What a treat it was to interview Rebecca Maclean, mastermind behind the blog Food Me Once and editor of the Digging Deep Campaign. We had a great chat during my recent spin through Pittsburgh, which gave us an opportunity to follow up on the story I (sort of) cribbed from her a few months ago: salt, pig, chicken something….relearning how to grow a community. While was there, she also took me to the hot dog restaurant that she discussed in that blog entry (can’t eat two dinners in one night, so I had to pass on the barbeque) and, well, it lived up to billing. I’m not sure what exactly I ate on top of that hot dog, but it was definitely not something I
would have thought of putting on a hot dog, and it was darn good.
Visiting the restaurant and talking with Rebecca afterward brought to light a few points that come through in the podcast — but here’s the crib notes:
- The restauranteur in this case is certainly a great chef, but he’s also either a clever (or lucky) entrepreneur. Opening three restaurants in a year sounds like a recipie for disaster… until you look at what exactly he’s doing. In both cases, he took an existing restaurant that was set up for a specific kind of relatively-easy-to-produce food type (you can think of barbeque and hot dogs as being two of the original quick restaurant foods, right), adapted his vision (high quality ingredients, creative combinations) to those spaces, and…voila. Splash-worthy products, relatively inexpensive to set up, relatively inexpensive to produce and staff. Talk about managing the risks inherent in a quick expansion of your empire. I don’t know the chef, so I don’t know his motivations or how well he’s doing, but from where I (and Becky) sit, it’s looking pretty wise. We need entrepreneurs to take risks exactly like this if we are going to regenerate healthy economies in places like the East Liberty neighborhood, but that risk is, well, risky. Sometimes being able to pivot to take advantage of available opportunities is the real mark of a successful entrepreneur. Sounds like a skill set that we should be building as a part of a small business ecosystem.
- Other than Sousa’s three restaurants, there aren’t a lot of dining options in this neighborhood, despite the proximity of some significant new-style retail traffic generators (the universities and the Google facility, among others). Yes, the immediate neighborhood has had plenty of hard times, but houses in the surrounding neighborhoods are selling better than all but a very few spots in the Midwest, and there’s clearly people around with some dough to spend. In locations like this, people ask me this question over and over again: why don’t we have more restaurants/retail/etc.? There’s not an easy answer, and I haven’t run the numbers on this neighborhood to be able to point to any factual distinctions. But what happens in revitalizing neighborhoods is typically this: the entrepreneurs, those who are close enough to the situation to have some sort of a gut sense of what the opportunity might look like, they are the ones who break the ground. Almost every single time. Only after a few entrepreneurs have toughed it out and have survived (or at least, a few have survived), do more conventional or mainstream retailers, restaurants, service providers typically stick their toe in the water. For conventional, format and franchise retailers and restaurants, the perceived security of piling into a neighborhood where it looks like a lot of other people are making money far outweighs the opportunity your great but untested community might have to offer. The moral of the story? If you are trying to revitalize an area, whether a downtown or a neighborhood business district or a suburban strip, don’t chase the same retailers and restaurants that are out on the edge of town. Recruit entrepreneurs — they’re the ones that have a chance of understanding you, who might have the stomach to take that risk. But remember that they are probably going to need help (we heard this from Lara Fritts in Annapolis, too).
- People who work with urban neighborhoods sometimes equate new “upscale” businesses with that ugly word, “gentrification” — driving out people who are economically disadvantaged. As Rebecca points out, though, the cost of a meal in these two restaurants is roughly comparable to a fast food meal, and the quality is higher. And longtime residents of the neighborhood are buying hot dogs too. Just because a person has less disposable income does not mean that they will not opt for higher quality choices when available. Heck, the Johnson Development Corporation proved that 20 years ago. More problematic to me, though, is what we who work with these communities often do by unintentionally assuming that our residents won’t pay for something of quality: we sometimes close a door that didn’t need to shut, and in the process we both crowd out new possibilities and unnecessarily decrease our residents’ choices.