American Morning

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November 24th, 2009
07:44 AM ET

Success in Sour Times: Local chains take on retail juggernauts

By Stephen Samaniego

They have infiltrated American consumer culture – Walmart, Target, and Costco. They are the mega-chains. Stores that carry anything and everything found in almost every community across the country. Many towns have gone to court to stop stores like Walmart from setting up shop, fearing a loss of local businesses and community charm.

Now in a Brooklyn, New York neighborhood, a new phenomenon is starting to take root. The local chain. They're small businesses linked by a common theme and – unlike their big chain rivals – are located in close proximity to each other. "We're not cloning one thing and putting it somewhere else," says Patrick Watson. "We're trying to target a neighborhood that we know and love incredibly well, and fill the gaps in."

Patrick Watson and his wife Michelle Pravda have lived in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood for fifteen years and are owners of a local chain. Their first business was a wine shop called Smith and Vine. Playing off the wine theme, they opened up a cheese store across the street, called Stinky Brooklyn. They followed it with a combination of the two – opening a wine and cheese bar up the street, called The Jakewalk.

The concept: Identify a customer base and cater to their specific tastes with a personal touch and local flair. After a loyal following begins to build, capitalize on that reputation with another store that further extends your local brand.

The Jakewalk opened just 4 months after Wall Street crashed in one of the darkest economic times the United States has ever seen. Michelle Pravda says that despite the countries economic health, she and her husband weren't nervous. "You know I just think we were kind of young and let's just do it," says Pravda. "You know I feel like at the time we were fearless about it. We felt like the neighborhood needed it."

If their sales are any indication, they didn't have any reason to be nervous. The cheese and wine stores have never had a down month and The Jakewalk has only had one month in the red. Success by any measure, despite a fragile market and their main competition the national chain Trader Joes just a few blocks away.

On a Thursday night at The Jakewalk, patrons say loyalty to Smith and Vine and Stinky Brooklyn was the main reason for choosing The Jakewalk for a drink. "I know the quality of what we're eating and drinking will be great here by buying their products at their stores," say's Sara, a 20-something living in the neighborhood.

Caroline, another local resident, told us that it's the personal touches that attracted her. "When you get to know personalities and you know that somebody owns this shop and they're doing one project here and one project there. It's great! You want to check it out."

Loretta Gendville already knows the draw of a local chain. She owns seven stores under the generic name Area that range from a boutique spa to a toy store. She has been able to build relationships with her customers and has been able to expand her business into other Brooklyn neighborhoods. Gendville credits these relationships for her success. "We have a kind of history with customers. We get to know our customers and they get to know us."

With the small business world suffering in this economy, experts say that although this trend is relatively new, it's one likely to spread. Ray Keating, the chief economist for the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, says "Entrepreneurs are innovators and once the word gets out that this is happening in certain areas I think you'll have more entrepreneurs considering it."

Patrick Watson and Michelle Pravda hope others take the plunge, and have found they created more than just a business. They created a community. "You can never expect someone to care about your business as much as you do," says Watson. "But I find that's sort of a contradiction around here."


Filed under: Economy • Success in Sour Times
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. A. Smith, Oregon

    These good ole boy Mayors and City Counsel members that are nothing but tiny business puppets make me sick.

    The clear winners with Wal-Mart, Cost-Co, Lowes et. al. are the consumers and customers.

    The clear losers are the tiny grocery outlets that rip-off their customers with outrageous retail markup's on virtually all of their items.

    Consumers travel 30 miles to a Wal-Mart superstore, or a Cost-Co, they do not do that to some tin-top grocery store, or cousin of the Mayors appliance center.

    These Mayor and Council puppets are without a doubt, future Republican leaders, ready to sell their morals and ethics to Big Oil, Big Pharma or anyone that offers them the largest bribe.

    November 26, 2009 at 12:33 am |
  2. Katie

    I can still vividly remember the sounds and smells of the neighborhood store when I was a kid back in the 1960's. The summertime walks to the store with friends, each carrying a nickel or two, anticipating the tasty treats awaiting us. The dusty wood floor, the sounds of the 5 cent coke machine running, the store owner slicing luncheon meat on the meat slicer. It was a treat to walk to the store and carefully look over all the candy on the candy aisle before spending that nickel on perhaps miniature wax coke bottles with sugary liquid inside or baseball cards with bubblegum. Those sweet memories are slipping away from today's children giving way to the massive chain stores. So sad...

    November 24, 2009 at 8:11 pm |
  3. linda

    I remember going to the small shops in Niles Illinois, where my grandparents lived. I loved going with my grandma and her pull cart. She went every day for fresh food and god exercise in the process. I don't think they were stressed out by these big chains. She didnt have to walk a mile to the milk isle either. I watch some of these old folks exausted by the time the get to the back of the store. I hate these big stores. Who needs a selection of 50 types of coffee and cereal anyway? too many decisions. I don't know the owners and they don't care about us either! We have to choice to leave them alone and bring back the little guys.

    November 24, 2009 at 5:01 pm |
  4. kendall

    Great idea! Glad to hear about entreprising people bringing the human touch back into retail sales, and finally beginning to think "local".
    Keep it up!

    kendall
    paris,France

    November 24, 2009 at 3:48 pm |
  5. RichP

    It's is still alive and well, bartering also is very alive and well. With my computer repair business I still compete hands down with the big box stores, show me box stores that make house calls at 9 pm at nite or will work overnite and weekends to satisfy the customers needs for his or her business.

    November 24, 2009 at 3:10 pm |
  6. P

    I love this....Patrick & Michelle are great!...I cant wait to pick up my free range Turkey on Wed from them for T Day and a case of wine to go with it....

    November 24, 2009 at 2:40 pm |
  7. Marie

    Chain stores and malls have three advantages that small corner stores don't. If the small stores could figure out how to negate those advantages, the mega stores would probably go away.
    1) I find myself going to Wal-Mart when I don't want to because I am working an odd or extended shift and when I need something, all the small stores are closed. If small stores could figure out how to be open the same hours as the mega stores, I would go to the smaller stores.
    2) I like malls because I can be inside and feel safe (although that feeling is rapidly changing) all in one location. With small stores there is a lot of go here, fight for a parking place, go to the next store, etc. If small towns made malls out of downtown, so that I could easily get from X to Z safely and relatively quickly, I wouldn't go to the mega stores.
    3) We have a wonderful hardware store in our small town. The problem is the proprietor is just slightly younger than Moses, and moves at the speed of cold molasses. In a chain store I can usually find at least one or two alternate clerks to ask a question if I need to. In this small store, if I don't know what I want, Moses' little brother won't be able to help me until after the second coming. Small stores need to make sure they don't lose any customers for any reason.

    November 24, 2009 at 1:12 pm |
  8. Arlington

    As a child i remember local shop owners as a part of my extended family. The store across the street, for a loaf of bread, and the owner would share a stick of gum. 2 blocks in the other direction for ice cream where the owner would let me help unpack and stack inventory for a popcicle. Those days are gone. And it's a shame

    November 24, 2009 at 10:22 am |