ZUMBROTA — What sets Zumbrota's businesses apart, said Connie Hawley, is that everyone is looking out for one another.
"I’ve had businesses in four or five different towns, and nothing is like this town," said Hawley, who owns and operates Luya Shoes & Other Fine Things on Main Street in downtown Zumbrota. "It’s amazing."
Most businesses in downtown Zumbrota and a total of 31 in the community are members of the Zumbrota Independent Business Alliance. Rather than fight one another for customers, the shops, eateries and retailers regularly refer customers to other alliance members.
"It's not like, 'Don't take my customer,'" Hawley said. "We all support each other."
When Kris Ferguson opened Phenomenal Woman, a consignment store for women's apparel, 23 years ago, there was no business group in Zumbrota. No ZIBA, no chamber of commerce.
But she regularly met with other shop owners on Main Street, informally, such as Brenda Lerum, owner of Flowers on Main, and Roxanne Bartsh of Wild Ginger Boutique, sharing ideas for promotions and talking about how to bring more customers to all their shops. Eventually, those informal meetings included more members and, about seven years ago, turned into something a little more official.
"It truly was a very casual thing," Ferguson said. "We'd meet at Bridget's Café. There were no rules or restrictions, and it kind of grew from there."
Ferguson said none of the owners wanted to go the chamber-of-commerce route, which, from her recollection working for another company in the past, was a little too strict for her taste. They, instead, joined up with the American Independent Business Alliance, becoming a local member of that national group.
The alliance was such as success that when Paul Bennett opened Dwell Local in Zumbrota two years ago, he joined right away.
"I have friends who have businesses here, Connie and Roxanne. I've known them for years and they told me about (ZIBA)," Bennett said. "We all have each other’s back. During the pandemic, we all shared a lot about what was going on, who needed help."
Like Hawley, Bennett said he's owned businesses in other towns and, while those business communities were helpful, no one does being neighborly quite like the businesses in Zumbrota.
The COVID economy
When the pandemic arrived and businesses were closed through the spring of 2020, Hawley said the members of ZIBA, who were already used to supporting one another, took that mission to heart even more.
One of the few shops that remained open, Flowers on Main, sold gift certificates for area businesses, for example. While that wasn't paying anyone's bills in full, Hawley said, every little bit would help.
They shared strategies on building online sales, promotion through social media and, perhaps most importantly, Hawley said, the businesses provided emotional and psychological support for one another.
"During COVID, we'd have Zoom calls, and we cried on each other's shoulders," she said. "We had a very strong group before COVID, and we have a very strong group after COVID."
That strength included everything as formal as collaborative campaigns in which business help one another to the ubiquitous casual referrals.
"We really notice people and what they might like," Hawley said.
For example, if someone is shopping for their wedding shoes at her store, she might suggest Wild Ginger for accessories and Dwell Local for gift ideas from local artists.
"It happens all the time," Hawley said in a refrain repeated by both Ferguson and Bennett.
And, of course, once folks are done shopping, they're told about the dining options in town.
Ferguson said that coming out of COVID-19 was still brutal for business as, first, limited numbers of masked shoppers could enter the store, then the public, in waves, began getting vaccinated.
Slowly, though, things are changing. While Hawley said her sales are still off by about one-third from two years ago, Ferguson said she has been pleasantly surprised to see June 2021 being her biggest June ever. Still, there are differences.
The online shopping presence she built during the pandemic was a big boost that is helping her business in a new way.
"We did a pretty healthy online business during COVID," Ferguson said. "Now, people shop online, but come in to try things on before they buy them."
As for Main Street itself, only one storefront is empty, and that is because the business owner had planned to retire before the shutdown began in 2020, Hawley said.
Bennett said the key is likely the fact that, in addition to having a lot of complementary shops all within a two-block walk, it's the small-town feel that makes these businesses such good neighbors.
"Zumbrota excels at it because it is a smaller town," he said. "And the town supports the businesses. Most of our monthly (ZIBA) meetings, the mayor and the city administrator show up. Usually the chief of police or a police officer is there for any concerns."
First Thursday Block Party coming to Zumbrota
Bring the kids and an eye for local art and artisan wares because Zumbrota will be blocking off a couple of streets off Main Street for its inaugural First Thursdays Block Party beginning at 4 p.m. Aug. 5.
There will be a bounce house and other activities for kids, food trucks, local artists and artisan makers selling their goods, live music and sidewalk sales from local businesses. The event, put on by the Zumbrota Independent Business Alliance, will include a new car show featuring vehicles from all three dealerships in Zumbrota as well.