“I went to Shirley’s Diner for the first time about six weeks ago,” says Lara Bair, a resident of Leland for the past six and a half years. “And it was just like my dad’s old restaurant; the people who work there know absolutely everyone.”
At first pass, one might wonder what exactly could make this EMS dispatcher wax nostalgic over a small town establishment, even when comparing it to a beloved parent’s former business. But for Bair, the “little guy” is vital to the social economy and has become more important than ever, especially in up-and-coming towns like Leland.
Back in her home state of Ohio, she was a child when she watched her father build a family-owned Italian restaurant from the ground up, learning the ins and outs of the business and seeing firsthand the challenges that such enterprises face on a daily basis.
“Eventually a bigger business pushed out the restaurant,” she remembers, “and it was devastating for all of us to see. Since then, I’ve had a major soft spot for small businesses, and when I came here and saw what this town had to offer I wanted to do something that would make a difference and help the community.”
Thus, the Leland NC Small Businesses Facebook page came to be earlier this year; using only the means immediately available to her, Bair began a campaign to bring all the small business owners and the denizens of the town together for networking and open cooperation.
“Small businesses tend to stay unknown because they can’t spread their stories like the bigger ones,” Bair says. “That’s the main reason I wanted to start the Facebook page; everyone’s on social media now, and it’s gotten to be really important for getting the word out on just about anything. So I thought, why not us?”
The foremost goal of the Facebook page, Bair says, is to connect the small business owners of Leland with one another – as well as with consumers in general who may prefer to spend their money with locals – and generate a discussion that would help feed continual growth. The rapid increase in participation led to the community’s first Small Business Mixer in June, which was held at The Joyce. More than 100 people attended, she says, some representing businesses and others interested citizens.
But, while the first group event was a smashing success, Bair did note a drop in attendance at the second hosted get-together on July 25; approximately 60 people joined her for a networking opportunity that evening. While she says it was still a productive outing, Bair would like to see another increase in attendance in the events to come.
“There are hundreds of small businesses no one even knows about,” she says. “The people who have come to our events have all expressed a need for just this sort of thing here in town: a place where everyone can meet together to learn about the hidden entrepreneurs in Leland. The problem is that no one really knows about us yet, either.”
The North Brunswick Chamber of Commerce does host an Early Bird Networking event every first Wednesday of the month at Leland’s Best Western, according to the chamber’s website. This “speed networking” occurs between the hours of 7:30 and 9:00 a.m., before typical offices open, and over a continental breakfast.
Attendees come prepared to introduce themselves to their fellow chamber members, but those who do not already belong to the North Brunswick Chamber of Commerce must pay a basic fee of $5.00 to participate.
With the Facebook page as a facilitator, Bair says it’s possible for anyone to efficiently interact with businesspeople and consumers alike even outside of the scheduled events. Everyone who joins is encouraged to share helpful news, resources, and to repost business highlights she adds to the page to help promote some of the lesser-known businesses.
“Everyone always asks me why I’m doing this once they find out I’m not a business owner and I’m managing the page by myself,” she says, “but I just don’t want to see more small businesses go under.”
With 700 followers and counting, the Leland NC Small Businesses page is well on its way to gaining enough traction for real sustainability, Bair says.
“Someone called it a mission at the first meeting, and they couldn’t have been more right,” she recalls.
Bair encourages anyone interested in community happenings to join the page (Leland NC Small Businesses), share the local stories she posts, suggest businesses for her to include, and to stay tuned for more events. The next outing will be held August 24 at Willoughbys in Leland from 4:30 until 7:00 p.m.