August 1, 2012
Recently we took a road trip. We were driving through a rural area and decided to look for a breakfast spot, hopefully one with good country cooking and local atmosphere. The first eatery sign we saw sounded appealing but the place was closed. Further up the road, there was another eatery but it was boarded shut. And a few miles further in the next small town more of the same – little coffee shops and restaurants closed for business on a warm summer day, some boarded up and apparently shut down for good.
We continued driving; at this point we were looking for a place for lunch rather than breakfast. Finally we arrived at a small restaurant that was open for business. We quickly noticed that we and one other table were the only customers. We told our waiter, who turned out to be the owner, how glad we were to have found this place and asked him what was going on. He told us that he had only managed to stay in business because he and his wife did everything – all the cooking, the table waiting and the clean-up. He said the problem was the recession, but that the real problem was the brand name sandwich shop and gas station in the next block. “What business there is goes over there,” he said, “It’s convenient because it’s one stop. And people know exactly what kind of sandwich they will get.”
Brand recognition is one of the measures of franchise success and it requires consistency of attributes from location to location. Effective branding means no single location should be unique or outstanding in any way. When I go to Starbucks, regardless whether I’m in the high desert or on the coast, in the midst of urban sprawl or in a rural country town – once I enter Starbucks I’m transported to, well, to Starbucks country! Everything is familiar – that aroma, the color scheme, the friendly waiters and waitresses, and the various tastes. I know exactly what I’m going to order – a decaf soy mocha grande - and the experience of that first sip will be exactly the same no matter where in the world I am.
I love Starbucks but at what price? Since childhood, I’ve seen the impact of the big box brand on the single business owner. But this road trip caused me to look at the threat of extinction. If well branded franchises were to squeeze out all of the one-of-a-kind mom and pops throughout this country it would be a great loss – to our culture, our heritage, and the great stamp of individualism that is the hallmark of American society. And while the consistent promise of a decaf soy mocha is always alluring, the wonder and surprise of home baked pie at a rural country coffee shop is something to be treasured.
A bakery in the small town of Cayucos on the coast of central California makes the best brown butter sea salt cookies I have ever tasted. We stopped in for coffee and grabbed a bag of their house specialty cookies to go. As we drove along the coast and I munched my first bite, I knew this was a special recipe and that I was having an experience that was totally unique to this time and this place. The blue ocean across the road with its salty spray seemed to melt in my mouth. I felt as if I were literally tasting the environment of sand and sea and balmy coastal air on a brilliant sunny day.
I’ve decided that I’m going to support individual small business owners whenever I can. I don’t want to lose them and live in a world where familiar brands are the only option. I want the unique experience of a particular place. I want the surprise and discovery. And I want people to have the opportunity to create something really special for the world to enjoy and treasure.