Local owners cater to campus

This is the last in a series of five stories about how corporations influence the University.

by Jared Roddy

To survive among the powerful corporate-backed chains and franchises, local shops and restaurants sometimes must be willing to take what business their deep-pocketed competitors do not want.

Business owners throughout Stadium Village and Dinkytown have their own methods of staying competitive against corporation-backed franchises. Many seek out a niche that larger stores cannot squeeze into, while others offer products that are unique to their customers’ specific tastes.

But sometimes, the sheer buying power of stores such as Best Buy or Starbucks can force competing, small businesses to evolve to the their customers’ needs by offering services the larger stores cannot.

Finding the niche

Many of the small-business owners in Dinkytown and Stadium Village said they have lasted near campus because they cater to the student body.

Burrito Loco co-owner Greg Pillsbury said his restaurant pursues customers that chain-restaurants such as Chipotle are not interested in.

“You take aspects of business others don’t want. The late nights. The delivery. I don’t think sane people want to do that,” Pillsbury said. “Who wants to be up until four and back at eight? Who wants to deliver to the West Bank one, $7 burrito?”

Pillsbury said he does not even consider Chipotle a direct competitor because they sell “something like quintuple” the volume.

Just like Pillsbury’s Burrito Loco versus McDonald’s-backed Chipotle, places such as CD Warehouse have trouble competing with Best Buy, Wal-Mart and Target. But Bob Chelberg, owner of Dinkytown-based CD Warehouse, said that they can offer certain products much cheaper than Best Buy because they do not have to make up for the under-priced CDs.

Also, on Fourth Street Southeast in Dinkytown, Know-Name Records has trouble competing with big-box vendors. Store manager Chris Valenty said they now make much of their profit from the sale of cigarettes, incense and other products.

Valenty and Chelberg said Internet downloading and music piracy has also severely affected their sales.

Toughing it out

Pat Weinberg, owner of Espresso Expose and the Purple Onion Cafe, said a Starbucks representative came to him before the chain had a store near campus and tried to buy him out. Starbucks gave him an offer he refused. Then, he said, they threatened to run him out of business.

“Then the guy tried to bully me as a sales tactic,” Weinberg said. “It was stressful. It scares you. At the time I was $300,000 in debt,” Weinberg said.

Starbucks spokeswoman Val Hwang wrote in an e-mail response that Starbucks believes there is room for local competitors. Starbucks represents 7 percent of U.S. coffee consumption, she wrote.

Espresso Expose and the Purple Onion Cafe both try to cater directly to students, Weinberg said – something the larger chains cannot do.

“We like to make the shop theirs,” Weinberg said. “We like to hear that sigh of relief when they walk in.”

Espresso Royale in Dinkytown also uses customer service and the local atmosphere to build loyal customers.

“We make sure to change the right things at the right times,” said Michael Grey, Espresso Royale barista. “Plus, a lot of students at this campus have the education to know that they should support a local business.”

Zach Richards, a chemistry sophomore, said that he visits the Purple Onion Cafe because it has a feel that a chain cafe cannot create.

“I like that there’s art on the wall; it’s not polished and manufactured-looking,” Richards said. “I meet a lot of down-to-earth, level-headed people here.”

Good for one, good for all

In some instances, a large chain and a local shop can compete and actually benefit everyone involved.

Everyday People co-owner Liza Youngscap said she wished there were more clothing stores in Dinkytown.

“To make it more of a shopping area, then more people might say ‘Let’s go shopping in Dinkytown,’ ” she said.

Varsity Bike Shop got what Youngscap wanted: a direct competitor right next door. Erik’s Bike Shop opened next to Varsity Bike Shop nearly three years ago, but its sales have not declined, manager Jameson McGuine said.

“They take some business from us and they bring in some business for us,” McGuine said.

Charlie Denis, Erik’s Bike Shop service manager, said the two stores are so close together that it made them both a destination for customers.

Different markets

Local businesses that compete with cash-laden corporations must adapt to challenges from large corporations and also from other area small businesses.

These businesses often separate themselves from the competition by maintaining a unique product they say cannot be duplicated.

Competing against four other pizza venues on Washington Avenue Southeast alone, Campus Pizza general manager Jim Rosvold said it does not matter, there is enough business for all of them.

“It’s a different clientele; they cater to some people and we do others,” Rosvold said.

Repeat customers are Campus Pizza’s bread and butter, Rosvold said.

“We try to take care of our customers; we do a good job,” he said. “Any given lunch, I recognize 50 (percent), 60 (percent), 70 percent of the customers.”

Continued evolution

The point many local business owners drove home was the need to bend and evolve to the customers’ desire in order to stay in the black. Many customers also said they prefer to patronize local businesses.

Most small businesses are chasing that neighborhood culture. By hanging on to regulars and building a good reputation on campus, the little guy is still in there.

“Look at all the food shops in Dinkytown and Stadium Village Ö How do they stay in business?” Chelberg said. “All of them are just a little bit different.”