The unique flavor of local businesses is as beautiful as it is important, helping to make each place special and combating the spread of “Anywhere, USA” towns. Yet one thing that has perplexed me is how do these same businesses retain their local image in the face of success? Isn’t expansion and the franchising of stores the logical next step?
Well, I recently discovered that growing deep in place can be an alternative to growing broadly. Here are two great examples of this concept:
1) Import Replacement Spin-Offs: Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan started in 1982 when Paul Saganan and Ari Weinzweig went into business to sell food that was hand-crafted and full-flavored. As success came, they decided they did not want to spend their time traveling the country opening second-rate versions of their flagship store. What would it be to make Ann Arbor the best community it could be instead? So declining to opening more stores, they expanded instead by spinning off a family of businesses that replaced items their restaurant imported. In 1992, they opened Zingerman’s Bakehouse which served customers as well as the fresh bread needs of their original deli. And that was just the start. Today, Zingerman’s has spun off a catering and events business, their own training program, a mail-order business, a creamery, a roadhouse, coffee company, candy manufactory, and their own 27 acre farm, deeply rooting themselves with 500 employees in the Ann Arbor area.
2) Growing Deep in Values: What about investing business success back into the values of a business? Judy Wicks, founder of the the White Dog Café, describes how she invested in her values in her book Good Morning Beautiful Business. Many years before the idea of the “socially-conscious business” became popular, she started asking questions and probing more deeply into the backend of her restaurant business. In the video below, she describes how her journey started with her shock at the conditions of industrial farm animals and her decision to stop supporting a system she couldn’t feel good about. She bought meat for her restaurant from humanely raised, locally grown animals instead. Of course, similar to Zingerman’s, this was just the beginning. A trip to Cuba introduced her to the concept of a living wage, and though the margins in the restaurant business are tight, she knew this was something she had to do. She started a restaurant internship program for four students and started awarding an annual scholarship to assist in their future schooling. Hers was the first business in Pennsylvania to receive all its energy from renewable resources and was one of the first to sell local and craft beers instead of the name-brands. But her greatest “ah-ha” moment was deciding to not keep all this information to herself and become a niche business but to share what she learned with her competitors so that her values could live on. I think that the current abundance of socially and environmentally conscious restaurants speaks to her success!
As cities search for ways to make their communities unique, Zingerman’s Deli and Judy Wick’s White Dog Café provide two beautiful examples of how growing deeper can be a boon to the city just as much as to the business itself. Clearly, local does not have to be limiting. In fact, the beauty of local rests in the experiences and relationships that comes with sharing life with specific people deeply rooted in place.