It was 1 a.m. when Evrim Dogu got the voicemail about his bakery. “It was scratchy, and all I could understand was ‘Your building is on fire,’” he remembers.
Dogu got that call early this April, three months after opening Sub Rosa bakery with his father and sister. He drove over to the small bakery/apartment building he owned to discover that a wayward cigarette had caused major damage: The back half of the building was “pretty crispy,” Dogu says. Fortunately, the tenants were unharmed.
Evrim and his sister, Evin, wandered through the damaged rooms in the pre-dawn hours, slowly realizing that their brand-new business would be shut down for some time. And that’s when a customer stepped in to help.
Twelve hours after the fire, a crowdfunding effort among Sub Rosa’s customers and neighbors had already raised $1,000. By the end of the week, the total had jumped to $9,000 and ultimately grew to $16,000 after a series of fundraiser events held at local restaurants. Some of Sub Rosa’s strongest supporters were nearby restaurants and bakeries in the historic Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, where the bakery was located. One restaurant has even been letting the Dugos sell artisanal bread and pastries from the restaurant on Sundays, when it's closed to diners.
Social Media To The Rescue
Surprisingly, Sub Rosa’s story isn’t all that unusual. Communities regularly rally around foundering businesses facing sudden rent hikes, for example, or owners struggling with medical issues. Strong community support like this isn’t a replacement for smart management—when industries change or business models don’t show profits, then it’s up to the business owner to find long-term solutions. But even solid, profitable operations can hit random snags that threaten to sink the whole venture. That’s often when they find out just how strong their community ties are.
Shawnta Ray knew that her bank had the ability to call in her toy store’s $450,000 loan, but she never expected them to actually do it. “We had been working hard to restructure,” says Ray, who owns Happy Up with her husband. “We had closed stores that weren’t performing, moved locations that had too much overhead. But the bank said they just didn’t think we were going to make it.”
The bank may have voted “no confidence,” but Happy Up’s customers disagreed. “We let customers know that Friday and Saturday were our last days,” Ray says. “Then someone started a Facebook page.” Customers asked Ray what she needed. She swallowed hard and admitted that it would take $75,000 to bargain with the bank and fund necessary operational changes to stay in business. Within four days, the group had raised $82,000.
The cash saved the business. Happy Up has since moved to a smaller, more affordable location in the same small city of Edwardsville, Illinois, with an additional store in Clayton, Missouri, and Ray says that 2014 looks solid, with 2015 hopefully being the company’s turnaround year. She now shares updates regularly with customers via the Facebook page and in particular reminds them that although the funding was a much-appreciated emergency response, ongoing support is what will eventually determine the beloved toy store’s fate. “I just sent out a post that said ‘Hey, don’t forget us,’” she says. “If you aren’t shopping with us, then none of this makes sense.’”
Looking Out For Their Own
When Kidd’s Store & Deli in Scottsville, Virginia, was robbed at gunpoint one Wednesday night this past September, the first responders were its customers. By the time owner Vince Madison arrived, the parking lot was swarming with more neighbors than police officers. “Everyone here has a scanner,” Madison says. “I’m the only store for 10 miles, and most of the people who come in here, we see them every day. This is their grocery store, their hangout spot. People felt like it was their own home getting robbed.”
The Saturday after the robbery, a friend of Madison’s posted on the store’s Facebook page that it had new security. The “security” consisted of teams of customers patrolling the parking lot, monitoring the inside of the store and escorting employees to their cars after dark.
“I’d pull up at night, and there would be guys in the parking lot just hanging around, making sure this wouldn’t happen again,” Madison says. “Most of these guys and girls around here are hunters. I don’t know if they were armed, but if I were a betting man, I know where I’d lay my money.”
Loyal To The Core
Business school professors have made careers out of studying the concept of “emotional loyalty.” Essentially, they've found that customers can become so devoted to a particular brand or store that they’ll shop there even if it’s more expensive than other options. The brand becomes part of the customer’s identity and self-expression, as when Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners get company logo tattoos. Small businesses can help build fierce emotional loyalty with their customers when they become closely entwined in their communities. That loyalty keeps the business running.
Sub Rosa plans to reopen this December, and although the past year has been challenging, Evrim Dogu talks about the fire almost as if it were a gift. “Most of the time a business can go on for years not knowing if it is truly making a difference or living up to its mission,” he says. “If you're only going by the numbers, sometimes you can feel like, ‘Why wasn’t I so well-loved on this Friday night?’ ”
Instead of focusing on receipts, Evrim says the fire put him in touch with the emotional side of his business. “Part of our larger idea is to create a community that reciprocates," Evrim says. "[The community response] reaffirmed our vision, and how would we have known that if something like this hadn’t happened?”
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Photos: Courtesy Sub Rosa