Just off I-5, about 12 miles south of Eugene, is the Blue Valley Bistro, what owner Seth Clark calls “Creswell’s Lounge”. Inside the cozy restaurant with its dark wood walls and scattered tables, Clark serves food and coffee to a group of regulars.
Clark recently celebrated the restaurant’s 11th anniversary. Running a small business like Clark’s, which he describes as a “glorified cafe,” in a small town like Creswell comes with its fair share of challenges: a smaller pool of customers and employees, increased employee spending and, of course, more recently, the pandemic. But Clark is working with Oregon RAIN, which partners with communities and businesses to provide entrepreneurial services, and they’re helping Creswell overcome these barriers.
âI’m supposed to be someone who helps small businesses create an entrepreneurial ecosystem in a rural community,â says Clark.
Clark works with RAIN as a âcommunity entrepreneur,â which means he can advise other business owners from a similar perspective. Clark helps other owners manage accounts with wholesale distributors and with programs such as 12-week corporate finance courses. When he started with Blue Valley Bistro, he got involved with RAIN for help, taking advice from other business owners. He says he had access to already written business plans for cafes.
Business was slow at first, but then it grew. In 2010, his first year of owning the business, his sales were under $ 160,000, and that was before he paid his small staff and all of his expenses. He got away with it because he didn’t have a mortgage or children.
Over the next five years he established his restaurant in Creswell and saw his sales increase, and he had his best year of 2015.
In 2016, however, things changed. The lounge next to the restaurant moved to another location and he immediately lost 25% of his business. He therefore decided to expand to support the company by opening a site in Coburg.
Then in 2020, the pandemic brought other challenges for business owners, including Chelsea Pisani, owner of the Creswell Wellness Center. When the lockdown first went into effect, Pisani turned to RAIN for information about the Paycheck Protection Program loans. She met with Clark and others in the community to see how they were dealing with the situation.
âThe ability to connect with other business owners and have these roundtable discussions or seek additional funding or grant resources is why my business still exists,â said Pisani.
RAIN helped Pisani and others get through the pandemic, but owners have faced other challenges since then. Clark says right now he’s struggling to find good employees to work when he needs them. Due to the shortage, it can only open six days a week.
His challenge is shared by many small business owners across the country. While large companies have solved the problem by offering higher wages, this is not always an option for Clark. He says Oregon’s minimum wage hike posed another challenge.
âIt’s not that I think my employees don’t deserve a living wage, I totally think so,â says Clark. “But for every dollar an hour I pay them, it’s a dollar less that I can save for other things, including my own salary.”
Plus, as wages rise, Clark says, the prices of the products he needs for his business also rise, most of which is sourced locally, like beans from Cafeto Coffee Company, pastries from Palace and New Day bakeries. and milk from Umpqua Dairy. . This means that its prices are also increasing.
âI’m hit twice in this regard,â he said. âAs a consumer, how comfortable are you paying five dollars for a filter coffee? If you have to pay $ 8 for a latte, are you okay? “
Employees are few and far between in a small town, but so are customers. Clark says he doesn’t get the same number of foot traffic customers as a cafe in Eugene. He estimated that 90 percent of his customers are locals who frequent the store regularly.
On the one hand, he likes this aspect of his business.
âWe make amazing friendships with our customers because we see them so often,â says Clark.
But from another perspective, it presents what Clark sees as the biggest challenge he’s faced in over a decade owning Blue Valley Bistro – negotiating the intricacies of a small town.
âThe people I serve live in this city,â says Clark. âIf I happen to piss off the wrong person, there’s a good chance that person and all of their friends will stop supporting my business. “
When Pisani encounters similar issues at the wellness center, she says she can ask Clark for her strategies for the same issue, and the two benefit from the relationship.
âAs a business owner, I am always faced with new challenges,â says Clark. âYou sometimes feel like a lone wolf, but you hardly do. Lots of people have already done this. You just have to find how to access it. RAIN provides this access in different ways.
The Blue Valley Bistro was broken into on December 11. To support the local small business, go to 116 Melton Road, next to Bi-Mart, or BluevalleyBistro.com. And to explore the Creswell Wellness Center, visit 24 W. Oregon Avenue or CreswellWellness.com. For more information on Oregon RAIN or to request free getting started help, visit OregonRain.org.