Viable, socially conscious small business?
March 30, 2007 7:42 AM   Subscribe

GentrificationFilter: Help convince my boss that our independent coffee shop can be both profitable and actively engaged with the community. Social/community activists, please read on & help me out!

I work at an exceedingly popular/hip New England coffee shop run by two exceedingly smart/hip women, and we're about to open a second location.

The community we're moving into is pushing through some rezoning, some housing development, and is welcoming in a big name in affluent white retail: my cafe. It feels like we're going to be leading the charge of gentrification, and I want our shop to be actively engaged with stakeholders and truly a part of the community, not agents in its dilution.

Our owners are open to suggestions, but see other sort of touchy-feely community-meeting coffee houses as sacrificing business viability for a 'neighborhood' feel. I'd go farther to say that often those that feel 'neighborhoody' really just feel 'white' and 'upper-middle class,' and aren't a true reflection of the diversity around them.

What ideas, proposals, activities, and habits can we develop to this end? So many thanks for all your thoughtful input, MeFites. I'm shopping this question around to a lot of people, but am especially excited to see what you have to say.
posted by coolhappysteve to Human Relations (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is going to sound horrible, but I'm saying it anyway.

Ignore the diversity around you.
Ignore your feelings about race and class relations.

Now think about what being involved in the neighborhood can do for the business.

There might be some opportunities that would attract complementary businesses, or would make your target demographic more comfortable in the area. But you need to make sure that if you're proposing a change to the business plan (altered target demographics, altered public image, etc) that it's going to be received positively by your best clients.

If you were trying to sell me on this, I'd probably want to know exactly how you planned to be involved in the community, what it would cost financially, what the expected benefits would be, and what the risks of the plan were.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 8:05 AM on March 30, 2007

Best answer: touchy-feely community-meeting coffee houses as sacrificing business viability for a 'neighborhood' feel

What she's looking for, then, is a way to turn the community feel into additional revenue streams or even a side enterprise. You'll have to do some thinking about what will be appropriate to your market and what will fit into your zoning/tax laws/licensure/bureaucracies, but if this were my community-feel coffee shop with a viable business plan, I'd be looking into things like...

  • displaying work by local artists (diversity! beauty!) that would be sold through commission
  • selling other cool locally-made small-business items. If you make things on the side, having a place to regulalry sell stuff is awesome.
  • being known as a meeting place not for the sole purpose of meeting, but that if you met here, and told us when and how many people, we would have the food and drinks ready and keep people charged. Pricing structure TBD, but just to keep people there and paying.
  • hosting small-fee events (lectures? hands-on classes? readings? music?)
  • what kind of neighborhood is this? Can you offer any sort of job training for local youth?
  • being a place people can come for services in person. (Right now, I'm thinking, collaborate with a local tax planner, make it possible for people to come in for coffee and questions)
  • connecting with local schools, non-profits, whatever, for fundraisers. Either through coupons or by showing up at their events to do business there.
  • if they exist, buying local products for your typical business needs.

    One of the things I'd work hard to avoid is clutter. Somehow it's endemic to community-feel places, and it becomes unprofessional seeming.

    Tacos are Pretty Great has done a good job listing the things that need to be considered as to whether any of these will matter to your coffee shop.

  • posted by whatzit at 8:06 AM on March 30, 2007

    work that's solidly rooted in existing communities is difficult and requires investment - not financial, mind you.

    look in to existing tenants' organizations, social services, neighborhood programs... build relationships with them, figure out what's going on in the neighborhood from their point of view, and offer to sponsor events.

    if you're in a small city, there are no doubt going to be influential figures in neighborhood groups or city councils - the people who spend all day connecting people with other people, and always know what's going on. find out who that is, pick their brain, and find out what you want to support, what you want to be a part of, and how you can do that.
    posted by entropone at 8:08 AM on March 30, 2007

    Best answer: One thing you can do is to hire new staff who actually already live in the neighborhood of the new store to work there. That is a very concrete way of having an impact on the community.

    Perhaps you could also identify established community leaders in the neighboorhood -- for example, pastors in an African-American neighborhood -- and solicit their input.

    The most important thing, I think, is to listen to the people who already live there, rather than coming in first with your own ideas and plans.
    posted by Robert Angelo at 8:14 AM on March 30, 2007

    a pretty fantastic hip New England cafe is following a model similar to what you are describing. Check out the Haley House Cafe, which offers job training programs, hosts community events, provides space for local artists, uses produce from amazing local farm projects, and basically makes some of the best food and baked goods I've ever had. That last one is the key to making all the rest possible -- this place is popular because its damn good, and they manage to be that good while also doing all the other stuff. Of course, the community involvement also helps spread word that they exist -- some people might come for the first time just to see a spoken word event, or maybe they come in because they tasted some food Haley House donated to an event somewhere.

    Tacos does sound pretty horrible. The diversity/class/race of the community is key to your business and should not be ignored. Haley House has done an amazing job of understanding the diverse people that live in their community. This has allowed them to create a place that serves a broad range of those people, not just the well-heeled hipster types who frequent coffee houses. In doing so, they attract a diverse and far more numerous clientele. I predict that this place will be around a long time and will make lots of money while also helping lots of people and serving up lots of great food.
    posted by cubby at 8:25 AM on March 30, 2007

    Best answer: One of the best community resources I found in the past was a bookstore that ran a conversation group (theme but fairly open) in Hoboken, NJ (Symposia bookstore). It was a non-profit. You would need someone interested in the idea in leading it. Not all the conversation groups & workshops (such asindependent film seminars etc) that started there stayed in that location, many found other homes, but it was a good place to start them, and to let people find out about them.

    Also a computer with internet access for customers a time limit (15 or 20 min or such) might be a good draw and a good resource if not everyone has their own computers. & a good way to advertise if you're offering wi-fi.
    posted by ejaned8 at 8:38 AM on March 30, 2007

    I just noticed yesterday that one of our local coffee shops offers a "Singles Mingle". They also had a sign saying a group meets there every Saturday morning for a run - they take people of all running levels. I would assume people would buy some pre-run snacks, or at the very least, post-run snack's/beverages.

    I'm not 100% sure this is the kind of information you're after, but there it is, anyhow.
    posted by backwards guitar at 9:30 AM on March 30, 2007

    Best answer: I admit that, from your description, I know exactly where you work and where your cafe is opening the new location.

    I work in the same community, for a membership-based non-profit that does, among other things, affordable housing development and community organizing among low and moderate income residents. We have been the most active, vocal resident group not so much opposing the rezoning you have referred to, but actively calling for a greater percentage of affordable housing to be built in the targeted area.

    The population that currently lives in the neighborhood is overwhelmingly moderate income, and according to the U.S. Census more than 40% of them struggle to pay rent or mortgage costs. This is a significant burden according to the Federal Government.

    If the current zoning passes and more businesses like yours move in, it will attract a population that is unlike that which currently lives here -- a higher income population that will drive up housing prices both within the rezoned district and in the areas surrounding it. While this is not entirely bad and some revitalization would benefit the neighborhood, there must be mechanisms in place to protect the low and moderate income families who currently live there and make up a majority of the population. No one should be forced to move simply because they're not desirable for economic expansion. This is exactly what happened in the neighborhood where your current cafe is located -- the working class population was forced out and is virtually non-existent since the revitalization there.

    Therefore I would encourage you and your bosses to become active in supporting and increase in affordable housing in this area. If neighborhood residents see that, from the get-go, the owners of the new cafe are active in working to make the neighborhood a place that all people can live regardless of income, it will soften some of the reputation that the cafe already has here as somewhat of a "yuppie" haven (however unfair that reputation may be).

    I'd be happy to talk more about this with you offline. Please feel free to email me. My address can be found in my profile.
    posted by jk252b at 9:59 AM on March 30, 2007

    You might want to look into Magic Johnson's businesses. I know on U st in DC, a rapidly gentrifying area, there's a Starbucks with his picture in it that I think goes out of its way to hire locals, etc.
    posted by callmejay at 10:14 AM on March 30, 2007

    There is a town in RI that is extremely affulent. In this town there is a pizzeria in the main downtown area, which for all the world doesn't fit in with the town. The front is ok but step inside and the walls are fake wood from the 70s, the tables are that red checkered pattern endemic to low end pizza places. There are age old AC units hanging out of the wall with missing knobs and everything. In the summer they get turned on with a pair of pliers.

    At any point when this place is open, it is usually chalk full of people. Singles, couples, families, and usually at least if not two huge 8 person groups. Sometimes the owner goes back to Italy and they are closed. I swear you can see people wondering out front going through withdrawl. Why? What about the place makes it so special?

    It's everything else. The pizza is the best I've ever had. Guess why I'm not naming names. ;-) The people are wonderful. The owner makes the pizzas. His family and friends work the tables and help cook. The patrons are all run of the mill folks who step out of the posh atmosphere outside, crack a smile, and nod hello to each other: they are home. The prices are cheap, and with food so good it's obvious the guy isn't even trying to make a fortune on the food. He's in it for the community, and the community is sure to take care of him. You can have wine or beer with your food though, and he must make some money there.

    What your shop can do is governed by how much it can afford to do, but if you can find a way to make the shop accessible and welcoming to everyone, from any price bracket, with every taste in atmosphere, I think you'll reach your goal. Yes, it means not going with the latest and greatest decor and gadgets, but maybe you can hire community members to do things by hand. Maybe you won't be zagat rated, but who eats in those places every night? Talk to the community. Find out the skills, abilities, and needs, and mesh them into the shop. Have their artists or kids decorate it. Have the happy go lucky person who retired a few years ago work the register. Find the muscians, or even the music popular in the community, and have that playing in the background. Try to find a business that went out of business years ago and find out where their stuff went... use what you can from there.

    NONE of that has to be "homey", campy, or even dull. Yes, it does take more effort to find it mix all of that together and have it be perfect and not cost too much, but that wouldn't be the "right" atmosphere anyway. Just come close, and make sure the place is clean. You'll have to compromise. That's ok too... the community likely understands that very well. In other words: make your shop part of the community, rather than anything else. Be sure to explain the history to everyone, some how.
    posted by jwells at 12:23 PM on March 30, 2007

    Tacos does sound pretty horrible. The diversity/class/race of the community is key to your business and should not be ignored.

    The original post specifically noted that the business is targeted at other demographics. As such, straying from that is a change in the business plan.

    I'm not saying all changes are bad. I'm saying that you need to think about the viability of the business plan first.

    And let's be frankly honest: there are very few lower-class patrons in a coffee shop. They can't afford it.

    Obviously it's a good idea to hire from the local community, and there are some possible ways to build rapport, but you need to think of the business first If you don't, then instead of giving the community a few new jobs, you'll give them another vacant storefront.
    posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 1:17 PM on March 30, 2007

    and cubby, I never said not to tap into that diversity. It's just that you need to start from "what will this do to the business plan", instead of starting from "omg we want to be nice to poor people".

    The latter is no good for anybody.
    posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 1:22 PM on March 30, 2007

    Response by poster: I'm overwhelmed by the diversity and quality of the ideas here - thanks much to everyone.

    I'll be checking out some of the other businesses mentioned here (without giving too much away, we actually have a relationship with Haley House).

    It's interesting to read a lot of these ideas - they feel like such a big shift from the culture of and around our cafe. I think we need to move in that direction, though - that's why I'm here.

    It's also one reason I'm grateful for your frank perspective, Tacos - you need to think of business first is practically a direct quote of my boss, and that's how I need to frame things to her. Glad to have you lead off.

    I appreciate hearing about shops that are community-minded in an innovative way, and am excited to find ways to incorporate that into our own unique identity.

    And thanks jk252b for the straight talk from a local advocate - I've already emailed you.

    Anyone else with ideas or practices, please chime in...
    posted by coolhappysteve at 3:22 PM on March 30, 2007

    I'm glad to see you took my comments in the way I intended.

    One more thing, if you want a really good chance of having your plan get adopted, break it into small, incremental pieces, and identify what each piece is supposed to accomplish, and metrics by which to measure success/failure.

    That way you can do one small, relatively safe change, and see if it had the desired result. This should help make your efforts more effective, while exposing the business to less risk.

    And don't just think of these things vaguely. Put them down on paper, even if you plan to pitch the whole thing in a casual conversation. If you want your ideas to sell, you need to make sure they're rock solid.
    posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 5:03 AM on March 31, 2007

    Response by poster: Tacos, on the inspiration of your first post, I'd already decided to exactly that! Thanks again, and thanks all.
    posted by coolhappysteve at 6:09 PM on March 31, 2007

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