Friday, May 29, 2009

My Quest for Quality in a Quantity-Focused World

Until this week, I had never actually eaten at a Panera Bread. But on Wednesday I had a little downtime between meetings so, hungry and lured by the free wi-fi, had lunch at the Panera in Warwick, R.I. A panini and a bottle of water later, I was out $9.50. About 10 minutes later, I was out of sorts and back on my soapbox rally against all mass-market anything. In Panera's defense, they do offer a welcoming atmosphere and good coffee. So, I'll spare my rant about the sandwich (Ok, not entirely: I swear, the mozz and tomato panini had stewed tomatoes. I'll admit I can be a food snob but... really?)

Okay, back to where I was going with this. As I scrunched my face and swallowed said tomatoes, I looked at the line stretching toward the door. Well-dressed customers whose Saabs, BMWs and Volvos packed the parking lot placed order after order. I didn't have to look too closely, I was pretty confident many of these women were wearing David Yurman. Why do so many of us have these dining and fashion tastes? Why are the great little indy cafes and talented craftsmen overlooked? My answer: general ignorance. And I place the blame not on those customers, and not, entirely, on the mega-brands. I place it mostly on the independent businesses who offer superior products and services, but don't let the public know. 

Case in point: I recently met a friend for coffee in Mansfield, Mass. He mentioned a couple chain-type places nearby, but I had a little time to search online and found the Icy Bean. Great service, terrific coffee, and some fantastic gelato. My friend works for a huge corporation nearby, but had never heard of it. (He now goes back regularly for the gelato) But, he--and most other people wanting coffee in Mansfield, Mass.--are far too busy to spend time searching around online, so they hit the chains, whose appeal is their sheer quantity (of locations and marketing). Meanwhile those quality small businesses fall off the radar by not letting their target customers know they even exist. 

The whole cycle makes me crazy. Yes, publicity for upscale indie companies is now my line of work but, as my friends know, this has long been my favorite rant. So, if any readers OWN a small business, please think about how you can let your customer know you exist. It doesn't have to cost a fortune; it just takes a little creativity. (And, PS: if anyone knows a great cafe in Warwick, please, let them know there are a whole lot of hungry people feeling forced into the crime of eating stewed tomatoes on their paninis). 

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