Whether it’s a roadhouse on the highway to Denali, or a tiki shack on St. George Island, Pete and I tend to seek out local diners and cafes that serve down home cooking. We know it’s a great way to get a quick snapshot of what it’s all about where we are. Chances are good that we will make a friend of our server, eavesdrop on a conversation the locals are having at the next table, and get a feel for what’s on everyone’s mind as well as enjoy what’s on our plates.
Innovative strategies and ideas are generally the rule at these establishments, from the menu items to the ambience. When an idea is cooked up in smaller businesses such as these, it generally has a short gestation. There’s a sense of resourcefulness that is very familiar to us as entrepreneurs, and we observe with a keen eye the innovations we encounter. Cafes are generally the hub of social activity in most communities, and we appreciate the vibrancy and local color.
We want to introduce you to two such enterprises that are active and engaged. Not only are they re-forging strong bonds, but they are using unique and versatile ideas to reach beyond the doors of their establishments. We think other businesses might do well to emulate these practices, especially during recessionary times.
First up is Falling Rock Cafe and Bookstore in Munising, Michigan‘s Upper Peninsula. Centered on the south shore of Lake Superior, Munising is a picturesque village with a challenging business environment: loss of population, seasonal tourism, and a declining economy already hit hard before the national recession. Perhaps not the greatest place to start a business, but, well…if you visit, you’ll want to do exactly that anyway.
Enter Nancy and Jeff Dwyer, former Florida residents who “retired” up North to live their dream on a whim and a prayer. Their vision emerged after a complete renovation and clean-up, which entailed removing tons of debris and chasing down architectural elements. When we visited last summer, Falling Rock was brewing aromatic coffee and scooping up homemade ice cream cones, in the Victorian building they restored on Munising’s main drag.
Michigan winters can put the big chill on, freezing revenues for many small businesses, and the Dwyers found they were no exception. Nancy knew the only way their dream would survive was with a cash infusion. So she asked for one. Offering annual memberships to Friends of Falling Rock at $100 each, the Dwyers returned the favor with benefits including special events and promotions.
The Dwyers consider Falling Rock members the essence of their business, and the community, going far beyond the village limits, has responded in kind. “Of our current members, approximately 60% are residents of the Munising area, 15% are dual residents (they have a home in the Munising area and elsewhere), and 25% are from out of the Munising area (representing eleven different states). From the feedback we have received, members include regular customers, regular visitors to the area for whom the Falling Rock has become a focal point for their visits, and new visitors who appreciate what the Falling Rock represents and want to support its longevity.” More importantly, Munising retained an ownership stake in one of its gathering spaces – a destination for events like wine tastings and soup bowl suppers – welcome diversions during a long, cold winter for residents used to hibernating.
Appealing to the community must have been a difficult proposition, but the outpouring of emotional and financial support was proof that a community can care and respond to ensure a business will thrive.
Caring communities don’t always originate in small towns. In the heart of the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, the QKindness Cafe is developing community and leading by example. “The Q is a place to gather. People care what you have to say. Meals are prepared with you in mind and every day is a special occasion because you deserve it. Discover a community of kindness.” Alerted to the goings-on at the Q by a television clip, I had to find out more.
The premise at the Q is kindness – spreading it, giving it, paying it forward, and receiving it. Long a fixture in one of St. Paul’s older downtown buildings, the former Q Cafe was languishing. Owners Jimmy and Lisa Cotter Metwaly decided to focus on others. There is positivity everywhere, from the quotes on the wall to the kindness wheel, which you can spin to buy whatever it lands on for the next person who orders it. There are bouquets of flowers to take and share – just return the vase the next time you come in. On cold days, the cafe gives away handwarmers.
Kindness multiplied in such great amounts at the QKindness Cafe that St. Paul’s mayor was moved by example to proclaim the first week of every month Kindness Week in the city. Suddenly, Lisa’s one-woman quest to ramp up random acts of kindness became much more. Paying it forward at QKindness Cafe means that someone may have paid for your muffin weeks ago, or that you’ll spin the wheel yourself, or that you’ll carry out a pocket rock with a kindness reminder that you will pass to someone else.
Lisa and Jimmy are determined to change their community one smile at a time. Jeff and Nancy have infused a famished economy with collaborative vitality.
The benefits of reaching out and engaging with the community are reciprocal. Loyalty, connection, appreciation and keeping it real have always been what draws the customer in the front door, no matter the size of the town. Providing an experience that lives far beyond the threshold creates the connection we all crave.
We’re going about our business in different ways as we seek deeper meaning in what we do, where we spend, and the experiences we choose. We’ll continue to look for and support businesses near and far like the Falling Rock and the QKindness Cafes. We think we’ll see more businesses like these two succeed no matter where they might be. They’re more than aware of what matters, and they’re reaching out to share. We’re all in this together.
How about you?