Showing posts with label small business. Show all posts
Showing posts with label small business. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Small Business Series 3: Arcadia and Squeaky Wheel

 In the first two installments of this series, we concentrated on the contributions and quality of small, local entrepreneurs.  One of the themes that continues to emerge is the concern that so many of these small enterprises have for their customers, workers, and communities.  And in that vein, two of the most socially responsible, forward-thinking companies that come to mind are Arcadia and Squeaky Wheel Media....

It was the first Monday of the month, a night when Arcadia regularly sponsors fundraising events for local charities.  This night, their sales and the raffles they sold were helping to support    Trinity Place Shelter, an organization dedicated to helping homeless LGBTQ youth transition from life in a shelter to life as an independent adult.    So, off we went to find this store located at 249 West 23rd Street, just off of 7th Avenue, in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City.  

“Find” was the operative word.  Retail space in New York City is expensive, and small businesses need to find ways to make maximum use of small rental spaces to survive.  We walked past it, even though we were actively looking for it.   

What a shame for all those other New Yorkers or passers-by who might miss Arcadia in their hurry:  this shop is an absolute gem. 

Upon entering, our eyes were treated to an incredible array of gifts, candles, glassware, books, wind chimes, jewelry, and an assortment of gifts that were clearly unique, hand-made, and truly ‘niche’ goods.   It only took me minutes to learn the name of Jay Gurewitsch (store owner and driving force) and his partner Ian Edwards (sustainability & communications specialist at the register).  And what impressed me more than the quality products they supplied, was the philosophy,  caring, and the passion that went into selecting those products. 

The vision for Arcadia grew out of Jay’s experiences in retail environments; “simple is beautiful” was his response to the complicated, difficult, hectic lives many New Yorkers lived.  As a child raised in a modern Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn,  Jay (pictured below) was raised with a deep appreciation of and respect for religion, spirituality, and strongly held personal beliefs. An enormous love of learning and reading colors his approach: he has an in-depth story about every product he carries. He revels in seeking out knowledge of other cultures, religions, and communities, and the broad range of products at Arcadia is a reflection of that search. 

He writes on his website:

“My father’s factory, Star Candle, is a union shop where employees from more than 20 different countries together, frequently generation after generation. It is an American anachronism that is still going strong; where blue collar workers make a decent wage, have health insurance, union membership, a good working environment and produce a reasonably priced product … Watching my father working with his employees, customers and suppliers also taught me some of the most important lessons of my business career; that while the highest ethical conduct may not always pay off financially, it always pays off in far more important ways.”

Like physical manifestations of his father’s employees, the products featured at Arcadia encompass a broad and eclectic cultural stew.  Arcadia focuses as much as possible on fairly traded products made throughout the world, so that their customers’ interest in supporting indigenous populations and their cultures can be achieved. 

What is fascinating about Arcadia is how they reject the standard 'norms:'  they reject mass-produced, standardized corporate products,  but they also reject the jingoist notion that all products must be “American-made” to be worthwhile.  Rather, Arcadia has found a way to work fairly and honestly with small producers in America and around the globe, without regard for political borders. 

 Before leaving that night, we went home with a copper, iron, and wooden bell produced by a couple named Abdul and Fatima, who are members of an artisan cooperative in northwestern India for $24.95, a price we found entirely reasonable, even on our restricted budget.

From recycling packaging to using wind-generated electricity, Arcadia has a vision for a better society – a vision that is embodied in every aspect of their operation.  

This is the kind of business that America, and Americans, need to support.

Arcadia’s emphasis on social responsibility reminded me of another small company I had visited in New York City back in April.   

Update:  In January 2014, Jay announced that the Arcadia storefront would be closing in March 2014.  Some context is important here:  As we all know, 2007 saw the beginning of the deepest recession the US has had since the Great Depression.  Disposable income, production of goods and services, and gross sales – especially in small businesses – all fell.  At the same time, under NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (2001 – 2013), more than 40%  of Manhattan was rezoned.  During this time, rents on many small mom-and-pop business skyrocketed, with increases of $25,000 per month being common.  Many local restaurants, gift stores, pubs, and other businesses moved out, and were either replaced by national chain stores or saw their former locations demolished and replaced with towering glass-walled condominiums. Critical community services such as hospitals like St. Vincent’s and even gas stations literally disappeared from the landscape to make way for luxury building projects. This was particularly the case along the west side of Manhattan, in the West Village and  Chelsea neighborhoods, and, today, in the area formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen but now more antiseptically called “Hudson Yards.” I spoke with Jay about whether his decision to close was based on the national economic climate (“macroeconomic” issues) or the changes in the immediate neighborhood (“microeconomic factors.”)  Here is his reply:

“The main factors in closing are both micro and macro in nature.

Chelsea is a VERY different neighborhood than it was 13 years ago.  [It used to be] much more of a neighborhood, far more gay, younger, more focused on design, community, and things that were off the beaten path. That faded over the years, and was declared officially dead by 2007, killed off by the twin axes of the recession and the changing demographics of the neighborhood. The young gays moved on, and were replaced by richer straight folks from the midwest who have no ties to anything in NYC and are just in Chelsea as a way station to somewhere else.

Fair trade was always an excellent way for us to differentiate ourselves from competition and kept us alive longer than we would have if we were just another gift store. It also made us more profit than similar products might have from China because I could charge a premium for them.

My clientele shifted, the economics shifted, and I did not shift fast enough with the times. I should, in retrospect, have moved the store in 2008, or never opened 8th Avenue in the first place - but everything is always 20/20 in hindsight and no one had any way to know how bad and how long it would be bad for

We had our best year in many in 2013, but it simply was not enough, and certainly I was not having any fun anymore - I haven’t enjoyed it in many years. I’ve been in survival mode for 6 years now, and I have had enough.

As for the future – it’s still fairly amorphous

The website has certain areas that produce steady income from customers all over the US (and even abroad) that is almost entirely disconnected from store sales - these are people who find us online, not through the brick and mortar - and in many cases have never been to the store. Without the fixed overhead of a brick and mortar, it’s quite a nice little income source even now - and if I am not busy running a store I can spend time marketing it properly and grow the web business quite quickly I think. Add into that what I hope will be a successful men's jewelry line I am designing, and the website has a rather successful future, selling things that are exclusively available on and nowhere else on earth, online or off. THAT is the future of online. Hypersegmentation."


 Squeaky Wheel Media
With a dozen college business students in tow, I arrived at the door of  Squeaky Wheel Media, an independently-owned media and marketing agency located at 640 West 28th Street (between 11th Avenue and the West Side Highway), also in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.  

I had arranged this visit knowing little about the agency, except that it came highly recommended: Advertising Age, a time-honored journal of the marketing industry, awarded Squeaky their award for “Best Agency Culture” in their 2010 Small Agency Awards.  And one step out of the elevator in their retro-fitted industrial loft space, and it was easy to see why.

Co-Founder/President Anthony Del Monte has assembled a team of 20 individuals who represent as many nationalities and cultures as 20 people physically can.  Within minutes, one member of his staff was brainstorming a marketing approach with the students, while Anthony took my partner and I aside to brainstorm his latest innovation.  A cockatiel named Cuca flew around the loft, circling the Volkswagen beetle that sits in the middle of the floor.  Before we knew it, piles of pizza for the students arrived.  Our 30 minute visit turned into a 90 minute crash course in successful marketing and building a productive, positive business culture.

Their client base includes the Jackie Robinson Foundation; Lexus; the New York Live Arts; and one of their proudest, the “I Had Cancer” campaign.

 For Mailet Lopez, Squeaky co-founder, this had a personal element; she was diagnosed with stage 2B breast cancer in March 2008, and has been cancer-free since treatment. After her battle and openly talking to others about her experience she decided to give back to the community. “Cancer was not going to start taking control of my life,”she says. 

 In developing , Squeaky created a place where people can share their stories, insights and experiences to inspire others to keep up the fight.  A few months after our visit, Squeaky won the Internet’s "Webby Award” for this socially responsible campaign.

We left excited, energized, and overflowing with ideas and concepts.  It was a genuine joy to see that a New York City business, in the throes of a deadline-driven, frenetic, and sometimes cut throat market, can also be successful while being caring, fun, supportive, socially responsible, and diverse. (And it doesn’t hurt their staff consists of top-notch, high-quality professionals.)

That was my one visit to Squeaky, and it was in April 2012. 

This summer, I happened to be walking along Hudson River park, when a Squeaky employee, Luis, came jogging by.

He recognized my partner and me, and stopped in his tracks.  

Because that’s what Squeaky employees do.

In today’s world, there are no borders.  The small shop on Main Street may ship products to South Africa, while importing raw materials from Turkey.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with crossing borders, with ‘going global,’ or with expanding markets.

Rather, the problems occur when human concerns take a back seat to stockholder profits; when image is more important than substance; when producers feel they can throw low-quality goods and services at consumers who have no other choices.

Small businesses – like Arcadia, Squeaky Wheel, and others in this series – are the antidote to poor quality, poor working conditions, a languishing economy, and low consumer satisfaction.  And that is why we will continue to push the idea of patronizing local, small businesses and refusing to be held hostages by massive “corporate sameness.”

[This is the third in a series of posts on Small Business in America]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Small Business Series 2: The Blue Rock and Sun's Tea Shop

Having just moved to Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, my partner and I decided to head “into town” one night (town population: 2,058), where we stumbled upon a small restaurant/bar called the  The Blue Rock Restaurant  at 10 Bridge Street.  The front door, packaged between two other storefronts, lead us downstairs to a cozy, ‘familiar feeling’ place that was crowded with locals (and by crowded, I mean that  30 people had us weaving and bobbing to move from place to place). We sat at the two miraculously open bar stools, and were immediately engaged in conversation by bartender Jeff Grader.  
What followed put the “six-degrees-of-separation” concept to shame.  It’s more like two degrees. Maybe fewer.
We ordered our pints of Lefty’s Ale, which the Blue Rock keeps on tap, right in front of the beautiful blue glass rock provided by a local glassblower whose shop is a stone’s throw away from the restaurant.  Lefty (as I wrote in an earlier post) is a former student of mine who has started his own brewing company, and now is one of the fastest-growing and most popular craft brewers in western Massachusetts.  It turns out that our bartender, Jeff, also runs his own graphic design business ("Warped Whimsy"), and had just completed designing Lefty’s labels for his newest variety, “Golden Ale.”  We launched into conversation about Lefty and local businesses, about the local artists’ work on the walls, about the local jazz musicians that play there weekly.

Within a few minutes, we met Chris, the owner, and a waitress named Holly, who, it turns out, lives across the street from us. 

It was our first time there.  It felt like we had been ‘regulars’ for years.  The conversation ran all over the board, and other patrons joined in as the most incredible aromas wafted from the kitchen and absolutely artistic meal presentations were delivered to customers.  It was clear this was no corporate chain, no standardized, bulk-ordered, bland & canned restaurant-supply-house food.  

  These were gourmet creations using local ingredients and personalized recipes.  And everyone there, from the owner to the workers to the diners to those of us at the bar, knew they were at a special and unique place:  a local restaurant drawing on local resources and serving local customers with local flavor.  

We stayed longer than we should have, but that’s because we entered into a conversation with Holly about her difficulty finding quality bulk herbs.  Since Danny and I were headed to New York City two days later, we offered to look for a supplier.  Holly created a list for us, and we said our good-nights.

A few day later, we found ourselves hunting herbs in New York. 

To be sure, bulk spices and herbs are available in many places, and many large companies package aging spices of various quality, in bulk, for mass distribution.  We wanted something better…and we headed into Chinatown.

Poking our heads in and out of stores on the side streets, we found Sun’s Organic Tea Shop at 79 Bayard Street, between Mott and Mulberry Street.  

Sun’s is not a chain, not an outlet, and not a tourist trap owned by some absentee investor. From the moment we stepped inside this tiny store packed with jars of herbs and teas and spices, we knew we were in a one-woman specialty shop. In fact, Sun told us that she hadn’t had a vacation in years, simply because of her devotion to her store and her customers.

The walls were lined with glass jars, each with hand-written labels and prices.  We presented our list and wondered how many she could provide us with: hibiscus, milk thistle seeds, thistle leaves, lemon verbena, lemon balm.  As we rattled off each name, she pointed here and there, cheerfully telling us that yes, of course she had all of these herbs, and we began our bulk purchases.  Sun handled measuring out the herbs by the ounce and sealing them in air-tight bags, as she trusted us pulling and replacing the jars from all over her shelves. She told us about each herb as she measured, offering special instructions for the proper use of each, and we felt like we were at a house party rather than in a store.  She threw in small samples of some herbs we hadn’t ordered for free, and talleyed up the bill on a hand-held calculator.

We thoroughly enjoyed our shopping excursion, and left just as some regular customers came in pick up some specialized teas.  A few days later, we were delivering out treasure to the Blue Rock.

As different as they are – the restaurant in rural western Massachusetts, and the urban shop in the frenetic streets of New York’s Chinatown – the Blue Rock and Sun’s share something in common:  small, locally-owned and operated businesses, providing quality products and superior customer service.

Yes, these places still exist…and they will exist as long as we take the time and effort to patronize them, rather than taking the easy way out of grabbing shoddy goods at ‘convenient’ one-stop-shopping complexes, at discount prices. If  9% unemployment and 25% underemployment and a generation of outsourcing have show us anything, it is that we can not keep running to the cheapest providers of standardized goods for our consumer needs…it is time to demand healthy local economies, quality goods, and customer ‘service’ that doesn't come in the form of a scripted call center message and pressing phone buttons for twenty minutes.

Rather, good neighbors - with their lives and hearts invested in good businesses, who participate in and contribute to their communities – these must be the economic future of our society.

[This is the second in a series of posts on Small Business in America] 


Monday, August 13, 2012

Small Business Series 1: Lefty's Brewing Company

Anheuser-Busch, once an iconic American company producing and shipping its signature Budweiser brand globally, has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of Belgian-Brazilian brewing conglomerate InBev since 2008.   Earlier that year, InBev had announced that the purchase of Anheuser-Busch would not result in any U.S. brewery closures.  Within months of completing the acquisition, InBev went on a cost-cutting spree, laying off  1,400 American employees and 415 contractors, ending company contributions to employee pension plans and retiree life insurance and reducing  employee tuition reimbursement. Sales of Budweiser have dropped 30% in this time; nonetheless, someone is drinking the swill:  one barrel of Budweiser is sold every other second in the United States, every hour, every day, all year.  InBev may be firing and bleeding American workers, but Americans seem to be happy going on their merry way patronizing the company.

Why?  To spend a few cents less on substandard, mass-produced crap that lines the pockets of capital-gains-chasers while placing honest workers on an increasingly steep treadmill?

Each year I take a dozen or so college students from western Massachusetts to New York City to expose them to the wider business world and future possibilities.  Less than half a dozen years ago, one of those students, Bill “Lefty” Goldfarb, asked if we could visit the Brooklyn Brewery. One visit, a little capital planning, and a few years later, Bill is now the founder,  owner, brewmaster, and chief-cook-and-bottle washer for  "Lefty's Brewing Company "   in Greenfield Massachusetts.   
With product in more than three dozen bars, restaurants, and retail locations, “Lefty” is positioned to become the largest craft brewer in western Massachusetts.

Lefty washes his own bottles.  Fills and caps his own bottles.  Designed his own walk-in refrigerator and filling system.  Delivers his own products.  Grinds his own barley in a flour grinder rigged up to a motor that he designed himself.  He and his girlfriend Melissa put in 60 - 80 hours a week each.

He teams up with local restaurants for food-beer taste pairings and charity events.  He attends and sponsors Town events. He gives back to the community by volunteering as a workshop speaker at local student entrepreneurship conferences, and by speaking with entrepreneurs-in-training in classrooms.

Lefty is the American Dream, realized at a time when Americans are being thrust into an economic nightmare.
 And he brews some damned good product: Irish Stout, Coffee Porter, India Pale Ale, Scotch Ale, Maple Ale, Golden Ale – a dozen brews in all (including special limited editions).  He and Melissa have just expanded to the point where he has hired another full-time employee.

Lefty also recently contracted with a local graphic designer, Jeff Grader, to redesign some of his labels.  Jeff, another small business owner ("Warped Whimsy"), is also a bartender at a local restaurant/bar, The Blue Rock,  located about three blocks from my house.  We met Jeff and the staff of the Blue Rock as they were installing a new keg of Lefty’s . . . .and entered into a conversation that would eventually take us on a quest to a tiny business in Chinatown in New York City.

But that is all for the next installment.

My point in writing this post, and the series of posts that will follow?

To encourage you to start buying local.  Patronizing small businesses. Circulating your money locally instead of lining the pockets of Romneyesque “investors” who stash it away offshore. Building small American businesses again instead of outsourcing American work and investment to sweatshops and intimidated farm workers and tax havens around the globe.

Going to the local restaurant or pub?  Ask for local.  Ask for craft-brewed. See what REAL beer tastes like.  

I promise, you’ll never go back to Clydesdale piss.

[This is the first in a series of posts on Small Business in America]