What are the ingredients to a successful small business in a little college town? A trendy and niche coffee company based out of Huntingdon, PA might not be what you would expect from a small rural town at first glance, but they have definitely carved out a unique and consistent base of customers.
Starting a coffee shop is no simple task, as a vast majority will fail within the first 5 years, making it important to come in with a strong plan. In order to better understand what it takes to run a small business and coffee shop, Greg Anderson, the owner of Standing Stone Coffee Company, allowed me some time to speak with him about you can thrive in a town like Huntingdon. One of the challenges of starting a business can be knowing who your clients will be and that becomes increasingly important in a town where your neighbor can be a customer. Greg says that the opportunity is “unique and special” because “you can go deeper with families, there’s more customer loyalty, more engagement, the people we see here we see in the grocery store, and when we go to church, and all around town. not the coffee that drives us, it’s the people that drive us”. Having a sense of responsibility to the community is important so that the customer reciprocates that loyalty . It’s not just about building a product that is sustainable, but in an idea that people believe in and support.
When asked about the competition in a small town, Greg had unique insight into the business culture, stating that, “any place that people eat could be our competitor, but they’re also our friend, that’s the nature of a small town”. He views businesses in a small town as friends who are each trying to carve out their own specific niche, rather than step on each other’s toes, there are opportunities for them. All food-services or cafes to do well and differentiate.
Greg recognizes large corporate chains as a threat that can’t necessarily be competed against, but believes that “we can carve out a niche, we just need to clearly differentiate”. Standing Stone prides themselves on pursuing high quality coffee and ingredients from sustainable sources. It may cost a little more, but Greg says it good because “we created a mission, if we truly love people, we are going to give them the best we produce and they deserve”. This can make it difficult to generate profits solely based on the food they sell.
In a small town, business walk a narrow line between being too specialized to generate revenue and being too broad for a single, meaningful identity. Greg suggests “a general takeaway for anyone starting a business in a small town, is coming in with a diversified revenue stream.” In describing his own business, he shares that, “wholesale is approximately a third of our growth.” While they also offer their coffee online for customer orders and, “the cafe makes up the other two thirds.” They have diversified their revenue because it is critical to their business. It’s crucial to their operation as the cafe usually breaks even with some months being losses. The survival of their business depends on the connection Standing Stone has with “about 60 wholesalers” in the mid-Atlantic region so they operate at a net profit. That being said, in a small town it can be tough to start a sustainable business plan but, “In Huntingdon itself I think there is space for some niche restaurants,” places that offer unique cuisine, a bar for mixed drinks, and some sort of patio were among Greg’s suggestions.
There is tremendous opportunity in small towns, especially those with colleges to create a unique segment of customers as long as you have the ability to generate multiple avenues of income.