Grass Roots Marketing and the Cost of Shoe Leather

by Greg Ubert – Crimson Cup Coffee

gregAs a cof­fee house owner, you are run­ning a community-based busi­ness, where the major­ity of your cus­tomers live or work within a few miles of your shop. To pros­per, you need to become involved in your com­mu­nity. That’s why grass roots mar­ket­ing is so impor­tant – and why shoe leather is one of the best invest­ments you can make in mar­ket­ing your cof­fee house.

Meeting other busi­ness own­ers and build­ing rela­tion­ships with local schools, or what I call “hit­ting the pave­ment,” is a great way to intro­duce your busi­ness to the com­mu­nity, and less expen­sive and more per­sonal than adver­tis­ing in the paper or on the radio. You will find that invest­ing a few dol­lars in print­ing and your time walk­ing the area, aka “shoe leather costs,” will pay big div­i­dends as you forge and strengthen rela­tion­ships within your community.

After Crimson Cup Coffee House opened in 2007, I spent one day per week for six months vis­it­ing busi­nesses within a one-mile radius. I intro­duced myself, talked about our cof­fee and passed out spe­cial pro­mo­tional cards offer­ing $1 espresso-based drinks to incent folks to visit. About 20 per­cent of these cards were redeemed. Our sales con­tin­ued to grow as we saw new faces become reg­u­lars return­ing for their deli­cious caffè lattes or mochas.

Some cof­fee shop own­ers are so ner­vous about win­ning cus­tomers that they want to hand out free drinks when vis­it­ing other places of busi­ness. We rec­om­mend against this, even in the begin­ning. People value what they pay for. Giving away your deli­cious drinks erodes their value in the consumer’s eyes as well as your prof­its, and most cus­tomers know that spe­cialty cof­fee drinks cost much more than $1. In addi­tion, poten­tial cus­tomers need to expe­ri­ence YOUR place of busi­ness, and these pro­mo­tions will get them in your door. Also, never dis­count drip cof­fee, which is the most mun­dane and least prof­itable drink on the menu. Your goal is to wow con­sumers with your pre­mium espresso-based drinks and hand-poured offerings.

In addi­tion to talk­ing about your new shop, you should lis­ten to the other busi­ness own­ers about their busi­ness and the com­mu­nity. Ask how you can help increase their busi­ness. Discuss ideas for cross-promotion. Make sure to set up a table or bul­letin board in your shop that dis­plays cards and fly­ers from local busi­ness partners.

You should also join the local Chamber of Commerce and other busi­ness and civic groups, such as a down­town mer­chants asso­ci­a­tion or Rotary chap­ter. Then get involved. Volunteer to plan an event that brings more cus­tomers into your area. Take advan­tage of net­work­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. You will find that you get as much out of your mem­ber­ship as you put into it.

While you are hit­ting the pave­ment, be sure to stop by local schools and ask how you can help. Hiring high school stu­dents for part-time jobs, spon­sor­ing a Little League team, or plac­ing ads (with $1-off dis­count coupons) in school pro­grams demon­strate that you are involved in the community.

Business own­ers like to talk to other busi­ness own­ers. So, you, as the cof­fee shop owner, should be the one hit­ting the pave­ment and join­ing busi­ness and civic groups. You’ll find that net­work­ing with own­ers of the local insur­ance agen­cies, restau­rants, retail shops, auto­mo­tive repair shops, hair salons and other busi­nesses will give you valu­able insight into the char­ac­ter and needs of the community.

If you are extremely reserved and find it too dif­fi­cult to inter­act with strangers, you can del­e­gate hit­ting the pave­ment to another employee, prefer­ably some­one in a man­age­ment role. But it is dif­fi­cult to run a community-based busi­ness unless you are involved in the community.

It is eas­ier to del­e­gate res­i­den­tial out­reach. Many of the cof­fee shops we work with have seen great returns from going house to house and leav­ing a pro­mo­tional door hanger announc­ing their new shop. You can even hire some local high school stu­dents to do this as long as they are polite and presentable.

Be aware that hit­ting the pave­ment sounds easy at first. Once a busi­ness starts, how­ever, we have found that a lot of own­ers get so busy with other issues that this vital effort loses its pri­or­ity. I fully under­stand the entre­pre­neur­ial strug­gle of han­dling mul­ti­ple chal­lenges and, frankly, hit­ting the pave­ment can be very dif­fi­cult. But, as I dis­cussed in my last col­umn, you need to focus on the big rocks, like mar­ket­ing, if you want your busi­ness to grow and prosper.

By being a valu­able resource and con­nect­ing your busi­ness objec­tives to the community’s needs, you can cre­ate a win for every­one. Ultimately, this leads to loyal cus­tomers, enhanced rep­u­ta­tion, strength­ened aware­ness, and increased sales.

Isn’t that worth a lit­tle shoe leather?

Greg Ubert, founder and pres­i­dent of Crimson Cup Coffee & Tea, has been roast­ing cof­fee in small batches since 1991 and has taught hun­dreds of busi­ness own­ers how to run suc­cess­ful inde­pen­dent cof­fee houses. The author of Seven Steps to Success in the Specialty Coffee Industry can be reached at

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