Grass Roots Marketing and the Cost of Shoe Leather

gregAs a coffee house owner, you are running a community-based business, where the majority of your customers live or work within a few miles of your shop. To prosper, you need to become involved in your community. That’s why grass roots marketing is so important – and why shoe leather is one of the best investments you can make in marketing your coffee house.
Meeting other business owners and building relationships with local schools, or what I call “hitting the pavement,” is a great way to introduce your business to the community, and less expensive and more personal than advertising in the paper or on the radio. You will find that investing a few dollars in printing and your time walking the area, aka “shoe leather costs,” will pay big dividends as you forge and strengthen relationships within your community.
After Crimson Cup Coffee House opened in 2007, I spent one day per week for six months visiting businesses within a one-mile radius. I introduced myself, talked about our coffee and passed out special promotional cards offering $1 espresso-based drinks to incent folks to visit. About 20 percent of these cards were redeemed. Our sales continued to grow as we saw new faces become regulars returning for their delicious caffè lattes or mochas.
Some coffee shop owners are so nervous about winning customers that they want to hand out free drinks when visiting other places of business. We recommend against this, even in the beginning. People value what they pay for. Giving away your delicious drinks erodes their value in the consumer’s eyes as well as your profits, and most customers know that specialty coffee drinks cost much more than $1. In addition, potential customers need to experience YOUR place of business, and these promotions will get them in your door. Also, never discount drip coffee, which is the most mundane and least profitable drink on the menu. Your goal is to wow consumers with your premium espresso-based drinks and hand-poured offerings.
In addition to talking about your new shop, you should listen to the other business owners about their business and the community. Ask how you can help increase their business. Discuss ideas for cross-promotion. Make sure to set up a table or bulletin board in your shop that displays cards and flyers from local business partners.
You should also join the local Chamber of Commerce and other business and civic groups, such as a downtown merchants association or Rotary chapter. Then get involved. Volunteer to plan an event that brings more customers into your area. Take advantage of networking opportunities. You will find that you get as much out of your membership as you put into it.
While you are hitting the pavement, be sure to stop by local schools and ask how you can help. Hiring high school students for part-time jobs, sponsoring a Little League team, or placing ads (with $1-off discount coupons) in school programs demonstrate that you are involved in the community.
Business owners like to talk to other business owners. So, you, as the coffee shop owner, should be the one hitting the pavement and joining business and civic groups. You’ll find that networking with owners of the local insurance agencies, restaurants, retail shops, automotive repair shops, hair salons and other businesses will give you valuable insight into the character and needs of the community.
If you are extremely reserved and find it too difficult to interact with strangers, you can delegate hitting the pavement to another employee, preferably someone in a management role. But it is difficult to run a community-based business unless you are involved in the community.
It is easier to delegate residential outreach. Many of the coffee shops we work with have seen great returns from going house to house and leaving a promotional door hanger announcing their new shop. You can even hire some local high school students to do this as long as they are polite and presentable.
Be aware that hitting the pavement sounds easy at first. Once a business starts, however, we have found that a lot of owners get so busy with other issues that this vital effort loses its priority. I fully understand the entrepreneurial struggle of handling multiple challenges and, frankly, hitting the pavement can be very difficult. But, as I discussed in my last column, you need to focus on the big rocks, like marketing, if you want your business to grow and prosper.
By being a valuable resource and connecting your business objectives to the community’s needs, you can create a win for everyone. Ultimately, this leads to loyal customers, enhanced reputation, strengthened awareness, and increased sales.
Isn’t that worth a little shoe leather?
Greg Ubert, founder and president of Crimson Cup Coffee & Tea, has been roasting coffee in small batches since 1991 and has taught hundreds of business owners how to run successful independent coffee houses. The author of Seven Steps to Success in the Specialty Coffee Industry can be reached at

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