can acknowledge the work being done.
Sometimes I order what intrigues me, while other times I simply ask the server what they like or even say: “Tell the chef to cook for me what he or she likes.” This is part of the small business experience that can rarely be duplicated in a larger chain operation.
I like to thank the cooks and watch the sparkle in their eyes and the beads of sweat on their foreheads that represent the concentration necessary to do it right, and the pride when the results are what they work toward. I think about the individuals who work there and who do so for far too little money, but do it because they love to cook or serve, have a strong connection with the chef and owner, or simply because this is a perfect opportunity to learn. The small restaurant is where passionate employees catch the bug, and develop the heart to one day become an entrepreneur on their own. Small restaurants are the real incubators for ownership. As I look into the eyes of the employees I can pick those out who will carry the entrepreneur’s flag in the future – taking the opportunity to put their heart and soul into a business, invest incredible hours so that their signature can find a home on the plate, and with any luck – provide a living. It always makes me proud to be an American when I see how that “Dream” can become a reality for anyone who wants it, and is willing to invest the time and effort.
Of course, I can’t help but look around and make a mental note of the things that I would do differently, but at the same time know that I am not the one who took the leap and overcame the fear and uncertainty of personal ownership. I feel for the operator when there are empty tables or barstools, and scratch my head when I see that chain restaurant across the street with a waiting line. “Don’t they understand how much more special the experience will be in this little bistro with two people in the kitchen, a bartender and two servers? Don’t they realize that the chef/owner is always here, always working, always fretting about the details that make a customer experience special? There is no soul in that chain brand across the street – sure the food is tasty and consistent, and sure the prices may be more reasonable than in that Café George on the other side of main street – but where is the heart and soul, where is the unique experience?
What is most heartbreaking is to walk down the street one day and see the restaurant lights out and a for sale sign on the front window. This was someone’s dream. This restaurant was given every ounce of dedication, energy, sweat and tears, passion, and love that the chef or owner could muster. This was the business that kept the owner up at night as he or she worked at keeping the passion high while wrestling with the reality of paying bills, providing a fair wage for employees, hiding the hurt that comes from missed family events and deferred personal investments for the sake of the restaurant. This was the place that gave the owner chills and thrills when the lease agreement was initially signed, the used kitchen equipment was brought back to life, the menu was designed and recipes tested, the staff were brought on board, and the first plates left the kitchen. Now, the crushing sense of defeat creeps into his or her psyche along with the personal question: “what next?”
Whenever I see that for sale or for lease sign go up – my heart skips a beat and a tear forms in my eyes – I feel for that individual who gave it everything. Dreams are wonderful until they are dashed against the wall. Some may roll with the punches and bounce right back with another idea or a turn of the page in their “what next” career planner. Others have a tough time shaking it off and viewing it as a stepping- stone. I wonder about the people when I see that sign and share in their despair.
As I walk down Main Street and side roads looking for those holiday gifts for family and friends and pass the small bookstores, coffee shops, restaurants, clothing boutiques, card shops, music stores, and artisan storefronts – I wonder about the people and their dreams. I know that every one of those shops that I enter will host someone – owner or employee, who will say good afternoon, or Merry Christmas. There will be a smile and a thank you whether I buy anything or not, but beyond that smile I know there is a person hoping to be there next year.
Small Business Saturday or weekend is just a tease; it is not enough; it’s comparable to celebrating family on special occasions and ignoring the need to connect the rest of the year. Small business people are members of the community family and as such need the oxygen that only your support can provide.
“The number one thing small business needs is to get more customers. Spend more time serving existing customers and getting new ones. The challenge for small business is knowing where customers are and reaching them effectively.”
-Brad D. Smith
If you appreciate the importance of the American Dream and understand how important it is to recognize people who give their all and sign their work, then support those local businesses throughout the year. The experience will always be better. Ask them about their dream, their history, the building where they hold court, their food, how they cook, and where they find the ingredients they work with. When the food is good – say thanks and give them a thumbs-up. When it falls short, then thank them anyway and give them some positive critique. When the service is great – thank them and tip the server well. When service falls short – thank them anyway and offer some helpful advice. Tip them anyway – they work for sub-minimum wage.
When you are walking down the street, thinking about where to eat today – drive by that enormous parking lot for your favorite brand restaurant and park on a side street, enjoy a short walk, and pop into that Bistro with 30 seats and 8 stools at the bar. Enjoy the smile and sincere welcome when you enter, talk with the server about the operation and ask for their recommendations, sit back and enjoy the personal attention, peek in the kitchen to give the cooks a thumbs up, and by all means – tell your friends to do the same.
Small business is the backbone of our country. Don’t forget it.
PLAN BETTER – TRAIN HARDER
Harvest America Ventures, LLC