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Listen up, Mom and Pops

There's a reason chain stores have an edge

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About a week ago, I was fortunate enough to touch base with a friend from high school. She e-mailed me and suggested we both take time from our busy schedules and meet for coffee. I thought it an excellent idea! We live on opposite ends of San Luis Obispo County and so naturally I asked her which Starbucks she preferred there are quite a few between our two homes now. I also mentioned this little "Mom and Pop" type coffee house I had been meaning to try, but never got around to (it is out of my way).

"Oh! Let's go to Mom and Pop Coffee! I am looking for a new coffee shop," my friend replied.

I agreed to meet her at Mom and Pop Coffee. Being a creature of habit, especially when it comes to my creature comforts, I was less than excited to try Mom and Pop. I wanted my Christmas Blend in a red cup with no room while I listened to the slow jazz Christmas CD being piped through the store and the intermittent whir of the next frappacino to go.

"Trying new things is GOOD," I told myself. "Support the local businesses it is your duty as a citizen."

The adult in me was quite proud of the decision, but my "inner child" really wanted that red cup.

I arrived at Mom and Pop Coffee just a bit early. That was a good thing since there was no parking anywhere and I had to park across the street. Strike one? Nah. I was there to meet a friend. That is what was important and so I entered.

Much to my dismay, I discovered that Mom and Pop obviously found it of no importance to decorate for the holidays: no red and silver trim, no Christmas music playing in the background. They did have gift items displayed, but they did not entice me to buy. The three people working there felt it was not important to engage me in chitchat or ask if I was ready for the holidays. There were no smiles or even a "Good morning!" offered. The ambiance had the charm of a library. Strike two? Nope. I repeated my mantra: "I am here to visit with an old friend. That is what is important."

My friend was just a bit late, so I decided to order. The menu, surprisingly, offered quite a few choices not as extensive as Starbucks, but adequate. Something that also surprised me was their prices. OUCH! Mom and Pops have to keep their heads above water, must compete with the big corporations to save the integrity of the community! My "usual" was easily a buck more than what I pay at Starbucks. Strike three? Nope. You can't put a price on friendship and I was there to meet a friend.

My latte was served in a boring white Smart and Final cup. No trendy quips or quotes on the back, no fancy logo, no pretty Christmas red.

It was the best latte I have had in over a year.

Things, in my mind, began looking up for Mom and Pop. I found a table in the corner, sipped this fabulous concoction, and watched the city come to life. My friend arrived, ordered her drink, and we sat there and tried to catch up on the latest happenings in our lives: her recent wedding, work, parenting teenagers it was wonderful! Until the lady behind the counter approached us.

"Excuse me, ladies. We close at 12 p.m. It is now 12:15, and we want to clean up and leave."

My jaw about hit the floor. I just assumed the quaint little shop would be open all day. The Christmas season was in full swing and the little streets were humming with activity. Dumbfounded, my friend and I collected our things and headed out. The ladies at the next table were not so quick to move and expressed their disappointment to the apathetic barista. Surely they could sit and finish the coffee they had just ordered, couldn't they? The barista offered no response.

Our visit was cut short by Mom and Pop, and frankly the adult in me was just as disappointed as that inner child of mine. Strike three? YOU BET, because it was all about visiting my friend, and THAT opportunity had somehow been violated. Suddenly the parking situation DID bother me (the three people "running the business" probably parked in the three spaces available outside the store while customers were forced to park across the street). The lack of decor, holiday cheer, and general friendliness left me cold or maybe it was the lack of customer service. Customer service: Does anyone know what that means anymore? As far as the superior quality of the product, it is now a very distant memory.

Dear Mom and Pop: If you want your community to patronize your business, you need to learn a bit about CUSTOMER SERVICE. You have to actually WANT your customers there, not just their money. You have to make your business a place people want to be after a long day at work to spend their hard-earned money, a place where they feel valued, a place where everyone "knows their name," a place with a friendly smile and a "bend-over-backwards" attitude. Sounds hokey, huh? But surprisingly, it works.

Mom and Pop Pharmacy has never been open at 3 a.m. when my child spikes a 103 fever but Wal-Mart and Walgreen's have been! (Not in this area, but hopefully soon.)

Mom and Pop Craft Store isn't open after 5 p.m. when I run out of beads for my latest project but Michael's is!

Mom and Pop Auto Parts will have to order my fan belt, for a higher price, and will discourage me from putting it on in their parking lot but Kragen is there with open arms and lower prices and will call around to find just what I need!

And finally Mom and Pop Coffee, bless their hearts! It doesn't matter that I found their latte superior to my beloved Starbucks. They proved to me (as with MANY Mom and Pop businesses here in San Luis Obispo County) that they really don't want my business. They want my money, and YES there is a difference.

Dear Mom and Pop,

If you build a better business, they will come! If you make your community feel valued and welcome, they will spend the extra money in your store. If you want your community to patronize YOU, YOU must patronize THEM. But as long as you, the small business owner, continue to hang that Gone Fishin' sign on your front door, your would-be customers are going to swim toward the nets of big corporations to get their needs met.

Customer service is the secret to successful capitalism. Perhaps we can meet for coffee sometime and chat about that. Which Starbucks location is convenient for you?

Gina Hobbs is a Paso Robles resident. Send comments to mail@newtimesslo.com.

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