In Praise of Local Business

22 August 2009 · 5 comments

“Do you know what my wife usually orders?” I asked at the Oak Grove Coffeehouse this morning. I wanted to bring her a surprise. Kris stops there once or twice a week, but I don’t go in very often. I don’t like coffee. I guess I should know what Kris orders (since she orders the same thing every time), but I don’t. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to guess.

Jason, the owner, thought for a moment. “She orders a medium latte extra-hot,” he said.

“Who’s your wife?” asked the kid behind the counter.

“Her name’s Kris,” I said. “Long red hair. Works for the crime lab.”

“Oh, Kris,” he said. “I love Kris.”

“Yeah,” said Jason. “CSI Milwaukie.” Everybody laughed.

“Do you want anything?” the kid asked as he took my money. The coffee was $2.75, but I left $1.25 for a tip.

“Nah,” I said. “I don’t like coffee. Besides, I just walked up the the grocery store, and I have donuts and chocolate milk in my bag.”

I love this sort of thing. I love local businesses owned by community members. (I bumped into Jason a couple of weeks ago as he was leaving his home to go to the coffee shop. I was walking down the hill as he was walking out his driveway to go up the hill.) This is the precisely the sort of thing I want to support over shops like Starbucks, etc.

And yet I rarely frequent the Oak Grove Coffeehouse myself. As I said, I don’t like coffee. I’m not a fan of their hot chocolate. It’s vastly superior to Starbuck’s hot chocolate (which basically tastes like muddy water), but it’s still made the same way: add some chocolate syrup to milk and heat.

All the same, I could be giving the shop some of my trade. At lunch, they serve sandwiches. Also, they have a few breakfast croissants every morning. And they carry Mexican Coke. I’ll bet they have bottled water, too. It’s important to me that Jason and his family are able to make a profit from their shop, yet I don’t do much myself to support them. In fact, I’m sort of a drain on their income.

Today, for example, as I was walking out the door, Jason stopped me and gave me a lemon pastry. “Take it,” he said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s from yesterday, and I’ll just have to throw it out if you don’t take it.” Jason’s given me stuff in the past, including free drinks. I’m grateful for this, but I feel bad. I want to be adding to his income, not taking away from it.

I guess maybe I should make a point of eating lunch at the Oak Grove Coffeehouse once each week. I wonder what sort of sandwiches they have…

Addendum: Kris and I had lunch with Susan this afternoon, and she pointed out that I forgot to end the story. “Were they right?” she asked. “Did they get Kris’ drink order correct?” Indeed they did. Kris orders a medium extra-hot latte.

1 mac August 22, 2009 at 17:27

ixnay on the onutsday!

2 jammer(six) August 23, 2009 at 14:00

Same deal here with local commerce. We’ve been making conscious decisions to frequent our locally owned restaurants, and there are some *really* good ones. Unfortunately, most other local commerce has been replaced by regional/national chains. I love interacting with locals, and helping keep their businesses afloat is an added bonus.

Our bug man, of all people, was slinging burgers at a local swim meet where our kids were competing. When he saw us, he just about jumped over the table to catch our eye and say “Hey.” He had been out to treat our deck for carpenter bees about six weeks earlier and wanted to know if it worked. To be honest, I didn’t even recognize him at first, but he sure knew us. You don’t get that kind of connection when you deal with the big mega-chains.

3 Kris August 23, 2009 at 16:47

Thanks for the treat, sweetie! It hit the spot. Thanks to Jason, too!

4 adam August 23, 2009 at 20:53

My wife and I have found that local restaurants tend to be priced comparably to the big chains (sometimes cheaper, sometimes a bit more) but they have significantly better service and generally better food. My wife’s theory is that since they haven’t got Appleby’s budget for national advertising, they have to rely more on locals and word of mouth so they work really hard to develop good relationships and positive feeling.

I’ve also noticed that the waitstaff at independent places are often older and more intelligent than the highschool students who wait tables at the larger chains. I have a feeling this is confirmation bias on my part but I’ll throw it out there.

5 Tyler Karaszewski August 24, 2009 at 12:01

Starbucks does this too. In fact, I think they go out of their way to encourage their employees to remember regular customers and the drinks they order. I’ve had employees at several different Starbucks near different offices I’ve worked at remember my name, greet me by name every time I come in, and know what I normally order. The fact that the corporation is owned by people in Seattle doesn’t change the fact that the people you interact with when you actually go into any particular Starbucks store are all locals. If your next door neighbor got a job at your local Starbucks, would that make that store feel more local?

This isn’t meant as an advertisement for Starbucks. I fully understand the “local is better” viewpoint, but I think if you refine that viewpoint a bit, the quality we’re actually looking for isn’t locality, but personality. Wal-mart is still Wal-mart even if you live in Bentonville, Arkansas. In contrast, I remember calling up a small bicycle parts manufacturer in Northern California with a question about one of their products with which I was having trouble. They answered the phone on the first ring, the person who picked up the phone knew how to service the part I was asking about, and they gave me instructions over the phone, as well as mailing me the replacement part I needed as well as a service manual for the part, for free. This small manufacturing shop was located several counties away from me, but that didn’t affect the fact that they had fantastic and personable service.

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