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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023

Some Independents Thrive Amid Chain Stores

Some Independents Thrive Amid Chain Stores By JEFF WEISS Contributing Reporter Walking down almost any commercial street, it’s hard to avoid noticing the gradual standardization of American business. On many street corners Coffee Bean & Tea Leafs stare menacingly at a Starbucks that looms a stone’s throw away. This doesn’t even take into account the myriad smaller chains, Winchell’s Donuts and 7-11s that peddle enough java to keep John Belushi wired. Even a decade ago, it seemed as though the book world could support chains such as Walden Books, B. Dalton, Bookstar, and Scribners. But the landscape has changed. Almost every chain has been swooped under the aegis of the two book behemoths: Barnes & Noble and Borders. Small independently owned bookstores not only have to fend off challenges from these monolithic chains, but Amazon.com has further eroded the potential market. Statistics show that Americans grow more obese by the year and many have attempted to fend off this trend by relying upon healthier fare. As a result, sandwich chains like Subway, Quizno’s and Togo’s, successfully market their wares as a healthy alternative to traditional fast food. Subway has ballooned to over 21,000 restaurants worldwide, while Quizno’s and Togo’s clock in at 2,000 plus and 400 shops respectively. With all this competition, one is forced to ask themselves whether or not it is possible for the small independently owned coffee shop, book store, or sandwich shop to survive in such a competitive marketplace. While it is undeniable that many a small business’ death knell arrived when a major chain encroached upon its market share, many businesses transcend and even thrive in the face of such business oligarchs. The Business Journal has identified three venerable Valley independent businesses that have not only survived but have consistently turned a profit during their decades in operation. Jennifer’s Coffee Connection 4397 Tujunga Avenue Ste D Studio City Tucked inconspicuously into a tiny Studio City mini-mall with practically no parking, Jennifer’s Coffee Connection has managed to succeed for 18 years. Despite being on its third owner, the primary constant at Jennifer’s has been its ability to consistently turn a profit. Packed in the mornings, with a crowd mostly consisting of 30 and 40-somethings casually clad in blue jeans and sweaters, the coffee shop’s interior immediately strikes one with the murals on a wall depicting a picturesque European villa. By creating a stark contrast to the uniformity of a Starbucks, Jennifer’s manages to create an air of sociability. Arturo Mendoza, the youthful looking 40-year-old owner of Jennifer’s has run the establishment since purchasing it from Mario and Shelly Martin last June. Founded in 1984 by a woman named Jennifer who had previously worked at Priscilla’s Coffee in Toluca Lake, Jennifer’s has been located at various places throughout the lot, before finally settling at its current location. While the store is on its third owner, Mendoza feels that Jennifer’s consistent atmosphere and the employees’ attempts to get to know each regular have paid off in the form of ringing cash registers. “The secret of our survival has been customer service. Getting to know your customers, knowing what they like, knowing their names and being a part of their everyday life is very important,” Mendoza said. One thread that runs through almost all successful businesses is the influence of a hands-on owner. While an owner needs to avoid micro-managing his business, a customer can quickly detect a note of apathy in the employees if the owner is absentee. At Jennifer’s, Mendoza frequently works behind the counter, braving the commute from his residence in Culver City to play an active part in his business. Mendoza maintains that this emphasis on caring and providing customers with quality services, inevitably leads to being able to survive in an airtight marketplace. “We support the local schools, donations, gift certificates, gift baskets, donate coffee for their meetings. We give coffee to some of the churches in the area,” Mendoza said. Paula Sanchez of Claremont has been a regular Jennifer’s customer since 1990. Despite having moved from Burbank (where Sanchez is employed) to Claremont, Sanchez returns to Jennifer’s each day as she waits for the rush-hour traffic to subside before commuting back home. “I come here in the mornings and in the afternoons and this place is always filled with loyal customers. It’s independently owned and I believe in supporting your individual enterprise. I’ve been coming here for 14 years and I’ve seen all three owners. I believe that every dollar I spend is a vote and that’s why I return.” Dutton’s Books & Prints 5146 Laurel Canyon Blvd. North Hollywood Books of practically any field of knowledge pile high to the ceiling, crowding the narrow aisles of Dutton’s Books & Prints in North Hollywood. Winding through this 150,000-200,000 book labyrinth can consume any bibliophile for hours in their search for a specific esoteric and out-of-print text. Founded in 1961, Davis Dutton’s store has adapted to the modern literary world by compiling an inventory as unlike Barnes and Noble as possible. Rather than attempting to peddle bestsellers, Dutton fills a niche by carrying a wide variety of backlist titles in history, humanity, and the sciences. “There are Barnes and Nobles everywhere, but we try to create an inventory which is unlike Barnes and Noble. There are over three-quarters to a million books in print and about 60,000 published each year. No store can carry everything but what we try to do is find a niche, find titles that the Barnes and Nobles don’t carry,” owner Davis Dutton said. “I walk into every Borders and Barnes and Noble that I can and look at everything to see what they have. There are lots of areas where you can fill in the gaps. We rely heavily on older literature. We have our loyal people that come here because they love books and like the ambience and the camaraderie and the home feel.” Dutton’s seems to have its share of followers if the effusive praise of Dutton customer and film and television writer Allan Byrns is any indication. “Why do I shop at Dutton’s books? Because they’re the sweetest shop in town. Everybody knows what they’re doing, they know where the books are, they’ve got the most out of print stuff I’ve ever run across,” the North Hollywood resident said. “Any time I’m desperate and need it for research, they always have the book. Plus their hearts. I’ve never seen anything like them, the attitude is fabulous and the prices are affordable. It’s a great store.” When a B. Dalton store (B. Dalton has since been purchased by Barnes & Noble) opened up down the street from Dutton’s in the mid-1960s, the only way for Dutton’s to survive was by adapting to the changed circumstances. “We started out initially inspired by City Lights in San Francisco to open just a paperback bookstore but that soon became impractical if not impossible, because you have to have dictionaries, and some medical books, and the top 10 to 20 bestsellers,” Dutton said. “Before we knew it we’d become a general bookstore, but even at that time we tried to carry remainders that the chains didn’t carry. B Dalton opened up the street in 1964 and they provided significant competition, then we got into used and rare books. One thing we’ve tried to do is handle books on subjects that the major chains have opted not to carry.” The close-knit environment of Dutton’s, where the employees converse with each other like family members and speak to Dutton with extreme respect, seems to filter down to the loyal Dutton’s customers, many of whom have been coming for decades. “I think we’ve survived on the strength of personal relationships with the customers, by personal service, and trying to be attentive to the areas not being taken care of by the competition,” Dutton said. “We’ve had the dogged determination to survive. The old days when the best seller list could pay your rent are gone. The chains, Amazon.com, the warehouse stores eat into your business. If you want to survive you need to be inventive. There are more places to buy books than there used to be.” Flooky’s 21034 Victory Blvd. Woodland Hills Norman Green is one of the most friendly human beings you will ever find. The owner of Woodland Hills’ Flooky’s stands outside of his restaurant smiling and waving to each customer that passes in and out. No customer can avoid an affable declaration of “Hey, how are you,” or some other salutation. With a Subway sandwich shop literally next door and a Togo’s a half block away, Green has eaten into their once dominant market share by an intense focus on offering high-quality food and by ensuring that each customer feels welcome and fully taken care of. Compared to Subway, Flooky’s has a personal touch. Like “Hello Jon,” “Hello Steve,” “Thank you,” and if the tab is $7.03 and you’re short two cents don’t worry about it. It’s homemade, everything is made from scratch. “Anything you order is fresh, the only thing that we keep on steam tables are my chili and my soups,” Green said. “People are looking for that. I grew up on the East Coast. Everyone knew everyone. Everyone was friendly. It wasn’t, walk in with polished mirrors and get in and get out. That’s the way they look at it. For me, it’s like please come in, sit down and eat for a couple of hours if you want and let’s talk.” When Green purchased Flooky’s nearly two years ago, the business was floundering. Once a thriving sandwich franchise with other operations scattered throughout the Valley, Flooky’s had seen a severe downturn in business, while the Subway next door garnered the majority of the mini-mall’s traffic. “When I bought the place, Flooky’s was in bad shape. The business was dying. If I went by their books, they were losing money. I sat for two to three weeks and from what I saw with the hours I spent here they had 50 people come through the doors,” Green said. “They used to operate from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Now we open by 6:00 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m. during the week. 4:00 on Saturdays and 3:00 on Sundays. And I never spent a dime on advertising either. It took me about 60 days to turn it around, not to where it is now, but where I wasn’t in the red.” To get the business back in the black, Green fired the entire staff, replacing them with his mother, father, brother, and wife. But overhauling his employee roster wouldn’t be enough. With a menu formerly restricted to pastrami, burgers, and hot dogs, new owner Green instinctively knew that he needed to expand Flooky’s offerings and revamp operations or their wouldn’t be any business to speak of. “We’ve at least tripled the menu’s size. We had to. There are people who don’t eat meat, people who do, people who are vegetarians. Everyone can come into my store and eat. People think of us as just having hot dogs but that’s not true,” Green said. “I’m very obsessed with cleanliness. I use the best quality of everything there is and nobody can beat our prices. Nobody. And everything is always fresh.” Indeed prices at Flooky’s are noticeably low. The most expensive combo meal in the entire store costs $7.50. With 275-350 customers streaming through its doors every day, Flooky’s has been profitable and had growth for the last 18 months. Andy Fuller of Van Nuys is a regular Flooky’s customer, attributing his repeated patronage to several reasons. “It’s conveniently located close to where I work. I think the food is good and they’ve got a few varieties of food and styles that I like to break up my palate with,” Fuller said. Flooky’s once bleak future seems to have been revitalized under Green’s watch. The amiable mustachioed owner seems to have succeeded in eating away at Subway’s previous lunchtime predominance because of the human touch factor that a major chain can never provide. “I get all kinds of people in the store. I get bikers, judges, police officers, business men and women. When they come in everyone knows everyone. As a matter of fact, I have a couple in there right now named Marty and Denise, they’re handicapped but they do everything for themselves,” Green said, gesturing towards a couple hunched over their meals sitting closely to one another in the store. “They started coming a year and a half ago and they come here every day. I keep my eye on them and make sure nobody bothers them. They’re nicest people in the world. I have a personal relationship with all of my customers. I make sure of it. That’s what I would want.”

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