SAME Café — Small Biz Stories, Episode 11
When Libby and Brad Birky decided to start Colorado’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant, So All May Eat (or SAME) Café — no one thought their idea would work.
Now, after ten successful years in business, Libby and Brad share their story on the today’s episode of Small Biz Stories.
Listen as they share how they transformed a unique idea into a thriving business.
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You can also read the transcript below:
Libby: I would say most people were really polite…
Libby: …and listened and cheerleaded us. And I’m certain that as soon as we walked away, they were like, “Those morons.”
Brad: Yeah. To our faces it was, “Oh, good for you guys! That’s great!” As soon as we turned around, “That’ll never work.”
Libby: We’ve at least had one person admit to it.
Libby: Yeah. Who, you know, probably three or four years ago came back and said, “When you told me you were gonna do this, I thought you were nuts and that would never work. And here you are.’ I’m like, yeah, see.
Dave: Ten years later.
Libby: Yes, yes.
Brad: Ten years later.
Dave: That’s Libby and Brad Birky, co-founders of So All May Eat (or SAME) Café. Colorado’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant.
Today, they’ll share what it takes to run a successful nonprofit restaurant. From their early sacrifices to the life-changing moments that make it all worth it, you’ll learn how they transformed a unique idea into a thriving business.
More than fifty percent of small businesses fail within the first five years. These are the stories of those who beat the odds. My name is Dave Charest and I’ll be your host as we share the stories of some of the bravest people you’ll ever meet, small business owners. You’ll hear how they got started, their biggest challenges, and their dreams for the future.
Dave: SAME Café sits on Colfax Avenue — the longest commercial street in the United States. Walk along this 26-mile street and you’ll come across a variety of mom and pop shops, including independent bookstores, record stores, iconic bars, and famous bakeries.
But SAME café still manages to stand out. The café’s cornfield yellow walls, freshly cut wildflowers, and window tower garden take you out of the hustle of the city and into a place of comfort.
Listen as Brad describes how he and Libby were first inspired to start their business.
Brad: Let’s see. So Libby and I, we’re college sweethearts. We started dating when we were both in college in different states, did the whole long distance relationship thing, but we grew up within 20 minutes of each other.
Our parents actually kind of knew each other. They were in similar fields. Our dads were both in road construction. Moms were both school-related workers. And so we just kind of fell into each other and started dating. And as soon as we graduated from college, it was like five minutes later I think we got married.
And we started looking for a place to volunteer, to give, build community. We wanted to be part of this. This is kind of how we were raised. We were both raised in somewhat religious households. So Libby was raised as a Catholic. I was raised in the Mennonite Church.
And so we were taught to do stuff for and with other people. So we started volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters and cooking and just got hooked and wanted to figure out how to make that volunteer lifestyle and serving others into a more permanent full-time job or life. And that’s how the SAME Café kind of came around.
Dave: After moving to Denver from Central Illinois, Libby started teaching at a specialty school and Brad contracted as a computer consultant. Still, neither one of them could shake the idea of creating their own space. Somewhere they could make a meaningful difference.
Brad: And one day we were flying back from a trip to Austin, Texas, and on the flight back, we were just like where we both had…we’re done. We’re ready to figure out what’s gonna be next.
So we took out the inflight magazine and started writing down ideas. And like, “Well, what if we started a restaurant? But it can’t be a regular restaurant. Restaurant workers, you know, the hours are terrible. You never see each other.
But what if we started a restaurant that didn’t have any prices and we could feed people who really need it and make a difference, not just, you know, make a dollar?” So it was a great brainstorming session and we landed all inspired and we started to figure out if it was legal to make a nonprofit restaurant in Colorado. It turns out it is. They don’t recommend it necessarily, but it’s legal. You can do it.
Dave: After landing on an idea, they were both excited about, Libby and Brad had to figure out how to make their dream a reality. Listen as they describe some of their earliest challenges.
Libby: We tried to do our homework. We tried to be as prepared as possible. I say we had no business starting a business. But because I was a teacher, I spent all my summers researching all kinds of business plans and opening a restaurant in Denver and all the crazy things.
So we did as much research as we possibly could ahead of time. So that we went into it with, you know, as much knowledge as we could gather. I wouldn’t say we knew everything because we learned lots, but at least we had some kind of system and thought process to it. It was enough to convince our parents that we had thought it through.
Brad: So that when we took all the money out of our retirement accounts to start the café with that, they didn’t totally freak out.
Dave: Yeah. Were you guys doing both or were you working still and doing this?
Brad: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I kept working all the way until we’ve been open…the restaurant had been open for a year and a half. I was still doing at least part-time IT consulting on the side and Libby kept teaching up until…
Libby: Year three.
Brad: Year three, yeah. So we were trying to keep that safety net there and pay back the loan, do our retirement accounts and…
Libby: And health insurance.
Brad: …keep health insurance and, yeah, make our mortgage payment, all that stuff. Because we didn’t take a salary from the café up until the other job… We would quit the other job, that’s when we started getting paid here. So that’s 18 months for me, 36 months for Libby. So a lot of free volunteer work.
Dave: In addition to some financial maneuvering, one of the most difficult parts of getting started was selling the city on an idea that had never been done before. As a nonprofit restaurant, a lot of legal requirements weren’t written for Libby and Brad’s type of business.
Brad: I’d say for me the hardest part was trying to paint a picture to the city and county government of what we were trying to do. And figure out what requirements we had to follow because we weren’t a nonprofit.
We weren’t a regular restaurant or full-service restaurant. We were kind of this hybrid of in between. And they really want you to be one or the other. And if you’re a restaurant, then they want you to have a $250,000 build-out plan of all these systems and extra things that we’re gonna be way beyond the scope of the foods that we were gonna be serving. So we are trying to navigate through all of that without having ever been through that process before.
I don’t know how people start restaurants that have never done it before on a shoestring budget. Because it takes so long and there’s so many different red tape areas that you have to navigate through. Until we finally had somebody take us under their wing and say, “Look, I’m gonna take you from department to department and explain it for you in terms that they will understand.” If it wouldn’t have been for that, I don’t know if we would have been able to even open by October, which means we would have run out of money. Because we were down to our last couple hundred bucks by the time we finally opened the doors.
Libby: Yeah. I would agree 100%. Even with all of the systems that the city and county put in place, it was still hard. Like they had, you know, some kind of step-by-step flyer that you could pick out for opening a restaurant which still was like reading a foreign language to us. I still didn’t understand what it meant.
One of our last things was something about the ventilation in the space. There wasn’t enough ventilation. And the first guy was like, “You need to put in a $250,000 hood system, all these things.” And Brad and I were like, “Ahh.” There’s no way possible. And the next guy we got said, “Just tell him you will open the front door and install a fan in the back.” Like, “Seriously? Okay, yes. That’s what we’re gonna do.” But then it was like you just had to make sure you got the right person or you…
Brad: Yeah. A $250 fan as opposed to a $250,000 exhaust…
Libby: Fifty-thousand-dollar hood. Yeah.
Brad: …all because there’s some 50-year-old law in the books about Legionnaire’s disease that used to run rampant through old buildings. Because they didn’t have enough recycled air or they were only on recycled air…
Libby: Only recycled air.
Brad: They didn’t have enough fresh air. Like we have windows and doors, we’ll open them.
Libby: Yes. But it was so… It was just that whole process was really challenging.
Dave: After a couple challenging years early on, Brad and Libby decided they would need to make a change if they were going to keep their business going. Here’s Libby describing how she and Brad decided to drop their other commitments and focus on the café.
Libby: Well we were working, you know, 10, 12, 15-hour days. Brad would…We’d wake up in the morning and come here. And I’d come here before I went to school and then I’d leave here after making pizza dough or prepping cookies or washing lettuce, whatever it was. And then I’d run over to school and I’d teach all day long.
And Brad would be here with all the customers all day long. And then at 3:00, when my kids left the classroom, I’d grade as many papers as I could and then fly over here. And we were closed so I would do all the cleanup. Brad would leave every dish in the dish bin. I would do all the dishes. I would make cookies for the next day. I’d put away anything that he didn’t put away because he’d already left to go to his other job.
Dave: Right, yeah.
Libby: So it was like two ships passing in the night. I’d go pick him up at like 9:00, 9:30 from his other job after we’d finished everything here. And we’d be like, “Ha, yeah, let’s do this again tomorrow.”
And then, crazy on Friday and Saturdays… So Fridays we were open in the evening. We were serving dinner Friday and Saturday night. We did that for about six months, maybe a year. And then we were like, “Oh, that’s a lot of work. We can’t do that anymore.” And we really weren’t serving that many customers. It wasn’t really worth it to be open in the evenings.
And at that point in time, this neighborhood has changed quite a bit since we opened. But at that point in time, Colfax wasn’t a destination for people. It wasn’t a nighttime place you wanted to hang out. So we had very few people who needed us or even wanted to support us. It was mostly like the guys who lived in the alley who would come and just, you know, kind of hang out on hours on end. And it was a good space for them to be in, but there was also this like balance. Like we weren’t getting the customers that we were really targeting. So we decided dinner was out.
And that’s probably when we realized…We started to like cut back on some things. You know, burning the candle at both ends only lasts for so long. So we both started to, you know, talk about making really hard decisions when we finally hired Brad and he stopped working two jobs. I mean he took like a $60,000 pay cut. I mean, it was just something we had to do. We either said, “We’re doing this or we’re doing that.” Like it was that kind of teeter-totter point where we said, “Either we’re gonna really jump in and do this” or “We’re gonna back off and go back to our old lives.” And we couldn’t see that happening at all so.
Brad: No, yeah.
Libby: We just took the pay cut and kept marching forward.
Brad: We’d already been too sucked in by the concept. And I mean it’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun. We have a different crew of people that we work with every day both behind the counter and the folks that come in to volunteer for meals that work in the dining room.
And then just the customer base is always changing, new faces intermixed with the regulars. So you get to hear about, you know, how Jack’s day was and we find out who’s got a job, who’s got a housing now, what things have changed. And it’s a pretty awesome, little group of people that we get to kind of hang out with for lunch, six days a week. We really get to kind of step outside of our own heads and be involved with this larger group. And it’s totally rewarding and a lot of fun most days.
Dave: Talking to Libby and Brad, you start to hear the passion they have for the people they help. It’s these people that bring their mission to life and make the $60,000 paycuts and 15-hour workdays worth it.
Libby: So we have a pretty diverse group of people who dine here. I like to say it’s the most diverse place you can dine in Denver. It looks different every day, but, you know, we serve people who are able to pay $20 for their lunch and we serve people who are able to pay $2 for their lunch and everybody in between. So a lot of times, folks ask us or say to us, you know, “The dining room, it doesn’t look like there’s a whole lot of homeless people in there. What are you actually doing?” Like, “Well, if you really knew the stories of these people…”
I think that’s what is really interesting about what we do, is that the face of need and poverty in Denver is really diverse. And I don’t think it’s necessarily what people picture when they think of people in need of food access. A lot of times, people picture that kind of scruffy, homeless guy on corner who’s flying a sign that says, “Will work for food” and is pushing a shopping cart full of his belongings. Not to say we don’t have customers who fit that description, but that’s not the majority of people we serve. Because we ask people to participate and we ask people to build community with us, we have people here who want to be here. It’s kind of a self-selecting process.
For folks who are chronically homeless or are dealing with drug and alcohol addiction, we will certainly help them but they have to want help. So there’s that piece of for most of the population of people who are chronically homeless, these are a lot of hoops to jump through.
Like knowing the fact that I would ask you your name, the fact that I want you to help. The fact that I want you to be clean and sober, and the fact that I’m not gonna let you just curse your way through your lunch. This is a restaurant and we expect people to behave like they’re in a restaurant.
And so that part of the kind of hoops, I guess, some people just don’t wanna jump through those. There are a lot of services in this neighborhood that don’t require anything. That will give you free lunch without any strings attached. And you can be intoxicated, you can be high on meth and they have no issue with that.
We’re a different kind of place. We want people to come in and dine with dignity. And that means that we’re gonna ask people to rise to the occasion. And so we have a lot of single moms, we have a lot of elderly folks on fixed income. We have a lot of young artists, musicians. People who would really like to shop at Whole Foods but their pocketbook doesn’t allow them to. People who understand the value of putting good food into their bodies but can’t always make that happen.
And so for those people, having a safe place to eat that is clean and bright and friendly and we know your name and we care about you and we build community with you. That’s something that we have found is a really unique… It’s a huge need more so than just the healthy food access. People need that community and they need that safe space. They need that…
You know, it’s like if you go to Starbucks and you get excited because your barista remembers your name or remembers your coffee order. And you just think, “Hey, I belong here.” Like there’s that piece of you, whether you say it to yourself or not, you’re like, “Yup, I fit in here.” There’s no question. And having that place for someone who has very few places, other places besides home or work, and sometimes don’t have home or work. To have that kind of this little piece of dignity, I think is really important.
Dave: Libby told me that when she and Brad first started SAME Café, they thought if they truly helped one person, they would feel like they’d made a real difference. Now serving hundreds of meals each month, they have countless stories of people they’ve met and served.
Listen as Brad tells the story of meeting Kid, one of the café’s first customers.
Brad: The first real difference that we know of. So we opened in October of 2006 and then Denver, this area was just hit with snowstorm after snowstorm after snowstorm. And so it was pretty quiet around Colfax.
We didn’t have a lot of customers coming in. But one of the people that was coming in here was a guy named Kid who would come in and he would shovel the walk out front in exchange for a meal. And, you know, when he first walked in, we were both a little intimidated. He was a big, burly beard you know or a bushy beard and three or four coats, and just a pretty, imposing-looking guy.
And then he came up to the counter and ordered salad. And yeah, he’d eat soup and pizza, too, if he wasn’t full. But really the salad was most exciting because he wasn’t able to get that anywhere else. He slept in the park because he didn’t wanna go to the shelters and be around all that addiction and crime and all the fighting and everything. So he preferred to be in the park a couple blocks from here. So whenever it snowed, he was right out front shoveling away.
Libby: Sometimes he was here before we were.
Brad: Yeah. Everything would be cleared by the time we showed up in exchange for, you know, a fresh salad and a slice of pizza.
Libby: And coffee.
Brad: And coffee, well, of course, yeah. You need the hot coffee to warm you up. And that went on for months, the whole winter of 2006, early 2007. So we got to talking to him because he was here and there weren’t a lot of other customers around. And we found out that he’d been displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
He was in Denver. Because he’d been bussed here, didn’t have anywhere else to go. Had no options for work because there wasn’t anybody hiring at that time. So he was just doing the shoveling snow and was trying to save up money so that he could get back down to Katrina because he wanted to do hurricane cleanup. He had been a maintenance man in a church down there until the flood had been there. That’s where he lived and where he worked. And so he really wanted to get back down there and try to help clean things up.
So he was saving his money. Every time, you know, somebody gave him five bucks for shoveling their driveway, he’d put it in his pocket and save it up. And we kept asking him, you know, “How are things going? Are you getting any closer?” And, “Well, yeah, but I had to buy new boots because my older ones fell apart.” And then somebody robbed him in the park, beat him up, and taken his cash roll and so he had to start over. And, you know, so we heard these and we feel these things as he’s going through it.
And then one day I’m at the front counter and this little guy walks in. And he’s got a trucker hat on and he’s pretty clean shaven and fresh clothes. And he slides his bus ticket across the counter. You know, it was Kid. And he was all clean shaven. He’d showered and he was fresh and ready to go. He had his bus ticket and he was so proud that he had had this and that he’d reached this goal. And he just had to come and show us before he left town.
So I begged him, “Don’t leave yet. Libby’s not working today and she really wants to say goodbye.” So he came back on Saturday when she was off and so she got to hug him and say goodbye. Her parents were actually in town that weekend so they got to see him. And we took pictures together and it was, you know, just an amazing, feel-good day.
I mean and that… I think that solidified it for us. Like this is really what we were put on this earth to do. You know, the universe drove us down this path and dropped us here in this spot on Colfax for a reason. And if nothing else, you know, this was the guy. This was the one that we said, we’d start going and made a difference and we were good.
Libby: And that he’s like… That’s one story. I mean, there are… that was our first one that was like, “Oh, wow, that was amazing and awesome and that is just overwhelmingly powerful.” And since then we’ve had hundreds of those stories and that’s kind of that numbers piece where like I could give you numbers all day long. But Kid is the reason why we do this and the reason why we know it works and why we keep doing it. Because you never know who is walking through the door is gonna be the next Kid.
Like just even yesterday, I had this guy come in and he pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. And clearly it had been folded, you know, hundreds of times. It was totally dirty and worn and the creases were crumbling. And he laid it out on the corner and he said, “Am I in the right place?”
And I said, “Well, I don’t know. What are you looking for?” And he reads off of this resource list that we’re on that it says SAME Café. And then over here it says, “Not free meals but you can exchange work in the kitchen for food.” And I said, “Oh yeah, yeah, you’re in the right place.” He said, “How does it work?” And so I explained it to him and he said, “Well, I think I could do that. I think I could do 30 minutes.” And so I said, “Well, what would you like for lunch?” And he was like, “Wait, I get to eat first?” “Sure, if you’re hungry. Like that’s what brought you here, right? Like let’s get you something to eat.”
So he ate and he came back and I put him on the dish station with another guy. And we had been really busy and so we were way backed up. Like every bus tub was full and they just cranked out the dishes for a half an hour. He was really quiet back there, just working, working, working. And, you know, his 30 minutes is up and I said, “Daniel, you’re all done. Thanks for coming and helping.” And he said, “Can I shake your hand?” I was like, “Sure, you can.” So I shook his hand and he was like, “I really didn’t know what to expect. The food was really good and you actually treated me like a human being. Thanks.”
And he clearly was a homeless guy. Like smelled like he hadn’t showered in days and… But we still gave him an opportunity to have some personal dignity and he was just so grateful. And, you know, he’s walking out and he’s like, “I think I’ll come back here.” I was like, “Great, that’s amazing.”
And those… I mean like just having that human interaction, I think what I learn over and over here is that people are people, no matter their struggles in life. I mean even the scary, homeless guy who I was totally intimidated by Kid when he walked in, is a human being who just needs a connection. And I think that part for us is really what drives us to keep going is that we need the connection as much as they do.
Dave: Increasing the café’s impact means Libby and Brad continually need to find ways to reach and expand their audience. While neither Libby nor Brad would call themselves marketers, they have found ways to reach their supporters, volunteers, and donors effectively.
Brad: Early on, you know, we didn’t have a marketing budget, and so we pretty much relied on word of mouth. And word of mouth included the neighborhood newspaper that picked up a story and just said, “Hey, this place is open on East Colfax.” And that started bringing a few people around and then that article led to one of the, in the… you know, “The Denver Post” newspaper and so that brought a few more people in.
Libby: Then we have the “LA Times” and then the news kind of went national. We had lots of news coverage that was really great. And we had people starting to like, “Hey, how do I connect with you? I wanna to know about this. Tell me about this.” So we started writing newsletters and blogs. I’m pretty sure my mom and dad were the only people who read the first couple ones. Maybe your mom and dad did too.
Libby: And then people were like, “Hey, I wanna know more about this.” So, you know, we do all the social media things. We have our newsletter that we send out once a month. We try really hard to…
Brad: We go around and, you know, we’re at events three or four nights a week where there’s things going around town that are dealing with food. If people are talking about food or dignity or access to health…
Libby: Yeah, we’re there.
Brad: We’re there and we’re talking about the café. And we go to different organizations, you know, up and down Colfax. If they have a presentation time, we’ll go in and just explain what the café is and how it can be a resource for the folks that are there. And then we also…Libby’s gone and talked to the different colleges around Denver and so we’ll recruit college students who need volunteer hours. They can come down here and work 5 or 10 hours and fulfill their requirements and also learn a little bit about non-standard business models.
Libby: I think a lot of owning or being, you know, kind of the founders of this is it’s a full-time job all the time. Like even when we’re not working, you’re working. I think anybody who owns their own business knows that it’s all the time. And so, you know, like even in our car, I have flyers and informational folders and all kinds of things. Because you never know who you’re gonna meet and talk to about what you do so I always… you know, business cards and all those things.
But I really feel like the more we share… We don’t spend any money on marketing really. I mean, we try really hard to make sure that the word gets out authentically and it has worked for us. I mean that’s been the best way of getting people in here. Because it is a unique business model and I think you have to see it in order to believe it really.
Dave: Since 2008, Libby and Brad have used email marketing as a way to keep in touch with their audience, at least once a month.
Brad: We get feedback every month that people are actually reading the newsletter. They read about the events that we have coming up and they wanna know how they can sign up for the golf outing or the seasonal meals.
And it was a great way to let people know about board openings and everything else that we have to communicate. That Facebook doesn’t actually let you tell people even though you put it out there. You know you have 6000 followers on Facebook and 63 people saw that you posted about this event. And so it’s not so effective.
Dave: How often do you guys send a newsletter out?
Libby: We try to do it… I send it usually at the end of the month. I don’t like to inundate people with lots of stuff. And I tell them that when they sign up. I’m like, “You’re gonna get one from us a month.” If there’s something big happening, you might get two, but that’s never… it’s only gonna happen like well once a year that you’ll get two emails from us. I feel like having some really authentic pathways to communicate with people are important, but also not overwhelming them with crap.
We don’t sell our list, we don’t share it with anyone. It’s just us. And so you’re just gonna hear, hopefully what you wanna hear if you sign up for it. It’s at least information you cared about at one point. So that piece I think is really important to not overwhelm people with.
We have the results to show that it works for us. So I feel like that, to me, is the most efficient way of getting information to our diverse clientele. Because we have the people who support us but also the people who need us.
And so there’s this like… we have a very mixed audience. So having one avenue that I can reach all of them, I think is really important. And knowing that people actually click on it and read it and seeing the statistics makes it totally worth it. I mean, there’s no other way to do that, I think. There’s no other efficient, cost-effective way to do that.
Brad: Yeah. I mean, it’s not the direct mail, which we…
Brad: Yeah. You’re not buying or dispersing mail out to everybody in the zip codes.
Libby: We’re not wasting paper number one.
Brad: So that they can throw it away and you’re killing trees and email’s free. You don’t have to have a Post Office box to be able to get an email. And so all of our clientele can get the newsletter no matter what. And it’s so much more effective than even placing an ad in the local paper because people who are getting our newsletter care about… You know, they asked to get the newsletter.
So we know we’ve got a built-in group there, of people who give a crap about what we’re talking about. And if they don’t, they can unsubscribe. So it makes the most sense and it’s really the only thing that makes sense for us. Because we have to get that…
Libby: It is our target market.
Brad: We have to get that information out somehow, and it’s the only way that has worked for us.
Dave: Looking back on SAME Café’s decade-long journey, I’m struck by the number of times so many people would have given up and abandoned their dream. But through Brad and Libby’s dedication, SAME Café has become a mainstay in the community and an inspiration for other owners looking to fulfill a similar dream.
Their belief in their mission, themselves, and in others, allows them to make an impact greater than they could have ever imagined.
I’ll leave you with Libby and Brad’s thoughts on what keeps a business running and where they see SAME Café in another 5 years.
Dave: What’s the thing that keeps you going and keeps SAME successful would you think?
Libby: A lot of hard work. I mean, I think owning your own business is hard. There isn’t…starting your own nonprofit, whatever category you wanna put us in. This type of work is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And you have to be really committed to and passionate about the cause because there are days when you don’t wanna do it. There are days when it isn’t very fun and there are days when, you know, things stop working and you have to be a plumber and an electrician and an accountant and kitchen worker. And those days are trying but I think that piece of it makes it work that you’re willing to…
Brad: Yeah, just I mean constant attention. Staying on top of it and just like growing, you know, tending a garden at home or a successful marriage, it always takes constant attention and working on it. And making sure the little things are done and definitely making sure the big things are getting done. You can’t just sit back and lay and just expect it to take care of itself.
Dave: Where do you guys see SAME five years from now?
Libby: This is a tough one because Denver is really in transition right now. There’s a lot of change happening. Lots of people moving here, like 10,000 people a month move to Denver. So it’s really different than it was even a year ago or two years ago. So it’s very hard to predict.
If there is a need in this community, I hope SAME Café is here five years from now. That would be amazing if it was… you know, if we were still here making awesome soup, salad, and pizza.
But I’m also really cognizant of the fact that Denver’s a different place than it was a while ago. So we wanna be flexible. We wanna be open and making sure that we’re listening to what our customer base really needs and where our customer base is. Because it might not be here anymore. I mean, five years from now, this neighborhood could look really even more different than it does right now. So we wanna be open to that.
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