BOGO passports connect people to new small businesses in greater Longfellow
When it comes to economic development, it is not much smaller than the Longfellow Business Association.
For the past four years, Kim Backus, the coalition’s part-timer, has tried to keep the 25-year-old organization going. Recently it has been a struggle with the combined crises of the COVID pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.
Even before 2020, small-scale business associations weren’t exactly thriving, as evidenced by the demise of stalwarts like St. Paul’s struggling Grand Avenue Business Association. Much of the unraveling of trade associations is driven by a shift in retail models, where online shopping has made it much harder to secure profit margins for small businesses. As people retreated to their homes, COVID only accelerated this trend.
In the midst of a crisis, opportunities multiply. With a little creativity, Backus 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 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 over 70, Minneapolis has too many neighborhood names.)
So far, so good. This is an innovative idea that, unlike more expensive and time-consuming efforts, reduces overhead and instead relies on social media and word of mouth. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come in places like Longfellow, where small-scale, low-overhead entrepreneurs can connect with each other and market their communities.
Years earlier, Backus got the idea from a visit to the St. Anthony Main area in the northeast, where a similar punch card system had been set up. According to her, it was lodged “in my head”, until the day when she suggested it to some of her colleagues.
“I think it’s been good,” Backus told me. “It’s less administrative on my end, and one thing I liked about this model is that companies with a good social media presence push it and encourage people to try new spots.”
The key for Backus is for participating stores to pay upfront for printing, then offset their investment by selling the cards over-the-counter. Avenue Minnehaha Arbeiter Brewery was the perfect place to start the brainstorming session, a brewery that opened its doors amid the pandemic, transforming the former Harriet Brewing space into a welcoming bar with a range of amazing lagers and ales.
“Kim is the real rock star,” said Garth Blomberg, one of Arbeiter’s owners. “It’s a great idea, and we had good initial success when it released in early June. It is somewhat reduced, but it also depends on us. It’s just one thing that you have to constantly broadcast and advertise to keep it going.
Blomberg points to local neighborhood organizations like the Longfellow Business Association and the Lake Street Council as the main reasons Arbeiter Brewery was able to negotiate the rocky COVID terrain. During the pandemic and after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Department officers, it was a bumpy start for a business based on public drinking with strangers.
But having made it through the last few years, Blomberg helped think through how the BOGO card works. It was a great way to “give back” and help keep Arbeiter’s community ties in place.
Six months ago, a few blocks from 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 longtime dream to have a storefront for his subscription baking business that he and his partner ran. Raising awareness of the store has been one of the challenges since then, and the Longfellow Business Association card helps.
“It seems to be going well,” McLeod told me. “People come 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 baker hours,” which typically see bakers report to 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 build a business a little more flexible. They are only open half the week and have so far maintained a more reasonable 4am start time for their many yeast products. With a subscription model already in place that relied on maintaining developing community ties, working with a professional association seemed like a good idea.
Elsewhere on Minnehaha Avenue, James Freid, the owner of Spoon Minnehaha, worked 14-hour shifts over the holiday long weekend, keeping ice cream flowing during Minneapolis’s scorching summer days. So far, he’s a bit disappointed with the number of people using the punch cards, although he points out that last weekend saw a slight increase.
“It’s going well,” Freid told me. “We were hoping for a bit more, but it’s gaining momentum.”
Freid worked for years driving ice cream trucks around Minneapolis while living in Longfellow, and had always dreamed of opening a concrete establishment in the neighborhood.
“I love the community and living here and working here,” Freid explained. “Seven years ago, I was biking near the Minnehaha scoop location, and I thought to myself, if this building comes up for sale. Then I saw a sign for sale.
Like most people I’ve discussed the BOGO Passport with, Freid considers it a good start. The rest of the establishment list includes everything from Schooner Tavern (Seward’s last dip) in posh cafes for Curry in a hurry, the latest incarnation of Gandhi Mahal (displaced by arson after the 2020 Troubles). As one beertender Arbeiter told me, “The BOGO deal at Minnehaha Avenue stalwart Parkway Pizza is worth the money alone. The rest is a bonus and encourages community exploration.
It used to be that people knew about local businesses by word of mouth, neighborhood walks, or local newspapers. If more professional associations could come up with an alternative, efforts like this could foster a greater sense of community connection.
“We’re just excited,” Blomberg said. “The Longfellow Business Association and other neighborhood organizations have been incredibly helpful to us and the community over the past two years. Whenever we can connect and work with these neighborhood organizations, we will. It’s a two-way street.
In a perfect world, there would be enough quirky small businesses – bakeries, ice cream parlors, breweries, curry purveyors, etc. – to keep passports in all the twin cities. Hope Longfellow is off to a good start.