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Local means what?

Local is one of the hottest words in business these days.  What exactly is it all about?  When you see CNN, Walmart, and other national companies hopping on the localvore bandwagon, you can be sure small business has hit a nerve in big business’ buttocks.

It does seems that everyone is touting the ‘buy fresh-buy local’ mantra.  New restaurants are opening with grand efforts to use the freshest seasonal ingredients from local farms and manufacturers. CNN is promoting the nation’s farmer’s markets with a new @foursquare healthy eater’s badge. Walmart has developed its own ‘in-state’ produce program. New and redesigned distribution businesses such as Wild Purveyors are ‘cropping’ up to fill the overwhelming demand, scrambling to find enough local ingredients to keep the market happy.

Inherently, there is a key problem in big business buying local.  Their needs far exceed what a small farmer can produce.  Big business can sit down and create a contract with a farmer that will demand every scrap of vegetation from every acre they own. I’m not an economist, but having just one customer can’t be good for a farmer. Even if the relationship works to put them through a few seasons, what product does that leave for the small businesses that are actually trying to purchase a few bushels of the season’s finest crops?

One conversation that I had recently with Cavan from Wild Purveyors centered around the plight of big business getting in on the trend. He told me about a local farmer’s recent decision.  It poignantly shows how lopsided the supply and demand chain is. This farmer who makes artisan cheese has been courted by Giant Eagle; he has steadfastly refused to sign.  He pointed out that he could only produce enough product to keep this one customer in cheese, and if he made the commitment, his profit margin would get squeezed to pennies.  Wild Purveyors is an example of a newer company that has developed because the need existed for them! They themselves wanted these fresh, boutique ingredients and couldn’t source them through one wholesaler. They can get the artisan cheese to many customers rather than one, and they do it well.

For any restaurateur reading this, you know that buying local is so much extra work, it is almost not feasible.  Imagine for a moment. Call one wholesaler to get all of your ingredients, writing just one check and then get back to running your restaurant. OR: Buy as much as you can from the local countryside. Call 20 different companies, purveyors, farmers, dairies, even travel to the farmer’s markets and then find only half of what you need for the day’s business… They day would be over and you wouldn’t have had time left to run the restaurant itself.

So back to the title of this post… Local means what?  Personally I think we needed a place to hang our hat.  A place where we as consumers can say, “we don’t want your mediocre, mass-produced crap anymore.”  Local is the buzz word, but it is just a reflection of a generational shift back to community.  What keeps dollars in your community?  What can save you money? What can create jobs? What can fill the buildings in small town center? Can we depend less on fossil fuels through this?  It seems that any spin you want to put on the word ‘local’ works.  Farmers, organic, sustainability, job retention, all come quickly to mind.  Let’s not forget that local can extend to a local accountant, a locally owned payroll company or bank, a locally owned national retailer…. how far do you want to go with this?

Local can mean regional as well.  Huntington Bank is trying on the local hat as well. They aren’t local to Pittsburgh, but recent coverage in the Pittsburgh Business Times, may lead you to believe that they are.  Huntington does do business here, with significant investment in the area, but they are headquartered in Ohio.  They know that it is important to be associated with the community to be successful in Pittsburgh and they are trying to doing it through bricks and mortar, business loans to this market, and job creation.

Take a look at Cinda Baxter‘s efforts to create a ‘bricks and mortar’ mentality across the nation, through her 3/50 Project. She has also developed programs such as “Eat down the Street” and “Roll Local” to catch the eyes and ears of a generation of spenders.  She simply wants us to make better purchasing decisions and fuel local economies. Her message is spreading. In the past year, she has been featured on national news and travels speaking about the impact we can make by simply keeping dollars in our own communities.

Local means what? I think the key take away here is for everyone to make their own definition of ‘local.’ Take time to figure out what local means to you personally, and don’t fret over an all or nothing approach.  If you are in the market to buy an appliance, you may not be able to find it manufactured locally, or even find what you need from a reuse resource such as Construction Junction, but maybe now you will consider heading to Dormont Appliance rather than a megastore.

So next time you are feeling like spending a bit of hard earned money on yourself, and feeling good about it at the same time, buy locally so the bricks and mortar stores around you can survive and even thrive in this arena.

We’d love to continue the conversation with you at Bocktown.  Next time you are heading for the convenience and savings at the big box stores in the Robinson area, take some time to look around the corner and down the road for spots like Bocktown and other locally owned stores. These stores come easily to mind: Happy Baby Company, Janoski’s Farm Market, Pool City, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Uncle Sam‘s Subs and Ricci’s Sausage Company. If you find us, (we are tucked back by Target,) we encourage you to grab a Hot Sausage Meatball sandwich made with Ricci’s sausage on a Cellone’s roll. ‘Worsh it dahn’ with an East End Big Hop, a Penn Weizen or a Full Pint Chinookie IPA.  Introduce yourself, and we will toast your efforts to live a little more locally.

Additional notes:

  • More about local farms and markets can be found through PASA, Pennsylvania Association on Sustainable Agriculture.
  • It can be difficult to find locally owned businesses in your community. Many can be found easily through your chamber of commerce.
  • Mark your calendar to participate in local restaurant week with Bocktown and other Pittsburgh restaurants during the first week of November.

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