We love seeking out little cafés when we travel. You know the kind – where locals meet for breakfast, grab a meal with family, or hang out with the coffee crew. Where we get more than a meal -- we get a sense of the place we’re visiting, and the people who live there.
We’re always surprised when people say they want to “see new places and try new things,” but still insist on stopping at the first major chain restaurant they see near an exit. By barely leaving the highway, they miss opportunities to get a feel for the community, and maybe find a few of its hidden treasures before getting back on the road.
That’s why we stop at the places locals gather. Where, by simply smiling at someone or saying “hello,” we can start a conversation that often spreads to include everyone in the room.
In just a few minutes, we find out what’s going on in and around town, learn snippets of local history, and get directions to more than the usual sights – like some of those little gems the locals take for granted. We can find out who’s who, how the crops are, and hear about the guy who restored a muscle car or tractor, all in a good-natured stream of back-and-forth chatter between patrons and employees alike. We get a sense of place. We also get that not everyone’s willing to start talking to people they don’t know. And that’s OK. But think about it. You’re already talking with the waitress – or gas station clerk, or whoever -- anyway. Why not get the scoop on fun stuff to do while you’re at it?
All it takes is a quick question: “What’s going on around here today?”
“Not sure,” they might say, turning to a guy nearby. “Hey, Bob! These folks are looking for something to do – any suggestions?”
BOOM! Conversation started.
It’s the same when we move into a new community -- one of the first things we do is look for somewhere to eat. Somewhere we feel comfortable and the food is good. Somewhere we’re assured of a welcome and camaraderie. A place we can meet our neighbors and become a part of the “family.” Our own personal “Cheers,” even if everybody doesn’t know our names. Yet.
And we’re not alone – there are plenty of folks just like us. Are you ready?
When folks you don’t know walk through the door, remember the value of strangers – a value that may go beyond the price of their meal or their fuel. While some are vacationers, others are looking to relocate or may be traveling through on business. And, unless they say so, you don’t know who’s just passing through, and who might be considering moving in and boosting the local economy.
No matter the reason, they chose to stop and meet you. Your town. Your corner. Your place. They, too, want to feel that sense of community.
It’s a universal feeling. It’s found in small cafés, major chains, corner bistros, and the coffee groups at gas station C-stores. In cities large and small, and everything in between.
We – employees and locals alike – need to be welcoming and friendly. After all, every last one of us represents our local cafés, businesses, and the places we live. Who cares if the unsuspecting visitor sat in your regular spot? Return the smile with one of your own, and say “hey – how’s it going?”
Don’t be the reason they leave forever. Be the reason they come back to visit, or maybe even to stay.
~Katy & Annette~
We love coffee as much as the next guy, but having a Starbucks – or any other nationally recognized franchise -- doesn’t put a town on the map. Some of the best places we know of aren’t much more than wide spots on two-lane roads.
Take Regan, N.D., (pop. 44, plus or minus). Most people driving through this little town miss its many treasures, even though they’re “hidden in plain sight.”
We have to admit that, on first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much to see. But a closer look shows a historic main street, one of the last remaining 2-room stone jails in the state, an event center, a commercial-grade kitchen, manufacturing, and an American Legion Post.
See over there? That’s the old county shop, now the home of JI Fabrication & Welding. JI has two full-time employees, manufactures continuous fence, cattle panels, windbreaks and more, and offers a full array of welding services.
And the historic main street? It could easily be a movie set. The Stonewall has a long and interesting history, from its start as Regan State Bank to becoming a watering hole in the 1970s, with folks coming from all over to wet their whistles. Ask the “old timers”-- they have stories!
The little all-rock building used to belong to Bell Telephone, better known as “Ma Bell.” Any of y’all old enough to remember Ma Bell? We sure do. Back then it was a pretty big deal to go to in to the store and order – yes, order, not buy-and-take-home -- a brand-new telephone.
Regan even has an event center that can be rented for dances, reunions, and other special occasions. The cost is nominal, and it has an upstairs and also a full gym. A full-scale commercial kitchen is available for use, as well as the “new” (grade) school – that gives folks not just one, but two facilities to choose from.
There’s plenty to do for the little ones, too. There’s a fabulous playground and park for the kiddies, with “old school” toys, and a picnic shelter, to boot.
And last but not least, Regan boasts one of the few stone jails left in the state. You can walk right in and sit in a cell and take your picture -- a little taste of history complete with tourism and photo opportunities.
Bonus: Regan has high-speed internet AND a rural water system, too! And, a coffee pot that is always on. It may not be Starbucks, but the company can’t be beat. It’s part of small-town life – no matter who you drop in on, there’ll always be an offer of coffee and conversation.
There’s no denying that Regan may look like a ghost town –by most standards, it practically is – but it still has possibilities.
That’s what we see when we drive through Regan: the possibilities. We see a place for young families and retirees alike to enjoy a quality of life you just don’t find in the suburbs. We see possibilities for a bakery and/or other business endeavors using the commercial kitchen. We see “big city” executives using the event center for day-long retreats, in a setting you just can’t duplicate elsewhere. We see creative space for artists and photographers and … well, you get the picture.
Take a look around your own rural town. And slow down and take a closer look when you pass by that “wide spot in the road” as you drive through.
Peel back the layers. There’s so much more to be found than initially meets the eye.
It’s officially tourist season -- time to put on our “ready for company” faces and get ready for visitors!
Every rural community has at least eight things that, with a little bit of creativity, can tempt travelers to stop and spend some time – and some money – in your town. You may not have all eight, but we’re willing to bet you’ve got most of them: art/culture (think annual celebrations and the like), cuisine (we mostly just call it food), geography, architecture, commerce (shopping!), people, customs, and history.
We wish we came up with “The 8s” ourselves, but we have to give credit to the Kansas Sampler Foundation, which says, “Everything fits into one of these categories. Every town has a story to tell about each one.”
Take Aladdin, Wyo. -- one of our favorite towns on the cut-across from Belle Fourche, S.D., to Sundance, Wyo. It’s also a popular stop for travelers on the way to Devils Tower, Wyo., and Sturgis, S.D. This micro-sized community – around 15 residents -- packs a punch with everything from local foods to cowboys and cattle to history and more.
Let’s take a look at Aladdin’s “eight.”
Geography. Nestled into the hills just to the east of the Bear Lodge Mountains, plateaus and oak and pine covered coulees and draws dominate a landscape punctuated with rolling meadows. Bonus -- there are an average of 226 sunny days a year!
Arts/culture. Brand new this year is the inaugural Aladdin Music and Food Festival June 16. If you’re passing through, drop in at the Aladdin Mercantile for local paintings, jewelry, notecards, photography and more.
Architecture. The Mercantile was built in 1896 and is a prime example of early stores. It’s been in continuous operation for more than 100 years! Just a hop and a skip to the east of town is the Aladdin Tipple, another prime example of early engineering and one of the last existing wooden coal tipples in the west.
Cuisine. Don’t let the petite size of Cindy B’s Café fool you -- portions are generous, the food is tasty, and the prices are great. Or head to the Mercantile for sandwiches, snacks and an assortment of “old-timey” sodas. You can even belly up to the bitty bar tucked into the corner to sample local whiskeys and wine. Can you say “pour me a Chris Ledoux, please?”
Customs. Aladdin is in the heart of cowboy country, where rural values abound. A man’s -- or woman’s -- word is bond and a handshake means something. Men will always treat women like ladies, and friendliness is the order of the day.
History. Founded in the late 1880s on logging and coal production, coal mined in Aladdin was shipped by rail to smelters in Lead and Deadwood, and Colonel Custer stopped by in 1874 during his Black Hills expedition.
People. Folks in Aladdin are a hearty bunch, deeply committed to the land, their faith, community, and country –- always friendly and ready to help in a pinch. Want to know how the West really was? Ask a local – many are descendants of the original settlers.
Commerce. Just like during the days of the Old West, the Mercantile has just about anything you could want — you name it, you’ll probably find it. Sit a spell on the porch to write out that postcard you bought, then mail it from the little post office tucked inside.
See? If tiny little Aladdin can show off its “eight,” so can your town. Get creative, put on your “company face,” and invite the world in for a visit!
~Katy & Annette~
With this year’s RuralX Summit right around the corner — mark your calendars for June 27 & 28 in Mitchell, S.D. — it's time to think about how being present can change your community. What can you learn? Who can you meet? What inspiration can you get?
The RuralX Summit is organized by Dakota Resources in South Dakota, and brings rural champions and community leaders together across several states for learning and networking. The last two years, champions from North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa were in attendance.
So, besides the regular reasons — like networking and national speakers — here are 5 reasons to attend:
Rural success stories. Hear first-hand from other communities what they are doing, how it’s working and how they learned to be idea friendly. When we talk to others struggling with the same small-town problems, we discover new ideas and ways of achieving our goals and dreams for our communities.
Visibility. Just because you or community may be “way out there” doesn’t mean you have to subscribe the old adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Being seen and telling your stories keeps you in people’s minds. This is an ideal way to showcase your assets and build new outlets. You may doing a whiz-bang job with your digital marketing, but nothing beats the connections you can make in person.
Community Connections. By “community,” we mean small towns in general. Rural and small towns have a unique way of forming their own “communities” outside of their own city’s boundaries -- many are connected over vast distances through commerce and family ties. Attending events strengthens those ties, makes us stronger, more resilient and better able to weather whatever storms come our way. It’s true: “Where people gather, community happens.”
The energy of like-minded people. Small town leaders and advocates often feel they are going it alone. The energy of being in a room full of people — people willing to take time away to be there, too — is undeniable. They, too, attend conferences, seminars, and networking sessions to better themselves and their communities, and also to support each other. When you are at these events and conferences, you realize that you are not alone in wanting to make a difference, and that your vision really is within reach.
New ideas. A hundred people can all hear the same expert, and each one will take away a little something different. By being present at these events, we talk to each other, learn, and expand our creative process. The speakers are fabulous, and bring relevant, affordable, doable ideas. We become excited again about what we love about our communities and what we want to accomplish.
BONUS: Have fun! For many of us, attending a conference is equal to a vacation — visiting a new town, a new state and/or new anything is exciting! Take some time to explore and enjoy before or after the days’ events.
We can it hear it now… all the reasons why not to go. “We can’t afford it.” “Aren’t we too small?” “We don’t have a Chamber/Job Development Association.”
How can you not afford to go? Ask local banks, businesses or community groups to help with costs — your participation is in their best interest, too. You will bring back valuable knowledge on creative housing options, marketing your hometown, public spaces, filling empty buildings, pop-up-shops, funding sources and more. These are important to the community as whole!
Or get together with neighboring cities or counties. Several small towns or counties can easily band together and send a representative who can then report back to everyone involved.
Or do you think your town is too small? There is No. Such. Thing. Every single community has something of value. Events like Rural X can help you discover hidden assets and how to leverage them.
It doesn’t matter one bit if you don’t have a Chamber of Commerce or a Visitors Bureau.
What truly matters is that you care.
It's the middle January and we are hearing a lot of grumbling about how sales have dropped off. In many cases to nearly nothing. This isn't an unusual phenomenon- It happens every year.
Here are 5 ways to boost revenue post holiday well into the new year.
Celebrate! Don't wait for a traditional holiday like Valentine's Day or Christmas to have special sales or decorate. Start your own holiday. Tell everybody! "Hey.. we're celebrating National one cent day" (April 1) ...or Jell-O day(July12) or National Dance Day (July29) promote it on social media. Have fun with it! ~ Can't think of a day? Check out the National Day Calendar for days, weeks and moths to celebrate.
Utilize email lists/customer records- If you have email lists, addresses or phone numbers for your customers, start using them. Your list can be as simple as a sign up sheet at the register, or using something like MailChimp to capture addresses. Some ideas are *mail out cards or postcards thanking them for their business. Include a percentage off coupon for future use. *Call them up and let them know you have something new and exciting *Invite them to a pre-season showing of what is coming out.
Events- Host a special event. What kind of shop do you have? What can you do? Perhaps a demonstration of new products, or a sip-and-shop. How-to classes on staining wood or 10 ways to wear a scarf. How about an informational mini-class on natural supplements or oils. Get creative!
Co-Promotions- Collaborating with other businesses is an effective, affordable way to get more bang for your buck. Do you make pottery? Co-promote with a local florist to use your pottery in arrangements. A stationary store could co-promote with a calligraphy artist to offer custom invitations. A café can co promote with a video rental (Dinner & a movie) or theater. Again- be creative!
Re-arrange the furniture- Simply moving the furniture or freshening up the paint or creating new displays makes it look and feel as though you've done something more. It's exciting and new and drives sales. Don't forget your entryways!
Yes, Virginia- Small towns and 'Shop Local' DO matter.
Yesterday I was part of "Hometown Holiday Happenings" in a nearby town-the first in decades. This event was combined with a Shop Small/ Shop Local campaign. It was my pleasure to volunteer my time and have some input on fun ideas.
While we were waiting for the lighted parade to start, a couple ladies were talking about how this town initiated a Shop Small campaign for that Saturday- One lady, a long time resident, said "Small towns shouldn't even participate in Shop Small Saturday. It's a waste of everybody's time and effort"
(This is where I may have gotten a little animated!)
WHAT???? How can it be a waste of time and effort????
After spending many years championing small and rural communities, creatively brain-storming with them to discover all they do have, and working with small businesses, I get a little excited about the subject.... But ~let's get back on track~
The nice lady honestly felt that most people did nearly all their holiday shopping, big purchases and specialty shopping in the big city 40 miles up the road. So what did it matter??
Well- it does matter! Small towns and the businesses with-in depend on locals shopping there. Small businesses give more of their time and money to local causes and events than any major corporation ever will. ( local businesses donate an average of 10+% to local causes vs the 2% of major companies- it just looks like more because the initial number is so high, but when compared to their incomes, it is nothing compared to what small businesses give) Think about what would happen if those local businesses you count on to be supporters of ball teams, food bank and so on DID NOT support them, or were no longer able to. What then?
Events like Small Business Saturday, Shop Local, Hometown Pride, 50/3 and so on, help keep local businesses in the forefront. When we don't shop our local stores, they in turn have less revenue and will need to raise prices on what they do sell to make ends meet. They will also have to lay off employees if they have them, and that too means less money flowing in town. Those employees get paid and spend part of their hard earned in town- at the cafe, the market, the gas station, hardware store, movie theater, etc. When those folks that were let go have to leave town for work, they will spend their money in the town they found work in. NOT in your town.
Do you have any idea how many small business owners will work extra hours themselves 'for free' to make sure there is enough money to pay their one employee?
When we don't support our local stores, they close. Empty buildings are harder to sell/rent. Empty buildings lead to lower property values and a depressed Main Street, which screams very loudly
"DON'T DO BUSINESS HERE! NO ONE WILL SUPPORT YOU"
If small businesses didn't participate in events that highlighted them, would you remember they are there? Do you know-I mean really know, what all your town has for retail and service based businesses? Do you ask around for who has what and where before you head 'to the city'?
Don't get me wrong, there's no law against shopping outside of your own town. I know that very few, if any, communities will every single thing you want. But try to remember all your dollars provide for when they're spent locally. Read a more about that here: Stop & Shop Local
Think about it- Life changes on a dime ( we know!)- what IF you suddenly couldn't just jump in your car and go 'to town'? Would that change how you feel about what you do have?
Shopping local may mean your own town, your own neighborhood if you live the city - I grew up in a city where every neighborhood had it's own shops as well as the big malls further out- or own circle of towns. It may mean that when you are traveling you choose the local Rexall on Main Street for sunscreen over the BigBox up on the highway.
Small businesses and small towns should participate in events that champion them. Not only is it a chance to showcase all they do have, and maybe attract some new business to boot, it also builds community- people are out and about. Talking. To each other.
When people talk, community happens.
So yes Virginia, Small towns and Shop Local DO matter.
Annette & Kate
If it involves small towns, rural, business or people, we write about it. Both the good and the bad. Part of our passion is helping you be the best you can be.