It’s Saturday morning, and you’re craving a yogurt parfait. Heading down Second Street SW, you spy two choices: McDonald’s and Tonic Local Kitchen & Juice Bar. McDonald’s is cheaper, but Tonic is local. You’ve heard buying local helps small businesses, but how much difference can one breakfast item really make?
Far beyond an altruistic notion or artsy trend, buying local builds economic stability, creates jobs, and keeps a community unique. And it’s not just about small business owners – supporting local supports you.
Strengthening our economic base
Studies show buying local keeps more money in an area. But what does that really mean? Consider the yogurt parfait example. Purchasing from McDonald’s supports the franchise owner and a few Rochester workers, but does little else to keep your dollars in town. The same purchase from Tonic, however, supports at least five regional businesses.
Tonic is, of course, first on the list. Your dollars provides income for owner Nicci Sylvester and her staff. She in turn procures ingredients for her parfaits from regional food producers instead of a national distributor, sharing your money with four more area companies.
First, your yogurt comes from Country View Dairyin Hawkeye, Iowa – 90 miles south of Rochester – where the family-owned, on-site creamery turns milk from their dairy cattle into yogurt. Second, the berries in your parfait are grown three miles from Tonic by Sleeper’s Produce. Third, area honeybees and the Rochester-owned and operated business The Bee Shedmakes the wildflower honey. Last, Prairie Hollow Farmin Elgin picks up Tonic’s compost – including the biodegradable napkin you may have used – and uses it to fertilize its homegrown produce that’s later sold to Rochester-area residents, including Nicci at Tonic.
It’s a circle of trade which provides jobs and stability that wouldn’t have happened without Nicci’s (and your) commitment to buying local.
"Every business needs stability – regular customers, guaranteed sales," says Prairie Hollow Farm owner Pam Benike. "Anytime a farmer can pre-sell what she grows, that creates a stabilizing force. It’s the security that you’ll be in business next year. That’s a really big deal for farmers because getting financing is difficult. If you can walk into a bank with a contract with someone to buy your product, you have a much better chance of getting the operating loan you need. Without those stabilizing factors, farmers can be driven out of their own community to get sales."
Creating more – and better – jobs
Your support doesn’t stop with these five companies; local businesses often hire other area businesses for their packing, shipping, and administrative tasks.
"Buying locally is a gift that gets paid forward," says Chris Schad, co-owner of The Bee Shed, whose company sells 95 percent of its product within 50 miles of Rochester. "Our operations also support the local market and local jobs. We contract with PossAbilities of Rochester to assemble and paint the bee boxes that we sell to our customers. We buy our honey bottles from a small plant in Stillwater, and we augment our inventory by purchasing honey from other beekeepers in the area. We use local accountants to help with our tax preparation, and we buy tools from local hardware shops. The list goes on and on, but it’s clear to us that local businesses support, and are supported by, local businesses."
Unlike employment at national chains, which may evaporate as soon as profits dry up, jobs through area businesses tend to be steadier. The owners are vested in the community and often choose to ride out lean times, even diversifying, instead of going elsewhere. This was the case with both Prairie Hollow Farm and Country View Dairy when milk prices bottomed out in the ’80s and ’90s. Prairie Hollow Farm ventured into cheese making and CSAs, while Country View Dairy began producing yogurt.
"The family started making yogurt when the milk recession hit," explains Bob Howard, director of marketing and sales at Country View Dairy. "They looked at other ways to use their milk. Other area farmers were going out of business, but the family wanted to keep the farm and wanted something more to pass on to the kids. They learned that a pound of milk makes a pound of yogurt, so they started making yogurt."
Now Country View supplies yogurt to area colleges, retail outlets, and restaurants, including Tonic and both Nupa locations in Rochester, selling thousands of pounds of per week.
So what does this mean for you? Several things. Studies find that locally-owned businesses are linked to higher income growth and lower levels of poverty. They also generate more tax revenue for cities, which supports public parks and trails, clean streets, and safer neighborhoods.
These one-of-a-kind stores also foster a distinctive character that charms existing residents and attracts new ones (and tourists).
For example, a national magazine recently named Tonic "Best Vegetarian Restaurant in Minnesota" – an accolade that sets Rochester apart and encourages tourism.
Buying local doesn’t mean purchasing everything locally. Start with something as simple as consistently purchasing one food item from an area vendor.
"If everyone would just do a small part—buy a local honey or cheese, use local greens or tomatoes—it would help our farmers so much," says Nicci, whose venture began at the farmer’s market with fixings for Bloody Marys and resulted in establishing Tonic.
A plethora of regional goods awaits you at the People’s Food Co-op or Rochester Downtown Farmer’s Market, as well as festivals like Feast! Local Foods Marketplace– the region’s largest local food festival. Back for its third year, Feast! will be held at the Mayo Civic Center on Dec. 2 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. There, you can sip, sample, and shop hundreds of regional products and chat with food makers from all over Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin, including John and Chris from The Bee Shed and Bob from Country View Dairy.
"Economic impact is not just a number," says Pam. "It’s the value of eating better and building a community."
What: Feast! Local Foods Marketplace When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2 Where: Mayo Civic Center, 30 Civic Center Dr. SE, Rochester Admission: $5 adults, $2 children ages 2-12, $25 beer, wine, and
cider tasting (includes admission)
What: Feast! Local Foods Marketplace
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2
Where: Mayo Civic Center, 30 Civic Center Dr. SE, Rochester
Admission: $5 adults, $2 children ages 2-12, $25 beer, wine, and cider tasting (includes admission)