Every new business has it's share of revelations. No, I'm not referring to the twists and turns of entrepreneurship. I'm talking about assumptions and expectations I had about my target market that ended up being totally wrong. Surprise!
I assumed women would be my critical shoppers. I was afraid they would scoff at "convenience pricing" and I'd have to work to convince them of the real savings of drive-thru grocery shopping. I myself am obsessive with our grocery budget and can get double the groceries my husband picks up at the store for the same price. I just figured male shoppers would be more accustomed to convenience pricing. Because they buy lunch at Town Pump. And time is money, right?
In actuality, women don't flinch at all when I give them their total. They are grateful. They know the service I've just provided them. And their level of gratitude is directly correlated to the number of car seats in their vehicle.
Several male customers however (no, not all men), act personally offended that a loaf of local Wheat Montana bread is $3.75. Why is this?
People don't know how much they pay for grocery items. Studies show people remember the price of only 4 items at the store (bread, eggs, bananas, milk). That's generally why those items don't fluctuate much in price. Everything else has a much broader possible range in your memory. You know bananas are between .59-.69/lb, but apples will be anywhere from .79-3.50/lb. A 16 ounce tub of cottage cheese is somewhere between 2.25-4.75/lb. Those are some wide margins grocery stores get to play with. And they do.
In Bozeman, one store might have the cheapest milk, but their meat is outrageously priced. Another store has less expensive meat, but you'll get nickle and dimed on the canned goods, etc.
Women still do most of the grocery shopping in the average household. They are more familiar with supermarket pricing, so they know $6.00 for a pound of bacon is not a rip-off. When they pay $4.00 for a carton of cage-free local eggs, they don't think I'm making a $3.58 profit.
Generally, the guys who have reacted negatively to our prices are the ones running an errand at someone's request. They aren't the ones who do the regular shopping and see grocery pricing every week.
Another shocker after opening: we aren't even expensive! When I started the Ridge Run business plan, I assumed our pricing would be significantly higher than a supermarket and closer to gas station cost. But our prices are always less "convenience store" and more "grocery store". I often go into local stores and find the same products and brands are costlier than ours! For some reason that frustrates me, but I can't really articulate why.
Luckily, even when those few folks get offended about their total, they are still nice. Which really has been the most surprising part of all in this venture: Our customers are really, really cool.
Yes, there were haters out there when people first heard about us. There are a surprising number of people threatened by others' adventures or *gasp* potential success. All those motivational quotes for risk-takers and big-thinkers about small-minded negative people were quite helpful. But I was genuinely fearful of our patrons. I mean... "people", am I right? They can be awful. And I've worked closely with people my whole career. I should have been more comfortable. But clients aren't really the same as customers (although they should be considered so, but that's a different blog post for another time), and I was nervous about them "always being right" and such.
Our wonderful community and customers have helped me become confident about the value of our service. And like I said, they are really, really cool. We get to have the best conversations with you all every day and we LOVE IT.
What a pleasant surprise that has been.
Other unexpected things in the new drive-thru grocery business world:
1. Nobody needs hot sauce.
It must just be our household that is always running out. Who knew.
2. There are super friendly vendors in the area.
I'm not sure what I expected there. Yes, a few I called were kind of short with me and wrote me off. "You mean you don't want to put a bunch of work into a tiny new business with an inexperienced owner, no profits, and minimal return on your investment?!" Crazy, I know. But other vendors, the ones I've obviously chosen to work with, are way more supportive and excited for me than I anticipated. Many reached out to me. They have been super helpful in getting us up and going and their respect has earned our loyalty for sure.
3. It was easier to find the perfect employees than I could have ever imagined.
I talked to several staffing agencies because I dreaded this aspect. But, we were able to find a lovely fit, on our own, and save a bunch of money doing so. And the ones we found were the most laid-back, competent, trustworthy, and flexible employees you could ever dream of.
3. You guys don't want Ritz crackers, either?!
Seriously, that one baffles me. And they don't have a long shelf life, did you know that? Maybe it's all the butter in them. It's ok though, my kids will happily eat expired Ritz crackers for the next year. Those bad boys aren't going to the Food Bank.
Have I mentioned that we're a small business? ;)
I don't think I was prepared for just how much our literal small size would throw people off.
New things are scary!
And it's hard to sell new ideas to people. Changing consumer habits and perceptions is one of the most difficult aspects of this business. Some people are really turned off by our size. But others love it and those are our people. They know our size allows us to do what we do. They know it means better customer service and attention to detail than they will ever get in the supermarket.
Obviously, we are the most convenient place to go for last-minute necessities. But other details are not so obvious. We are licensed and operate like any other grocery store, just waaaaay smaller: We have coolers for our inventory, but they aren't the size of a garage. We have a produce section, it just doesn't require 9 employees to organize it. We even have a customer rewards program for frequent shoppers. There are about 12 people enrolled in it.
People are curious because we're different. They are fearful for the same reason. Education is a frequent component of operating this business because people may not "get it" right away:
"Do you have to call and order ahead?"
"Do you have like, an app or something?"
"So, how does it work?"
-It's like a coffee kiosk.
Customers pull up, order from the menu, pay for their groceries, and drive away. We have a wide variety of products, in stock at all times, waiting for you to come and order them.
We know it's confusing at first, but it really is that simple.
We're on month 6 of this business being open. Which is like 1 year since the journey began, or 2 years since I started working on it in my head. And we're finally starting to gain some momentum and get our groove in this whole small business thing. However, I recently reached a mental plateau. Is it too soon for burnout?
I noticed I have been getting jaded with our awesome community. Complaining about the traffic and attitudes and so on (we all do it, admit it). And I feel bad for it, because I know I live in frickin' paradise. But I was in that bitter headspace and it affected the positive energy and momentum I need to grow this business.
A wise friend (hi Karen!) pointed out that it's likely due to my increased social media activity. She's right, as usual. Networking, although rewarding at times, exposes me to "the worst" of people: negativity and superficiality. That stuff is powerfully toxic. When I'm not mindful of it, I have a hard time identifying why I'm suddenly so agitated and disgusted with humanity.
We could all probably use a regular evaluation and re-set of our social media usage. Maintaining both relevance and emotional health is a tough balance, since the social media rule is "interaction is how you stay visible". Here are some of my observations on social media, with tips for other folks who have to use it and don't want to become hateful scrooges:
Facebook: I have a separate "business owner" profile to promote my store. Basically this means I friend anyone (who isn't obvious bot/spam) in the local community to network with. WOW. It didn't take long for me to remember why I created a nice, warm echo chamber on my other facebook page. There is so much ugliness, anger, and noise on facebook. To protect myself and keep my feelings about my fellow citizens positive, I consciously try to do several things:
1. Post minimal pictures of my family. I want to show that I'm a real person, while still protecting my space and the privacy of my kids and husband.
2. Keep political/religious opinions (mostly) to myself. This is a hard one for me, but it really helps prevent people from hating me and vice versa. It also helps prevent some of facebook's algorithms from filtering things from me.
3. Avoid scrolling beyond the first 10 posts. Generally, the top posts are the most relevant and engaging. After I make my own post, I touch base with a few other folks and then scram.
Hey look! I just saved myself 2.5 hours and all my sanity!
Twitter: This one's easy for me to navigate. It doesn't have the same addictive or agitating factors for me and it's simple enough to protect myself from the noise. For business owners/promoters specifically:
1. Find a common topic and post about it regularly. For me, it's the daily food observance. I make a quick post and get out. It could be your weekly special, sale, product spotlight, or educational information. Whatever it is, be consistent so folks know what to expect from your account.
2. Follow all the local accounts you can. Interact with ones that are relevant and communicate a little, but try to get in and get out without too much back-and-forth.
3. Twitter is ideal for daily posts that are short, sweet, and to the point. Think of it as an simple way to do some marketing each day, without the concern of being too over-bearing.
Pinterest: Another tool that is low-maintenance for me. It's quick and easy, and although there is a lot of junk and noise, it has by far the least amount of agitating content of social media options. I consider this one an easy way to develop your brand/area of expertise, without too much work. Like Twitter, you don't have to worry about being obnoxious. Find some relevant articles, ideas, etc and pin them to your boards once in a while or even daily. It isn't the best tool for visibility, but it's free and simple and a space you can direct people to learn more about you.
1. Create a balanced set of boards. Information, ideas, funny things, etc and categorize pins accordingly. People like Pinterest's organization component best.
2. You will interact with other pages while looking for your own content, but there's no need to endlessly scroll. Find a few relevant pins and be on your way. It really doesn't need to be a time-suck.
Instagram: WOW again. This is the epitome of the image-curating, superficial, popularity-contest side of social media. How many lifestyle and wellness "professionals" would you guess there are just in our small community? Although there is a place for them (kuddos to them for making a career out of this) and they probably help a bunch of people in their own ways, it is gag-inducing if you follow them all at once. You will hate humanity and start to hate yourself for being part of it. So, just like any other thing in life, evaluate your priorities and sort out the baggage.
1. Pick a (very) limited amount of popular profiles to follow. Preferably ones relevant to your business/interest, who most inspire your creativity and IG posting. This will help to give some guidance (they obviously know how to get followers) without overwhelming you with ultra-curated content.
2. Follow some fun popular instagram profiles for their beauty or humor. My favorites are:
- @food_glooby -Beautiful food submitted from all over the world. It'll inspire you to eat prettier.
- @aviewfromaloo -Literally just pictures of amazing toilets from all over the globe.
- @shoppainted_bird -Really crappy thrift store items, posted and sold for ridiculous prices. I don't really know why, but I find this one to be hilarious.
- @pleasehatethesethings -A new favorite (thanks, Sarah!). Pictures of absurd home design with snarky captions.
3. Engage locally! But again, not with everyone or you'll hate the town you live in. There are some great local pages that produce interesting and relevant (to you) content. I personally prefer other small businesses that keep it genuine and authentic (i.e. no need for professional photographer credits). Some suggestions are:
- @knowthydog -Their Dog of the Day is the cutest. Every single one.
- @foodworkslivingston -Interesting wholesome recipes, products, and nutrition information.
- @amaltheiadairy -A local, organic farm with fun pics that remind you of what this valley is all about. There are a lot of great IG profiles of the local farms in our valley! Check them all out.
- @mimi.matsuda.art -There are a lot of local artists in Bozeman, too. This is just one, but she's a good one. And she's a new mama to twins! It's fun to see her juggling so much awesomeness!
4.Remember, when it comes to followers, quality over quantity. If you just try to get a ton of followers, you'll end up with a bunch of brand ambassadors that will never be customers, and you'll get lost in the mess.
So there it is. Sometimes I have to teach others before I can follow my own advice :)
Social media is a friend to any small business, but you must be mindful to use it effectively and to protect your mental health. Be efficient so you can get back to your real life.
I hope your agitation is low and your relevance is high. And good luck out there!
"You won't understand until you experience it".
That's pretty much the same wisdom for any major life change: Getting married. Having a kid. Having another kid. Divorce. Losing your health. Losing a loved one. And starting a business. It's one of those super annoying things that people say to you before you start saying it yourself.
And it's true. You can research and feel so informed on any of those topics that you believe yourself to be prepared. But some concepts cannot be fully understood in the abstract.
Suddenly one day you will find yourself on the other side of one of those situations and realize "ohhhhh.... now I get it".
(Of course you will still try to educate other people and describe the fears and humbling learning curve that you know they cannot actually understand from you. Because humans are egocentric. We highly value our own opinions and experiences. That's why we write blogs.)
This is one of those concepts that you abstractly "know", but don't fully understand until you're on the other side. Most folks agree that supporting small, family-owned businesses directly supports their communities. It keeps money in the area and prevents it from going to chains (who ultimately make it harder for small businesses to flourish). But we don't understand the vulnerability of putting your face and dignity on display as a small business owner.
Starting a business from scratch, without the backing of a corporation or big investors, feels like operating a lemonade stand. It takes a community to grow, and every customer counts. (Luckily, because you're not beholden to investors, it doesn't take that many people to pay the bills).
We all know that money=power, but we don't view our shopping as delegation of power.
For most people, knowing "buy local" values doesn't translate into driving that extra mile or spending that extra dollar to exercise that knowledge. We act on impulse (which has been curated by trillions of dollars of advertising), rather than mindful consideration of long-term investments. Many of us (for reasons that don't make any sense) even trust the large, corporate, retailers more than locally-owned stores, and are more critical and less forgiving of small business owners.
Until you start or are close to someone who starts a small business. And suddenly you are enlightened to the struggle of your small business neighbors, trying to compete with flashy and repetitive marketing of powerful corporations. You see people pouring their money, time, and pride into their dream, while friends shop online or at big box stores because it's what they've always done.
So here I am, in the middle of this experience, wiser and more desperate than I once was. Please. Support your local businesses. Shop mindfully. Think about the long-term vitality of your communities and be an example for uninformed people moving in from other states. Your neighbors will thank you. And you will benefit in ways that you may not totally understand right now.
p.s. You know how social media algorithms work. Like, comment, share, and review your friends' businesses and help their visibility. Its literally the least you can do!
I once believed convenience was the root of all evil. Which is funny now, because I own what is essentially a convenience store. I still believe that instant gratification, waste, and environmental apathy are negative side effects of a "convenience culture" accelerated by technology and innovation... but there's more to it than that.
The mindfulness trend intends to be the antidote to the negative side effects of convenience. And like all appealing movements, it's kind of hard to master. Being completely present, fully woke, packaging-free, and mostly homemade is not realistic 24 hours a day. Or if you have multiple kids. Pinterest and the DIY craze tried to be your spirit guide in this, but they actually expose the full absurdity of anti-convenience. Because ain't nobody got time for that!
Seriously. How are you going to force your kids to make homemade yogurt and candles all day without killing them? And how are you going to spend 4 hours ironing plastic bags to make a bigger plastic bag, while still making money to pay your bills? Your time is precious and you need to budget it wisely. Because no extreme end of this spectrum is either the solution or the enemy.
Like everything else is life, you must find a balance based on your priorities. Being mindful doesn't have to mean foregoing all negative impact. It means being aware of how you balance your good and bad.
If you value healthy eating but also want to sleep 8 hours each night, spend the time on the meal prep but buy your cauliflower pre-riced. Buying pre-made cupcakes so you have time to throw the birthday party is a win, not a fail. But driving your car to the craft store to buy packages of craft supplies to make a planter that you could have found cheaper, better looking, and with less packaging, is not wise budgeting of your time, money, or values. Unless your passion is crafty homemade planters. Then you should totally go for it.
You know you can't do it all, so stop trying. What chores do you despise that you can outsource? What activities don't feed your soul that you can save time on? What causes are dear to you and how can you prioritize those? Where can you save your energy so you can put it toward the things that matter most?
Modern convenience itself has not saved us time. It's provided more choices. You still have to do the work of choosing how and where to spend your time and money. Make it simple by using your values as a guide. And don't buy into all-or-nothing notions of anything. You can do a little time-saving AND care about the environment. You can focus on your kids AND prioritize self-care. All it takes is a little realistic consideration.
My store isn't just any convenience store. Like a gas station, it saves people the trip into town and the energy of navigating the supermarket. Like shopping online, it saves money in gas and impulse buys and unnecessary items. Like a traditional grocery store, you can still purchase fresh produce and healthy ingredients to make a nutritious dinner.
It's like the perfect blend of mindful convenience for today's fully woke supermom ;)
I continue to be amazed by the people who take a chance on my store.
We are a new concept, low-key, hard to find, and very small. I see the folks who choose to venture from their normal routine and swing through as open-minded, adventurous, or maybe just desperate. Whatever their motivation, they usually come back, which is awesome. But even awesomer are the conversations I get to have with the wide variety of Bozemanites.
Nearly everyone has a bit of advice, support, or opinion to pass along. I welcome it and maybe they sense that, but I've also learned to take it with a grain of salt. Here are some of the bits of information I've received in the last month:
I've often discussed the community support, but I haven't said much about the negative feedback. That's because I'm told to ignore it (I don't) and usually it is a lot of nonsense. We haven't actually got negative feedback from any customers, but we are aware of the haters out there. Before we even opened, I was amazed at the number of Negative Nancies who rejected or scoffed at my business idea. Sure, some folks just don't think about the people on the receiving end of their cynicism (*ahem local newspaper comment section dwellers), but others legitimately don't want this business to succeed. Whether they are bitter, insecure, or just hate local business and only want the corporate giants of the world to succeed, I know their issues are personal and not actually related to our drive-thru market.
But it is still surprising how many unhappy people there are in the world, trying to project their psychological problems onto my small business.
I am a social worker by trade. Kids and families, seniors, poverty, mental health, inner-city homelessness, people with disabilities and disadvantages and dysfunction... you name it. My desire to help others solve problems is likely a huge contributor to me running with this business idea. And my passion remains advocating for people. Even with the variety people I've worked with with over the years, I'm still intrigued by the folks that come to my window to buy chicken breast, baked beans, and bananas.
In such a short period of time (because we are so fast!), I learn a little bit about each of them. I'm also learning a lot about the people who haven't come to my window (because that's what good business owners think about), and the haters out there (because they really really want to be heard). Although Bozeman is very homogeneous at first glance, I'm pleasantly surprised at the variety of tastes, opinions, and personalities I see through my window.
One thing virtually everyone agrees on: I should sell beer.
Here's why I haven't started doing that... yet: you cannot sell beer thru a window in Montana. Not a drive-up window or a walk-up window. I will likely cave on the issue and start selling a limited variety of booze in the future, but customers will have to park, get out of their cars, and come into the building, which is something I wanted to avoid. I also want to make sure we are comfortable with our systems and procedures before I introduce another twist. But I can promise, even though you'll have to get out of your car, it will still be speedier and more convenient than the grocery store or gas station!
I'll sign off with my all-time favorite feedback from a younger customer: "these buns are good, but Bethany's buns are the best!". I can't argue with you there, kid.
I often wonder why I own a grocery store. It's really weird.
And not only that, but why would I want to own a business at all?! Everyone knows it's crazy.
There is an organized, multi-tasking, restless, project-tackling, side of me that embraces this venture like it's a no-brainer.
But there's also the reclusive, anxious, private, paranoid side that doesn't want the weight of responsibility or feeling over-exposed, that wakes up in a cold sweat at night wondering what the heck I'm doing.
Sometimes I have to spell out the positives, so I don't totally panic over the ridiculousness of it all.
1. It doesn't take much for us to do OK. The overhead in this store is very low, so the potential to be successful is relatively good. Selling groceries isn't lucrative but I believe it can be sustainable because of our small size.
2. It's my She Shack. We live in a very small house. And because we are trying to be responsible grown-ups, we will be for a little while longer. This store is a nice, quiet, clean place to hang out where I (or my husband) have some breathing room and an office space.
3. It really is a fun adventure. As much trouble as starting a business is, it's also been a great ride.
I've gotten closer to my husband, gained newfound respect for him, and increased gratitude for his amazing support and embracing of this venture. . For our next journey, I think I'll let him pick.
4. I actually have more time with my kids. I'm not sure how that worked out but despite being busier, we have much more time together. Even though the store is our hideaway, it's also really kid-friendly and fun to hang with the kiddos at. We've all adjusted to this surreal grocer life quite nicely.
Our store has been open for almost one month.
What??! That's crazy talk.
The transition from business startup to business operation has been both shockingly smooth and surprisingly difficult. In many ways, it's like we've always been here. In other ways, it's a whole new world.
It's been so fun chatting with everyone that has come through, old friends and new. We already have repeat customers and there continues to be lots of excitement about the store. When I visit places to give menus and introduce myself, people say "hey, you're the drive-thru grocery lady!". Yes. Yes I am.
In just 3 weeks we've already made (what feels like) all the amateur mistakes.
We over-estimated things. We under-estimated things. We completely forgot things. We mislabeled things and mispriced things and wasted things. Ugh.
Sometimes I hear a beeping noise inside the store and I don't know where it's coming from.
It's actually pretty amazing how many things you can miss in a 240 square foot space. It's humbling and I'm sure will continue to be so.
I'm a little worried about all the things I have yet to learn in coming months.
The learning curve isn't unique to us. Anyone can predict the missteps and hurdles a new business will have. All the advice about starting a small businesses is true, but of course you have to experience it firsthand to learn it. And yet it's SO HARD for me to keep cool, be patient, and not obsess about every error, even though I know it's all normal growing pains.
I take everything with this business personally.
I'm choosing to see that as a strength that will help us problem-solve, adjust, and pay attention to detail as we grow. We want to be an asset to this community and I truly believe our small size and personalized approach is vital toward that goal.
But I also see our contribution as a collaboration. We can't do it alone and we need your input. Please drop us a line with any feedback, comments, ideas, or concerns. We want to hear from you!
And THANK YOU for your support!!
took the kids to the annual Easter egg hunt this morning. It was mostly miserable because it was snowing and freezing cold and one of them was crying a lot. The husband was out putting up our sign (yay!), so I had to manage the kids and their lack of dexterity on my own.
I'm amazed I've been able to spend any time at all with them this last month of getting everything ready, but I have. They've been at the store helping out, we had several mommy-daughter dates, and the littlest is curled up by my side while I write this blog post. We still eat (albeit increasingly less fancy) meals together and read books before bed. Because no matter how crazy things are, people make time for their priorities.
We are a busy and hard-working culture. The hours between school or work and bedtime are precious and we shouldn't have to spend it running errands. The concept behind the store is to help alleviate that chaos and inconvenience, so making time for priorities is just a little bit simpler.
I still have no idea how this will go. The community response has been incredible. So many folks have reached out to show their support and encouragement. And of course my friends and family have been amazing. But I have my doubts because I'm an anxious person and I don't really know how to not worry.
Regardless, the store opens on Monday and we are ready. I know this is just the beginning of an adventure, not the finish line. There will be ongoing hurdles, frustrations, and new fears that I haven't even thought of yet. But I have wonderful employees, quality products, great prices, and a valuable service to offer our community.
Parents are amazing. Yesterday I got the kids to school and daycare, went to 3 stores for last minute opening stuff, visited the post office, bought supplies for the Easter baskets, and got to the shop to meet a delivery, all before 10:00am.
I hope this little drive-thru is successful enough that we all don't have to work quite as hard to get the little things done. And we can all focus on bigger, better things.
Happy Easter everyone, see you next week!
When I started this adventure, I wanted to be transparent and show all the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes stuff that occurred. But then I realized it was really embarrassing. There is a lot of eating crow, feeling over-exposed, making stupid mistakes, and doubting yourself. So I've tried to find the balance between honesty and protecting my dignity. But to tell the truth (for the sake of keeping it real), I've hidden much of the raw, amateur, stumbling-through-this process that has occurred. It is humbling and I'm sure will continue to be so after we open.
And I'm becoming OK with that.
We are within weeks of opening the store. I'm so excited about the employees we've hired, the products we're going to sell, and the way everything is coming together. I've realized the biggest factor in this store developing is my tenacity. I have a lot of other skills that have helped: organization, efficiency, passion for working with people, and a sense of humor have all been useful. But my drive to push through the discomfort, tell the doubt that creeps in to "shut up", and keeping my eyes on the goal is what has been getting the job done. So I may not always be forthcoming with "all" that's going on behind the scenes, but I'm getting more comfortable admitting that it's messy and nerve-wracking. And I'm doing it anyway.
Because I'm now Bozeman's leading expert on opening a drive-thru grocery store kiosk.