The art of sticking it out and sticking together in small town local business
Photo courtesy of Erin Dickman
On a Friday afternoon in September, an unassuming beige brick building offers a misleading facade for a bustling business within. Outside, it folds in with the rest of the downtown strip of businesses. Inside, someone is ordering a small mocha, a barista is calling out a fogle chai latte, students are hunched over tables with books and laptops splayed in front of them, friends are chatting and throwing their heads back in laughter. Bailey Warr, manager and head roaster, stands at the helm of it all, prepping the espresso shot for the mocha and patiently calling out answers to questions over the scream and hiss of the espresso machine.
This is an average day in Blackbird Coffee, a long-time stomping ground for many in the Milledgeville community since 2004. Warr says this is what it’s all about.
“It's such a wide variety of people, it’s very eclectic, and I like being able to provide that sense of community in the shop for the wider community as a whole,” said Warr.
While many small businesses in downtown Milledgeville have come and gone, Blackbird has been able to stick around for 13 years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “about half of all new establishments survive five years or more and about only one-third survive 10 years or more.” For Blackbird, longevity is based on crowds. Warr says that even in slower seasons, their loyal clientele keep them going.
But patronage aside, Blackbird has friends in other places. The coffee shop has made a point to partner with other small local businesses in Middle Georgia over the years to provide support and leverage to people who are doing the same thing as them – trying to thrive as a small business catering to a small town.
Among these businesses are local farm share program Babe and Sage and, most recently, Oconee Brewing Co. in Greensboro.
“A lot of these companies are small businesses, young and starting out fresh,” said Warr. “We love to be able to provide a platform for people like Babe and Sage, and helping their business grow, because we support what they do.”
Babe and Sage farms provide subscription boxes for the local community, with Blackbird as one of several pick-up locations in the Milledgeville-Eatonton area. Chelsea Losh-Jones, co-owner of Babe and Sage with her husband Bobby, said that it’s a trade-off for the businesses involved, since their customers are spending time in those pick-up locations.
“For us it means that, because we farm outside the community, it’s our link to the community. It helps us reach customers that we wouldn’t normally be able to reach,” said Losh-Jones. “Having that physical location in many places in town allows us to do what we do.”
While physical location plays a role for some partnered businesses, for others, it’s about the product they produce together. Oconee Brewing Co., which just opened in May of this year, began collaborating with Blackbird before the renovations on their 100-year-old brewery space were even finished. In late August, the brewery collaborated with Blackbird to combine a Guatemalan roast with a saison called Bird in Barley. Warr said this new beer was the first of many collaborations with the brewery.
“That’s our hope is that that partnership will grow and we can do more. This is just the beginning,” Warr said.
Taylor Lamm, co-owner of the brewery with Nathan McGarity, said that since opening their business in May, their main goal has been to raise awareness nearby – from their home base of Greensboro down to Milledgeville and now even up to Atlanta.
“We really focused local for the first couple of months,” said Lamm. “At any restaurant or bar, whoever wanted our beer, we wanted to make sure they had the beer available first.”
But staying local, keeping things in the small-town, rural Georgia family, is proving to work well for these businesses. Lamm said he believes that this could be a growing trend – and a positive sign for others in small business.
“I think people nowadays appreciate and seek out local products,” Lamm said. “So the fact that these two local businesses can come together and incorporate two products that are just hyper local – I think that’s kind of the trend now. People are drawn to local.”
Lamm’s predictions bring us back to what makes a business last to begin with; there is that dependency on community, on drawing crowds.
Losh-Jones, who also runs the Green Market (a farmers market in the Milledgeville Pavilion every Saturday) believes that it is a trade-off between vendors and customers – more vendors will come if there are more customers, but there will be more customers if there are more vendors. But which must come first? How do they draw crowds to begin with?
Just as Lamm pointed out that people are drawn to local products, both Warr and Losh-Jones believe in the quality of the products they provide and how that itself can draw people in.
“Our passion for the product, not to just serve coffee, but to serve good coffee, not coffee from somewhere else but from here – that kind of sets us apart,” said Warr. “And think that over the years we were kind of able to hone in on our coffee knowledge and perfecting the product.”
For the Green Market and Babe and Sage, the quality of the product is at the heart of their work.
“I think the Green Market is a place where you can come shop and you know what you’re getting, and you know your farmers feel connected to them and the land in a way,” Losh-Jones said. “We’re really passionate about feeding people good food.”
So they have the products that draw crowds; now how do they keep business going day to day?
“The key is customers and community,” said Losh-Jones. “For people to come every week and make it a part of their Saturday.”
Erin Dickman, a barista at Blackbird who also runs the shop’s social media platforms, said she believes community is the only reason they’re around at all.
“The community allows us to see more than what we’re used to,” said Dickman. “As a barista behind the bar, I’m able to come in contact with new people every day, expand that possibility for empathy, understand people’s troubles or happiness.”
Warr added that this kind of behind-the-bar service is an attractive quality for a shop in a small town.
“Most days, I think it’s pretty apparent that the people who work here really enjoy working here and enjoy serving the community,” said Warr. “I’m excited to come to work every day. That’s not always the case.”
For Dickman, the sheer variety of people that come into the shop can be attractive – and makes her job that much more interesting.
“Blackbird has molded itself into this place where people can either be productive or hang out and relax. It’s almost like a neutral ground,” said Dickman. “You can see anyone walk in – all types of people – and you spark up a conversation with them and they’ll be happy to tell you their story as you get their coffee.”
It’s another trade-off – small business in a small town curates a sense of community within the shop and in return the community is happy to come again and again in support of what they’re offered, so the two are constantly lifting one another up in unspoken partnership.
Derick Nelson and Austin Hughes, seniors at Georgia College, agreed that there’s something different, something unique about small local businesses like Blackbird compared to bigger chains offering the same product.
For Nelson, it’s about the atmosphere and the personality.
“Going to Blackbird, it feels like an extra room in someone’s house,” said Nelson. “It has a good vibe. I feel like I’m at friend’s house having coffee.”
Nelson said that in general he supports small businesses over big chains or corporations because of the attention given to quality of the product.
“I feel like they put more effort into their work,” said Nelson. “Everything is smaller where it can be more focused on.”
Hughes said that in addition to the quality of the product, he likes to know where his money is going.
“With Milledgeville being such a small community and all of local businesses downtown, the more we spend there, the more it goes to other places in the community,” said Hughes. “It’s not going to some corporate account, it’s going to the people we live with.”