Coming to Tulsa from Los Angeles, Danica Jones wasn't sure what to expect from her husband's hometown.
She's married to Tulsa native Seth Lee Jones. The couple met in Los Angeles, where he honed guitar-building and repair skills working for a guitar shop.
But the goal was to start his own business -- which seemed tough to do in California given the high cost of living and stagnant economy, Danica Jones said -- so the couple came to Tulsa about two years ago.
"Coming to this community, my husband was welcomed with very open arms, and there's just a huge support system for locally-owned businesses out there," Danica Jones said.
Through her choices as a consumer, she also makes it a point to be a part of that support.
"We eat at local restaurants only. We don't eat at any chain restaurants," she said. It's just one example of her effort to support local businesses. "Anything we buy, we try to shop as locally as possible," she said.
A social media consultant, Danica Jones created a page on social networking site Pinterest.com showcasing "Tulsa Finds" to help others seek out Tulsa-grown businesses.
Her concerns include a worry about the ethical treatment of workers, something that can be hard to judge with multinational corporations, as well as a desire to support other local businesses.
Among the people she knows, "if they haven't already developed the sentiment, I can see the change starting to happen," she said.
Such a change, should it take root, would doubtlessly make many in the local business community happy. Efforts have been undertaken in recent years to coordinate marketing and media campaigns geared toward convincing Tulsans and Oklahomans to support local businesses, but it's not easy to sustain such efforts.
Even for someone committed to the concept, Jones acknowledged that it's not always practical.
"With the newness of the idea and the challenge of having to source things, you can't, I think right now, presently as it stands, you can't necessarily go 100 percent local with ease. I don't do it necessarily. I try to do it as best as I can," she said.
The success of any widespread local marketing initiative also remains an open question, with the largest local business group, the Tulsa Regional Chamber, likely set to embark on its own consumer-oriented pitch later this year.
But can it -- or anything -- succeed where other efforts have failed?
Launched, only to crash
Jeff Emerson helped unload a truck that drove into Tulsa from a farm near Bristow.
It carried radishes, spinach and "spring mix," and it's an example of Emerson's commitment to stock local produce at his Natural Farms store, which he co-owns with his wife, Chris.
The business has become a true family affair, with daughter Meghan, a recent graduate from Oklahoma State University, now helping manage the store and operations. Jeff Emerson said that roughly half his sales come from wholesale operations, including restaurant sales. Another half comes from people walking through the door to the store just east of downtown.
Do those shoppers care that his business is locally-owned?
"Half of them don't. Half of them could care less," Emerson said. As proof, he cites the often crowded lines at Whole Foods Market.
A few years ago, Emerson worked to change that, getting together with a couple of other business owners start a campaign to encourage consumers to shop locally. It fizzled as have other efforts over the years. City government in Tulsa once got involved.
Former city councilor Bill Christiansen was a leader in an effort known as "Shop Tulsa." He described how the campaign came about in response to concerns about Broken Arrow and other suburbs siphoning away consumer dollars.
From a city government point of view, Christiansen noted that sales tax dollars fund essential services -- a message he said remains important.
"The real push of it was to educate the citizens, to let them know that if they spent more of their money in Tulsa, it goes to pay police and fire. So the whole purpose was to increase retail sales and employment, but also increase sales tax revenue," Christiansen said.
The program kicked off in 2010 with city support and leadership from the private sector. ShopTulsa.org was launched with a news conference, described as a means for people to find local businesses and learn about how sales tax dollars flow to fund key city services.
Local restaurateur and businessman Blake Ewing, at the time not involved in public office, led a task force helping with the effort.
"We ran a large initial campaign and had tons of media coverage largely around the holiday season," Ewing wrote in an email.
Soon after, however, Ewing began his run for public office. A new leader took over the task force, but while a "Shop Local" app was created, according to Ewing, "I understand that the task force faded away," he wrote.
Former mayor and current candidate Kathy Taylor opined about said fading away, noting the need for something more structured.
"There has to be some infrastructure," she said. "I think Blake was doing kind of a pro-bono thing. But this is a method of generating revenue for the businesses and also for the city."
Rebecca Melancon heads a program that works pretty much exactly the way Taylor thinks such an organization should. As executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, Melancon helms a non-profit that strives to support and promote local businesses.
"We do it through member benefits, consumer education, and through advocacy," she said. Those member benefits start with a presence online at ibuyaustin.com, which clocks about 600,000 views a month.
"We have a section called The Latest from Your Locals that has anything our member businesses want their customers to know," Melancon said. "Awards, sales, anything."
Having the member base of local businesses all chipping in to make sure Austinites consider local businesses helps finance the non-profit, and helps people find where those local shops are -- something Taylor feels is necessary for any buy local campaign.
"I think part of it is having a place to go to for finding these local businesses," she said. "Like there's a store called Mocha Butterfly in town. People see things I have bought there and ask where I got them. When I tell them where, they've never heard of it."
Ewing, a city councilor representing downtown since 2011, described some of the difficulties in the city having a hands-on role with an effort like "Shop Tulsa."
"There was always a struggle with the city being involved, because the city has to avoid any conflict that could arise from supporting an individual business," Ewing wrote. "It was at its best when the city was an endorser of the movement, but not responsible for it."
Christiansen and others spoke highly of the campaign, but visitors to ShopTulsa.org now will only see a page filled with Japanese script, so perhaps Taylor's infrastructure statements were prescient.
B(u)y local. For local.
Keith Skrzypczak (pronounced SCRIP-jack), head cheese here at Urban Tulsa Weekly, is a passionate advocate of all things local, starting with what it means to be local.
"You know, you've got to be from somewhere," he said. "You see if the Lakers are playing, you see Nicholson there. He goes to where his hometown team plays. And we're our home team."
That home team -- UTW itself -- is not only something he's proud of, but it's something he feels has had a great impact on the whole local movement.
"As the longest-running locally owned, legitimate news and information organization, it's a great testament to what we do and how we serve," Skrzypczak said. "So many people tell me, 'If it weren't for Urban Tulsa, this would be a boring place.'"
And he feels like that is one of the good things that local businesses bring to where they are, citing the new ideas and creative concepts that come from the people with the drive to do their own thing.
"People who have the imagination and creativity and willpower to make it happen have helped Tulsa become a better place," he said. "Those of us who can and want to do that in our hometown are a growing breed."
UTW is one of hundreds of local businesses that think, act, and dream local, but Skrzypczak said it's all about serving a need, since people aren't go to buy local if the local product offered sucks compared to something less Tulsa-centric.
"When we started, there was a need for what we were giving," he said. "We were always about community and the local bands and arts and things and community continuity. We write about things to this day that we all share. We've always pitched on that side. Of course, we're not going to do an Urban Oklahoma City or an Urban Dallas or Urban Hollywood."
In a similar vein, Chuck Mai, the vice president of public affairs for AAA-Oklahoma, looks to make sure people know that a great vacation doesn't mean traveling to the other side of the globe necessarily.
"We'll send you around the world on a cruise," he said of AAA's travel agency branch, "but we're also supporters of local tourism. We're trying to dispel this myth that you have to travel 1,000 miles to have a great vacation."
This travel-local ideal is more than just based in hey-ain't-Oklahoma-great idealism, though.
Seth Lee Jones
"With the price of gas these days, you'll spend less money to get there, and with our cost of living lower than other states, you'll save money," he said.
Melancon chimed in about money, as well, but not just regarding making or saving it.
"The message I'm always trying to send is that every dollar you spend makes a difference," she said. "You're casting a vote for what you like. We're not asking you to spend more money. Or ban chain stores from your life. But the next time you're thinking about going out to eat or buying a gift, think local."
Being involved in public affairs, Mai couldn't resist spouting off a list of great places for local vacations. However, he also mentioned a phenomenon that strikes pretty much everywhere -- the overlooking of what's right in front of us.
"It's like folks in New York City who have never been up in the Empire State Building," Mai said. "I live in Oklahoma City, but the only time I go to the national memorial is when I have people here from out of state. Why is it that I don't go to worthwhile places like that unless I have out-of-state people?"
He didn't have an answer, but the point was made.
Looking at options
A for-profit effort based in Oklahoma City may be beginning to gain some traction in Tulsa with efforts to get consumers to buy local.
Bryce Bandy and business partner Chris Branson began their Keep It Local OK program about three years ago, enrolling businesses to offer discounts. Shoppers then purchase a "Keep It Local" card -- right now, the cost is $10 -- to receive discounts at participating businesses.
Customers seem to be slowly warming up to them, said Shannon Harris, general manager of Ann's Bakery.
"In the last few months, it's probably once a week. I'm getting more people walking in, more people calling in" about the cards, Harris said.
Bandy said he feels more people, when asked, are voicing support for local businesses.
"If you'd have asked 10 years ago, I would guess most people would be like, 'What's the cheapest price?'" Bandy said.
The Tulsa Regional Chamber has a program focused on business-to-business local buying, but plans to expand the effort soon, said Heather Davis, the chamber's executive director for small business and business, retention, and expansion.
"The aspect that we're probably going to add to it will be a consumer-to-business aspect as well," Davis said.
The chamber assists small business with education in marketing, but Davis said she didn't know how many local businesses promote themselves to potential customers as a local alternative to out-of-state companies.
"Quite honestly, that hasn't been a discussion that I've had with them, if they brand themselves local or not. I typically focus on programming as far as what can I do to help them get to the next level," Davis said.
For some businesses, local is definitely front and center to their business model. Thom Crowe and his wife, Christine Sharp-Crowe, began organizing Indie Emporium in 2007. They opened Made: The Indie Emporium Shop in 2011, offering arts and crafts made mostly in the area.
"That was our whole reason for starting our shop," Thom Crowe said, describing a desire to help local crafters. Last year, the couple opened another store.
Thom Crowe said shoppers want to be able to connect with the products they buy. If they come into the shop, "they can hear the whole story of where the product comes from," he said.
Does it matter?
Stacy Mitchell, author of Big-Box Swindle, is director of what's called the Independent Business Initiative, a part of the Minneapolis- and Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
She pointed to a study done in Austin, Tex. about 10 years ago done by a consulting firm called Civic Economics.
"What they find is a much larger share of the money stays in the local economy. One of the primary reasons for that is local businesses tend to buy goods and services from other local business," Mitchell said, describing how large corporations, for example, might have accounting services done at a far-off headquarters rather than procuring a local tax firm.
"I don't think anyone disputes those findings," Mitchell said. "I've certainly heard an economist try to say it doesn't matter, and I would disagree with that."
Austin's Melancon has first-hand knowledge of the Civic Economics study, and went further into the numbers it demonstrated.
"It showed that if you spend $100 at a local business, three times the money stays in our community than if you spend it at a chain store," she said. "Since then, similar studies have gone on all over the nation. Since we did that study, there have been so many of them that said the same thing."
Mitchell also cited other advantages to the buy-local movement, claims that move beyond the purely economic.
"I also think local businesses create the kind of vibrant neighborhood business districts that promote interaction among people," Mitchell said.
However, David Swenson, an Iowa-based economist, said it's no sure thing that any buy-local campaign actually works.
"We really don't know the success of these programs over time. Almost all of the success is anecdotal," Swenson said.
Swenson said the goal of such a program is a worthy one for a small area when shoppers have been fleeing elsewhere to make purchases.
But when it comes to stimulating a local economy, Swenson said he disagrees with the philosophy that avoiding corporations and big franchises is necessarily better for a community.
"I just don't buy the assertion that purchasing from Bob and Carol's restaurant is significantly more valuable to a regional economy than purchasing from a Denny's franchisee who happens to live next door to Bob and Carol. It ends up just being absurd," Swenson said.
Either way, Taylor commented on an aspect of local business that studies don't really measure, nor on which pundits spend much time pontificating.
"Local businesses downtown provide the character of our city," Taylor said. "McNellie's, Joe Momma's -- they give us character. Local businesses are great for the economy, too, keeping local dollars local."
Speaking of character, it's really the local businesses that give every city character, not just ours, and Skrzypczak spoke about local shops being the center -- if not geographically -- of every city.
"The core of a town defines it," he said. "But when you go outside of that core, things flatten out and get a little more corporate and predictable."
Speaking of a recent trip to Fayetteville, Ark., he talked about the local hub the city is built around, and the chains and big-box stores that surround it.
"When you look around, you see a few clever places, a few places that have been around since the '30s," he said. "Am I going to go to Red Robin? No way. They've got Chili's and these corporate entities, but I'm not going to go there. I'm going to some place cool."
And we have our own area like that in Tulsa, more homogenized and driven by business people who are geared less toward supporting local businesses and ideals than by economic success.
"As you get to the hub of a city, you find the mom and pop places. But the developers have a logarithm that says if you open a PF Chang's here or there, it will do well," Skrzypczak said. "So someone says, 'I can do that,' and opens it up. But how satisfying is that? I'd rather have a hot dog stand on the corner and talk to people rather than just rake in the dough. I'd rather do that than copy everyone else."
There is, among some, an idea that big chains don't care about the local stores. As a result, there are those who think that a buy-local campaign should completely eschew any franchised business, chain, or big box retail outlet.
"I'm a proponent of local businesses," Skrzypczak continued. "Whenever I go anywhere, I look for local dishes, local wines, things like that. I'm a regionalist. I love it. If you can get the same product for a few cents more at a local place, I think that's worth it. I will go to WalMart, but I don't want to go there."
However, Melancon spoke about increments of change.
"We need it all. We need manufacturing, we need big box, but we don't want one side to exist and the other one driven to extinction," she said. "If you ask a consumer to change everything and never shop at a big box store, that's unrealistic. But if you shift 10 percent and spend that locally, rather than at a chain, you're making a difference."
Without an organized buy local movement in Tulsa, locally-owned businesses nevertheless find ways to band together.
Seth Lee Jones recalled the bumpy path he's followed as a business owner in Tulsa.
An initial idea to open a shop went bad in part because of a bad business relationship, he said.
He said he moved to Tulsa in part because he knew there would be few people with his level of expertise. So he made it a point to seek out Jacob Mehlhouse at Tulsa Strings Violin Shop.
"I actually was trying to seek out people with a similar educational background, and at that time he was the only other person that was listed on the web for having a degree in luthier studies," Jones said, referring to the formal name that describes the making of stringed instruments.
It turned out that Mehlhouse frequently had visits from guitar owners seeking repairs -- an area in which Jones could help. "It turned out that he has had a lot of trouble getting things done in a reasonable amount time," Jones said.
So Mehlhouse began making referrals to Jones. Asked if the help was an important factor in establishing his name, Jones said, "Absolutely."
"Particularly in the beginning, when I was just trying to get into the music scene here and meet the musicians, I think it played a huge role in the success in the early days. Even now, they send me quite a bit of work," Jones said, adding that he's happy to refer customers to Mehlhouse if they inquire about violins or other stringed instruments.
Mehlhouse said he doesn't repair guitars, and he recognized Jones' talent pretty quickly.
"He was making some of the top players here in Tulsa just incredibly impressed with this work," Mehlhouse said.
Jones, in the small workshop he uses behind his home, seemed at ease among the partially finished guitar parts hanging from the wall.
As far as Los Angeles goes, "you couldn't pay me to go back," he said.
The bakery business can be fiercely competitive. But Harris, of Ann's Bakery, said she frequently gets together with a few other local bakery owners.
"I would probably be open to more friendly interactions with some other bakers in town, but I don't find it. I would be open to it, but I don't feel the reciprocation," Harris said.
However, having a small group of follow bakers has definite business advantages, she said.
"We trade back and forth of things we're out of or need," Harris said.
On the lookout
There is something to the idea of looking out for one's own, and local businesses are doing that, to be sure -- not just looking out for themselves, but for their hometown, for Skrzypczak's home team idea.
"Communication has become so instant and so everywhere that it's just babble," he said. "But who's vetting the news? We're an aggregate of info for Tulsans who live here, work here, and want to stay here. That's what a local medium should be all about, and we're the only ones who are doing that. There are other sources of info, but you never know who's paying for that information."
This led him to speak (surprise!) about the recent troubles facing the Tulsa World since the Lorton family sold it.
"I think that was a problem with the Tulsa World. There was no clear channel of communication, and now they've got a new publisher," he said. "But we don't take our orders from Omaha. I have meetings with every department every week. If people need things from me, they get them."
Buying (into) local
Asked if it matters much to customers that Ann's Bakery is now a locally-owned business -- and a multi-generational one at that, with four generations of the same family involved -- Harris expressed some uncertainty.
"I don't know. I would hope so. I would hope the trend gets better," Harris said.
One effort she said that may help businesses, apart from any big campaign or discount card, is to develop a strong social media presence.
"I think people want to feel connected to who they're buying from," Harris said. An idea recently came to her from a Facebook follower to recreate a classic photograph from 1946 depicting a long line out the door of the bakery.
Harris said about 150 people came to the bakery to participate in the photograph.
"We had people show up, I definitely didn't know," Harris said. But they were eager to share how they cared about Ann's Bakery. "'I've been getting cakes here for 35 years,''" Harris recalled one person at the event telling her. "They do feel a part of the bakery because it's been here for so long."
One some level, whether it's customers or fellow business owners, it's all about forging some kind of connection.
Danica Jones said one of the things that's impressed her about Tulsa is how social networking makes clear that there is a tight-knit business community.
"Tulsa seemed to be kind of a hotbed for a lot of local businesses realizing they could connect with other local people," Jones said, describing the effect as "kind of creating a tighter network of, 'I'll support you, if you support me.'"
Bandy, with the Keep It Local OK program, sells the cards online and the business has also developed a mobile phone app to help shoppers find participating businesses more easily.
One key measure of the effort's success is the number of cards purchased, however -- and that number has increased dramatically, according to Bandy. He said that about 3,000 cards were sold or given away in the program's first year. While Harris said she was given cards as a goodwill gesture, Bandy said roughly 14,000 cards have been distributed so far this year.
"It kind of feels like it's becoming a little more mainstream," Bandy said. To him, it seems that there are shoppers "more aware of it now than they ever were."
He said the company tries to recruit businesses that have a certain uniqueness to them. So far, the company lists 21 Tulsa sites offering the cards. The idea is to keep the circle relatively small, he said.
"What we found out is -- and it's amazing -- is that the card holders, a lot of them are very proud of it," Bandy said.
Ultimately, Bandy said he doesn't "want to speak so much about a discount, but we really want it to be about people taking pride in their communities."
Yes, there are times when you're going to go to BestBuy to get the newest Xbox. You can't get a Texas Roadhouse steak at a locally-owned steakhouse. And there are those people out there, God help them, who crave McDonald's fries specifically, and no matter how good Brownie's homemade root beer is, those fries aren't going to do the trick for those poor, lost McDonald's lovers.
But like Melancon's shift-10-percent idea, consumers need to consume thoughtfully (boy, there's an idea, right, 'Merica?). Because there are great things happening at local joints.
Just ask Skrzypczak.
"We come up with great ideas all the f-----g time. We're a small-shop dynamo," he said. "Local places like us with lots of smart people -- that's why those guys are successful. We've made Tulsa a happier, better, more exciting place. I'm very proud of that."
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