Building Community Not Competition Across Small Business Sectors


Building Community Not Competition Across Small Business Sectors


Years ago I worked in restaurants. I never worked in the kitchen. I always worked front of house as hostess, waitress or bartender. There was always an understood fissure between the front of house (FOH) and the back, the kitchen. And this really boiled down to one thing: tips. As a bartender, we were royalty. Out of a staff of 65 people, only 6 were trained to bartend. The reason we bartenders were outside the kitchen vs. FOH fights was because we controlled the flow of liquor including the booze that flowed to the kitchen and wait staff.

While the disparity of pay created strife between front and back of house, the best managers and owners worked to address possible inequity focusing on base pay and shared tip programs. Even though we were all part of the same team, with the same mission and goal, with the same pride in our employer and place of employment, the front of house and the kitchen staff always went to their separate corners. That is, until they came to see me at the bar at the end of their shifts. The booze brings everyone together and I was the happy match maker.

To some extent I see a similar division happening across the small business community. Particularly restaurant owners operating in a world of their own. Few restaurant owners reach beyond their own restaurant peers to work with their fellow small business community. Of course there are exceptions. In our neighborhood, Phil Stanton, of Mississippi Pizza and Bryan Steelman of Porque No, rally the entire business association to join forces to give to the historically minority schools in our community.

However, I’m always surprised when restauranteurs blatantly exclude all other business sectors and neighbors when working on issues from philanthropic, resistance and policy issues. Its as if the issues they face are all their own. This simply isn’t the case. Restaurants will organize with their peers, leading the resistance by donating to ACLU, Planned Parenthood to voicing concerns about how to meet requirements for increased minimum wage and paid sick leave.

Years ago I had the opportunity to serve on Portland, Oregon’s Small Business Advisory Council. One of the greatest things that I learned was how policy affects not just my business, but my small business peers as well. Just because an issue like the high cost of installing a grease trap doesn’t affect my business directly, I learned about the great burden and impact that installing one has on my neighborhood coffee shop. I also learned a lot about our city’s efforts to manage the affects that dumping large amounts of fat into our sewer system. Yep, better think twice before pouring milk down the drain. That milk settles around our creating fatty deposits in our sewers, much like fats settle into our own arteries. This is something I never have a second thought to, until now.

Now, more than ever its essential that we, small business owners, climb out of our isolation tanks and understand that we all have more to learn and succeed when we reach out to our community of small businesses across business categories.

A beautiful thing can happen when we consciously work together. Portland, Oregon was hit with a succession of heavy snow this past winter. This contributed to a disappointing holiday season and a sluggish beginning to the new year.

It quickly became evident that Facebook was the space for the small business community to find solace.

When I came up for a promotion idea to drum up sales for our business, I quickly recognized that getting my neighbors on board would only help this idea gain traction (something that only a handful of my neighbors had to get around) and visibility.

My storefront neighbor and I were shoveling snow on the sidewalk in front of our businesses and clearing the entire sidewalk on our block, the day that I thought of this Small Business Campaign. As we were looking for places to pile up the small berms of snow, I asked him if he would want to jump on board to offer 10% off of gift certificates purchased over the next 2 weeks. He said, “Sure. We’ll jump on board. Anything that might help.” After sending out an e-mail to our business association, we had 15 businesses on board. We had our on staff designer create a graphic, including all the participating businesses. By the end of the day, we had 15 businesses on board. After e-mailing and texting some small biz friends and posting the campaign on some FB biz groups and Townsquared we had over 30 businesses by the end of day 2. I was surprised and overwhelmed by the popularity of this simple effort and spent the rest of the next few days fielding businesses who wanted on board, communicating with other businesses and our City Leadership and sending our designer back to the drawing board to add newly added businesses each day. By day 3 we had over 50 businesses.

Even though press releases had already gone out and press started to contact us and share our campaign, I continued to receive e-mails from fancy spots like St Jack’s and casual, multi location businesses like Hot Lips Pizza. This began as a simple effort and turned into a full time occupation managing general and DM messages on FB and Townsquared and phone calls from businesses like La Moule, radio interviews and several television spots.


And with continued snowfall, at the end of the week we had about 100 businesses on board with requests to extend the promotion.

We had wineries, massage therapists, restaurants from fast to high end, all wanting to join in this effort. It was magicial, really. And I was really thrilled that our small business community joined together to support one another and to elevate the cause to help one another.

One woman, with a esthetician practice, came in to thank me because she had sold $500 worth of gift certificates. She shared that because of the campaign, “Sarah, I’m going to be able to pay my rent this month!”

Although I always love and appreciate good press (, it wasn’t the thing that most excited me even though we received great press in nearly every local publication and every local news outlet. I was so heartened by the overwhelming interest and concern of our customers who wanted to support us and purchased gift certificates knowing they would be put to good use in the near future. But the thing that that I was most surprised by and most inspired by was the ease in which the Small Business Community joined together to overcome our common challenge, that was the negative impact that the winter weather had on our businesses.

We found ourselves working with competitors, like our friends at Grasshopper who offered to post the campaign through their other business, Water Closet Media. While we often protect our own business territory, the expression “Community Not Competition” never rang more true.

From service providers to restaurants to retail, the small business community collaborated and came together. It didn’t cost a thing either, except for those who chose to chip in to purchase some print ads in some local papers. With businesses kicking in from $5-$100, we were able to elevate our common challenge and magnify that message shared 100 fold.

This tells me that our small businesses have an underutilized opportunity to collaborate across sectors. We can be doing cross pollination between apparel and home good makers and restauranteurs, coffee roasters and yoga practitioners. Why wait for adversity to bring us together. Let’s strengthen the fibers of our community and plan for our common goals and challenges now and build a thriving community that contributes to our collective economy. We choose to build our businesses in neighborhoods that resonate with our business and customer culture. We are as invested in our neighborhoods as we are in the businesses that occupy them. Its so important to recognize that when our neighbors are strong, so are we!

Sarah Shaoul