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."