When it comes to economic development, it doesn’t get much smaller than the Longfellow Business Association.
For the past four years, Kim Jakus, the part-time staffer for the coalition has been trying to keep the 25-year-old organization going. Recently, it’s been a struggle with the combined crises of the COVID pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.
Even before 2020, small-scale business associations had not exactly been thriving, as witnessed by the demise of stalwarts like St. Paul’s troubled Grand Avenue Business Association. A lot of the fraying of business associations is driven by a shift in retail patterns, where online shopping has made it far harder to ensure profit margins for small businesses. As people holed up in their homes, COVID just accelerated that trend.
In the midst of the crisis, opportunities are rising. With some creativity, Jakus and the Longfellow Business Association may have hit the nail on the head with the 2022 passport promotion program. For June and July, a neighborhood punch card is now available. It’s kind of like a passport, with “buy one, get one” (BOGO) promotions at your fingertips for 16 different businesses in the Longfellow, Cooper, Howe and Hiawatha neighborhoods. (Note: With more than 70, Minneapolis has too many neighborhood names.)
So far, so good. It’s an innovative idea that, unlike more costly, time-consuming efforts, keeps overhead low and instead relies on social media and word of mouth. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come in places like Longfellow, where small-scale, low-overhead entrepreneurs can connect with each other and market to their communities.
Years earlier, Jakus got the idea from a visit to Northeast’s St. Anthony Main area, where a similar punch card system had been set up. According to her, it lodged “in the back of my head,” until one day she suggested it to some of her colleagues.
“I think it’s been good,” Jakus told me. “It’s less administrative on my end, and one thing I liked about this model is that businesses that have good social media presence push it and encourage people to try new spots.”
The key for Jakus is that the participating shops pay up front for printing, and then make up their investment through selling the cards over-the-counter. Minnehaha Avenue’s Arbeiter Brewing was the prefect place to begin the brainstorming session, a brewery that opened up mid-pandemic, transforming the former Harriet Brewing space into a welcoming taproom with an array of amazing lagers and ales.
“Kim is the real rock star,” said Garth Blomberg, one of the Arbeiter owners. “It’s a great idea, and we had good initial success when released in early June. It’s tapered off somewhat, but that’s also on us. It’s just a thing you have to consistently put out there and advertise to keep it going.”
Blomberg points to local neighborhood orgs like the Longfellow Business Association and the Lake Street Council as big reasons why Arbeiter Brewery was able to negotiate the rocky COVID terrain. During the pandemic, and after the murder of George Floyd by officers of Minneapolis Police Department, it’s been a bumpy start for a business predicated on drinking in public with strangers.
But after making it through the past few years, Blomberg helped brainstorm how the BOGO card would work. It’s been a nice way to “give back” and help keep Arbeiter’s community links in place.
Six months ago, a few blocks down Lake Street, Chris McLeod opened Laune Bread, a brick and mortar bakery, on the corner of 36th Avenue. (Fun fact: Laune refers to naturally leavened sourdough.) It was the culmination of a long-held dream to have a storefront for his subscription bakery business he and his partner had been running. Getting the word out about the store has been one of the challenges since then, and the Longfellow Business Association card is helping.
“It seems to be going well,” McLeod told me. “People are coming in every week with a card, and it’s also fun for us to see their cards and see what business promotions they’ve already claimed. It’s like an Easter egg hunt in a way.”
Unlike normal “bakers hours,” which typically see bakers show up for work at midnight or 1 a.m. — and think about that the next time you enjoy a croissant in the morning — McLeod has managed to create a business that’s a bit more flexible. They’re open only half the week, and have so far maintained a more reasonable 4 a.m. starting time for their many yeasty products. With a subscription model already in place that relied on keeping developing community ties, working with a business association seemed like a good idea.
Elsewhere on Minnehaha Avenue, James Freid, the owner of Minnehaha Scoop, has been working 14-hour shifts during the long holiday weekend, making sure that ice cream is flowing through the dog days of Minneapolis summer. So far he’s a bit disappointed with how many people have been using the punch cards, though he does point out that this last weekend saw an uptick.
“It’s going OK,” Freid told me. “We were hoping for a little more, but it’s gaining some momentum.”
Freid worked for years driving ice cream trucks around Minneapolis while living in Longfellow, and had always fantasized about opening up a concrete establishment in the neighborhood.
“I love the community and living here and working here,” explained Freid. “Seven years ago, I was biking by the location of Minnehaha scoop, and I said to myself, if that building ever goes on sale. Then I saw a for sale sign.”
Like most folks I chatted with about the BOGO passport, Freid sees it as a good start. The rest of the list of establishments include everything from the Schooner Tavern (Seward’s last dive) to fancy coffee shops to Curry in a Hurry, the latest incarnation of Gandhi Mahal (displaced by arson after the 2020 unrest). As an Arbeiter beertender told me: “The BOGO deal at Minnehaha Avenue stalwart Parkway Pizza deal alone is worth it. The rest is a bonus, and encourages exploring the community.”
It used to be that people learned about local businesses through word of mouth, walks through the neighborhood or community newspapers. If more business associations could figure this out an alternative, efforts like this could foster a greater sense of community connection.
“We’re just excited,” said Blomberg. “The Longfellow Business Association and other neighborhood orgs have just been so incredibly helpful to us and the community over the last couple of years. Any opportunity we can connect and work with these neighborhood orgs, we’re gonna do it. It’s a two-way street.”
In a perfect world, there’d be enough quirky small businesses — bakeries, ice cream shops, breweries, curry purveyors and more – to sustain passports all through the Twin Cities. Here’s hoping that Longfellow is a good start.