'Buy local' movement picks up steam in Pittsburgh

Chris Dilla figures somebody must like the posters she puts up in the bathrooms of her Bocktown Beer and Grill restaurant in Robinson, because a few have disappeared.

Rock star images? Andy Warhol prints? No. Just marketing materials from The 3/50 Project, a low-key effort to get consumers to think about where they're spending their money. The basic message: Spending $50 at three independently owned businesses each month could help save the local economy.

The "buy local" buzz has been getting louder in recent years and the economic downturn may have helped the cause. Independent businesses are reaching out for low-cost ways to boost their chances for survival, and they're being heard by consumers starting to believe their spending choices could help themselves, too.

"Put your money where your house is," urges one new Western Pennsylvania program to help promote various business districts. A casual decision on where to buy dinner can be important, said Amanda Parks, co-owner of Equita, a fair-trade and green lifestyle store in Lawrenceville. "You're voting what your neighborhood is going to look like."

Armed with data and advice to back up the argument that a higher percent of money spent with independent businesses stays in the local community, programs to market "buy local" have multiplied. There are now about 130 local advocacy groups around the country, touching 30,000 independent businesses, according to Stacy Mitchell, senior researcher for the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which promotes sustainability issues.

But all is not blue skies and uncomplicated choices. In applying the concept to hundreds of different communities, different definitions develop for what's local or independent. Some groups focus on supporting independent businesses, others are food-based -- trying to connect farmers with restaurants or residents. Some put geographic limitations on "local," others debate the definition of a franchise.

"Local" has become so big that its proponents worry the big guys are trying to get in on it, using so-called "local washing" to win over consumers trying to do the right thing.

Yet interest from players such as Wal-Mart and Whole Foods also is reassuring. If chains are trying to source more products locally, they must have market research backing up that investment, said Ms. Mitchell.

"I'm optimistic. I think this is encouraging," she said.

As big as the "buy local" trend has become, it still relies on almost grass-roots marketing to spread and grow. There's unlikely to be a national media campaign that will do much for a one-door merchant in Bellevue or a small plumbing operation in Verona.

Ms. Dilla learned about the 3/50 project, which was launched last March by a retail consultant in Minneapolis, when she met Jennifer Daurora at a business event in November. Ms. Daurora handles business development for the McGinnis Sisters grocery stores.

The 3/50 concept is mainly about raising awareness by using materials and statistics available on the website to make the case for people to spend locally. Dozens of Pittsburgh-area businesses have joined, giving them access to fliers, window clings and countertop signs.

"As soon as I saw what it was, a big light bulb went off," said Ms. Dilla, who likes using social media such as Facebook and Twitter to promote her business.

She signed on right away, adding another layer to her ongoing efforts to celebrate -- and sell -- local products. The restaurant also works with the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" program run by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and it regularly features on its menu items that are sourced locally.

Local is the main theme at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, too, but the focus is different than the 3/50 project. The sustainable agriculture group started out helping farmers be more sustainable and environmentally friendly, said Mia Farber, the "Buy Fresh Buy Local" coordinator for Western Pennsylvania.

Then officials realized that went only so far if consumers weren't aware of what was available, so it began new outreach efforts to close the loop. Last year, Ms. Farber counted a record 65 partners who paid a fee to be a part of the program. She set a goal for 80 this year.

She won't accept businesses as partners unless they answer questions on how they run their operations and where they get products. Size isn't the issue. She takes e-mails regularly from team members at the local Whole Foods Market, which is a partner, as they try to track down products made in the region.

When a produce manager from grocery distributor SuperValu called, Ms. Farber insisted that someone from each store involved should be the partner so she can work with them directly and be sure they are sourcing locally.

"We love local businesses, and we think everyone should support them; but we're about the food," she said.

As much as the growth of farmers markets is important, she noted a farmer who can work out a relationship with a grocery store can spend one less day standing behind a table at a food stand. "The chains help our farmers sell local food."

The truth is the gains that "buy local" marketers have made in recent years may, in part, come from their willingness to be pragmatic.

Take Ms. Dilla. She's not fanatical about her efforts to source from area vendors. "You can't just buy locally," said the restaurant owner who also orders ingredients, and beer, that may not be made within an hour or two of Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, DowntownFirst.net -- a new project of Pittsburgh-based Town Center Associates -- is working to make it easier for consumers to identify local businesses by putting listings online for 50 area communities by year-end.

The listings started out as an idea to promote local businesses but now will include any business that wants to participate, said Mara Dowdy, program director. Only the ones that meet a list of criteria set by the American Independent Business Alliance will be able to claim a "Local" certification. It will be an honor system.

Instead of guilting shoppers into changing their behavior, it seems the strategy is to stay positive and to focus on the economic power of each dollar and the payback for residents.

"It's always: the focus is on supporting independent businesses," said Ms. Mitchell. "It's not an anti-chain message or an anti-Walmart message."

Everybody has numbers meant to make consumers feel powerful. The DowntownFirst site mentions a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor that found if half the employed population spent just $50 each month in locally owned, independent businesses, it would generate more than $42.6 billion in revenue.

Ms. Mitchell cited studies that indicate that $100 spent with local businesses means $45 is re-spent in the region, while that same money spent with a nonlocal can be expected to produce only $15 in money re-spent in the local community.

At Equita, in Lawrenceville, the mission from the beginning was about sustainability, both in environmental and local neighborhood terms. The grand opening in 2006 was timed to coincide with National Buy Local Day, and the owners have since launched a flea market to help bring more people into the business district.

Ms. Parks thinks Pittsburghers have been lucky over the years because so many homegrown business districts here have supported independent stores.

She watched the rush to buy goodies from Jenny Lee Bakery two years ago as it closed its last two stores and wondered if people realized that to sustain a business like that they needed to come in more regularly.

That is the key. If the buy local push is to have a long-term economic impact, businesses need to maintain a level of awareness among area residents -- and they need to offer a competitive product.

Research by Mintel International Group found that almost 20 percent of the population was passionate about buying local and viewed it as a moral obligation.

Another 30 percent were willing to support local businesses. "This group holds the most promise for retailers: They are likely to purchase local products if they are of equal price and easy to find," the report found.

Advocates hope those people can be convinced that spending a little more actually costs them less in the long run because it helps save local jobs and maintain home values.

Ms. Parks believes that the issue can retain its momentum, even as different voices and programs offer their own versions, as long as the truly local businesses work to be as authentic and transparent as possible.

"I'm a firm believer that buy local is a movement and not a trend," she said.

Has it brought business to Bocktown Beer and Grill? Something's working. Sales have been up for the past three years, and Ms. Dilla is in the process of opening a second location at Beaver Valley Mall in the spring.

Is the success from the buy-local buzz? "Everybody comes in and talks about it," said Ms. Dilla, although her gains may have as much to do with the fresh-cut fries served in sizes such as "flat belly" and "the yinzer." Or maybe the 22-foot-long cooler where diners can walk up and choose their own bottle of craft beer.

Teresa Lindeman: tlindeman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2018. First Published March 14, 2010 5:00 AM


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