How community support strengthens small businesses: Three local business owners share their stories

“Community support can make or break a small business,” says Patrick Stoffel, owner of the health and beauty shop Fox Naturals. With the height of the retail shopping season underway, it is a great opportunity to think about what shopping locally can mean year-round. For Stoffel, the impact to his Wealthy Street business is immeasurable.

“Community support is everything,” he says. “It can change people’s perception of what you do and how serious of a business you are.”

As the holiday season swings into full gear, big businesses may entice you with special sales and discounts, but there lies a distinct deviation between the economic return for locally-owned businesses and their non-local competitors. According to the Michigan State University Center for Community and Economic Development, for every $100 spent at a local business, $73 remains in the Grand Rapids economy. On the flip side, however, for every $100 spent at a non-locally owned business, only $43 returns to the Grand Rapids economy.

Even though Wealthy Street’s retail and restaurant scene has developed into a popular community hotspot over recent years, it can be difficult for local businesses to turn foot traffic into actual sales. “You see it when businesses are going out of business,” Stoffel says. “You see a whole flux of people coming in, shopping, and supporting. Customers will say, ‘I wish you would have stayed open” or ask ‘What could we have done?’ People don’t realize that if you just spend $10 or $20 of what you would normally spend at the mall in a small business, it would keep it open.”

With big business doorbusters being offered at every turn throughout the holidays, MarcQus Wright, co-owner of the family-run Daddy’s Dough Cookies, says it can be difficult for local businesses to match those extreme holiday sales that you might see on Black Friday due to all the expenses that go into selling a product. “We are small and not able to buy things the same way a larger business can,” Wright says. “During the holiday season, so many people assume businesses are doing well, but the holiday season is where we need you the most. Many businesses are barely making it, and your purchase can go a long way in supporting them. Without the community, your business will fail.”

MarcQus Wright and his family.While the support of the community is vital for local businesses to stay open, the community involvement does not stop there for the owners. Not only does the money made circle back into the community in various ways, such as sourcing local products for a brand’s goods and services, but it allows also business owners, such as Keith Remelts of FiveW Pets, to customize his natural dog treats and recycle profits through local charitable donations. With purchases of its Gilda’s LaughFest Dog Treats, FiveW Pets donates 15 percent of all its profits back to Gilda’s Club.

“This has allowed me to get more connected and to offer more services that could benefit other small businesses as well,” Remelts says. “Being a local business owner gives me the opportunity to be more integrated in the community. I’ve done more for and more with other businesses, which I never had the ability to do in my previous careers.”

Unlike corporate stores, shopping, eating, and buying local often creates a family between the customers, businesses, and neighborhoods, according to Stoffel. Not only has Fox Naturals given Stoffel connections between the community and other business owners, but being a local shopper himself provides him with new friends that he can learn from and support. 

Keith Remelts, owner of FiveW Pets.“When I’m shopping locally, I love that you can talk to the people who make the business what it is,” Stoffel says. “There’s no third-party person. It’s all about those personal connections that you’re making with those people, and you get to see the hard work that they put into everything, which is amazing because there’s so much talent in Grand Rapids.”

Shopping local does not mean you have to make purchases every day, either. “You’re not always going to have money to spend. People come down to look and window shop, but just by talking about local businesses in your area, it can expand businesses three-fold,” Stoffel says. Even simply sharing posts, following, and tagging businesses on social media can impact local businesses in a big way because your network of friends and family may not have even heard of the business or restaurant before you mention it. 

Sharing reviews and feedback is also a free way to support local business owners because it helps them grow and improve their business and products. “Communicating is so important. We love to know when you are buying, what you are buying, why you are buying, and what you think of your purchase. As a customer-driven business, our customers determine what we sell,” Wright says. 

Becoming a local business owner, though, is no easy feat. There are still many challenges that Stoffel, Wright, and Remelts must overcome every day. “People over-glamorize small businesses, but there’s so much work that goes into running a small business, especially in a city like Grand Rapids where there’s so much rapid growth. You have to be willing to give it 110% every day. There’s not a single day that I’m not working,” Stoffel says. 

Because of the long hours that local business owners face, one aspect that many people do not realize, according to Stoffel, is that sometimes small businesses have to close due to unforeseen circumstances. “I’ve seen signs on businesses’ doors saying they’re closed for a family emergency. It can be very upsetting to disappoint your customers, but it’s not like the mall where someone can come in and work for them,” Stoffel says.

Misconceptions can also be seen in the demand for products between local businesses and their non-locally owned competitors. “Everybody wants everything right away — immediate gratification,” Remelts says. “Corporate big box stores are capable of caving to customers’ every demand and need, but sometimes that attitude can be overwhelming on a small business because they don’t have all the resources and staff.”

Even with all the present struggles, all three of these business owners still felt a need to follow their passion — whether that be creating handcrafted health and beauty products, producing natural dog treats, or baking homemade-style cookies. “Before starting FiveW Pets, I felt bored and drab. There was just something missing. It has definitely made my life feel more dynamic and it’s filled with more excitement now,” Remelts says.

To start a passion project and turn it into a reality, though, a whole community of resources is vital to the process. Although each of their journeys were filled with more twists than expected, Stoffel, Wright, and Remelts say having a solid foundation and support group, including professional help, has allowed them to navigate obstacles along the way. “[My support team] helped me address potential barriers before any hurdles surprised me, create a clear vision of what my goals were, and support my dream of what I wanted out of the business,” Remelts says.

For Wright, every day is a reminder that Daddy’s Dough Cookies is not just his business, but rather his entire family's undertaking. As co-owners, Wright and his wife, Tawanna, have used this business as a way to teach their children lifelong skills, such as brainstorming new cookie creations, baking, and learning time management and accounting principles. “It’s a learning experience that is transferable to almost anything that they will do in life,” Wright says. “My 11-year-old daughter, Mariah, and seven-year-old son, Malcolm, have seen all aspects of our business. They’ve watched it grow from a home-based business to a commercially licensed business. They see a product that they helped create in the hands of customers and on the shelves of stores. The joy on customer’s faces is felt by our entire family.”

While gaining a sense of pride through building his business as a family, Wright hopes his entrepreneurship sparks an interest in the next generation of local business owners after seeing the impact it has had on his two children. “It has inspired them to pursue their own passions and entrepreneurial efforts,” Wright says. “Mariah loves helping me in the kitchen and often shares her ideas of what we should do with the business. Malcolm loves art and has developed a comic book series, which he sells at many of our events. Seeing the business has inspired them to think big. We encourage them to explore and allow nothing to hold them back.”

Building Bridges is a series focused on the diverse entrepreneurial community within the West Michigan region. Throughout the year, the series will highlight the unique problem solvers and change makers who seek to positively impact the growth of the economy and local ecosystem. Building Bridges is supported by Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW).

About Megan Sarnacki: Megan Sarnacki is a freelance writer with a passion for social justice, intercultural affairs, wellness, and the arts. When she is not writing, you can find her working as a videographer, editor, and producer for WGVU Public Media.

You can contact the editor for this series, Leandra Nisbet, at [email protected]!

Photos courtesy of Fox Naturals, Daddy's Dough Cookies, and FiveW Pets, respectively.
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