‘He Has Helped So Many in Our Community’: The Powerful Stories of America’s Favorite Small Businesses

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The economic numbers around small businesses tell a powerful story about their importance to the national economy. Small businesses accounted for 65% of net new jobs from 1998-2014 and 44% of all U.S. economic activity. Women run around 38% of U.S. small businesses, 29% are minority-owned and less than 6% are owned by veterans.

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Beyond these statistics, though, are powerful stories that aren’t necessarily reflected in numbers. They are stories that mostly never make it into national or even local news. They’re the short anecdotes that people tell each other around the dinner table about small kindnesses that made their day better and provide resources: a Texas garbage collector who promised his customers he’d come even if they couldn’t pay; shops like Ella’s Boutique Etcetera in Florence, South Carolina, that gifts prom dresses to girls who can’t afford one; coffee shops like Yazoo Brew in Yazoo City, Mississippi, that support the nearby car wash fundraiser with half-off drinks.

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One by one, these add up to what helps give a community its strength, and small businesses are the fabric of that.

“Small businesses are central to creating spaces and community,” said Michelle Harati, policy officer with the Local Initiatives Support Coalition (LISC). “We saw this a lot during COVID, with a lot of mom and pop shops going the extra mile for their neighbors and customers who were no longer able to leave the house, delivering groceries and food and filling a lot of gaps that larger institutions or businesses wouldn’t necessarily do just because it doesn’t meet their bottom line.”

More: What COVID-19 Has Meant for Small Businesses

This was evident in the overwhelming response we received in our Small Business Spotlight 2021 nominations, with more than 1,000 readers responding to our call to tell us about their favorite local business and what makes it special to its community.

One nomination out of Lafayette, Georgia, shared the story of Twins Pizza & Steaks, known for their buy one, get one free pizza specials and festive holiday parties. Every Christmas, the restaurant’s owner hosts a free Christmas day lunch, serving up not just pizza to a packed house, but piling toys and gifts for local kids from floor to ceiling that have been collected throughout the year.

“(The owner) is a very great man,” the nomination read. “He is 75 years old and still works five days a week. He has helped so many in our community.”

Read: Creative Ways Small Businesses Stayed Open the Past Year

The pandemic demanded incredible resilience from small businesses, and the creativity that so many responded with to stay afloat sparked news headlines across the country. The beauty of that creativity was that so often, these businesses strove to not just keep their own lights on but to support other local businesses (including their competitors), keep employees working, and feed anyone who was hungry.

Monica Alvarado, owner of Bread and Butter Kitchen in Annapolis, Maryland, wanted to find a way to keep restaurant workers employed while providing meals to people in need during the pandemic. In March 2020, she launched Feed Anne Arundel, a nonprofit organization that as of May 2021 had given out more than 60,000 meals in partnership with 75 different restaurants, keeping their staff busy and paid through a series of grants and GoFundMe donations. 

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“Restaurants have an important place in the community beyond giving out gift certificates for high school fundraisers,” said Alvarado, who is also an Air Force veteran. “I’m an entrepreneur, but I’m also military. We remove obstacles and get it done. I wanted to make sure that we were having as much impact as possible.” In December, the city of Annapolis honored Alvarado as its inaugural Annapolis Person of the Year.

According to a 2020 survey by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families,  34% of veteran entrepreneurs who responded reported that their reason for starting a business is helping society and supporting their community. 

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In immigrant communities, communities of color or other underrepresented segments of the population, small businesses can be an important cultural anchor as well, Harati said, from providing jobs and sharing knowledge to creating art murals and hosting events celebrating cultural heritage.

“It’s really about cultural expression and seeing yourself reflected in the community you live in,” Harati said. “For instance, if you can go to a neighborhood store or grocery that offers items specific to your culture, it helps provide a sense of belonging.”

Steve Hall, vice president of LISC Economic Development Lending, added that these types of businesses are more willing to employ people who need alternatives to full-time jobs — what he calls “lifestyle jobs.”

“These are attractive to a workforce that preceded the gig economy — senior citizens who are retired, artists, actors, after-school jobs or parents who can only work a few hours while their child is in school,” Hall said. “It might be the person who cleans up the barber shop — they could get a free meal for sweeping up the place, and that’s why they go there. It’s not a full-time job, but that’s their contribution to the community.”

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For many business owners, the drive to do good is at the very core of their entrepreneurship, opening businesses explicitly intended to make the world better. To name just a few from our small business nominations:

  • RecycleBalls in South Burlington, Vermont, collects tennis balls from around the country and separates the materials, turning the rubber crumb into new tennis courts and footing for horse arenas. 
  • Warrior Goddess Fitness in New Jersey aims to empower women to find inspiration and community in their journeys to better health and fitness.
  • Beekeepers at Bare Honey in Minnesota team up with solar energy developers to provide flowering pollinator refuge habitats in solar fields.
  • The Tacoma Soap Refillery’s mission is to reduce single-use plastic and other disposable containers with in-store shopping and delivery of refillable home and bath products.

The relationship, of course, is a two-way street. Just as communities need their small businesses, these businesses need their customers to survive. Through weathering the storm of the pandemic, American consumers recognized that their local shops couldn’t be taken for granted and rallied behind them to see them through.

Support: Louisiana Woman Turns Her Passion for Creating Gift Baskets Into a Small Business

According to a recent Next Insurance survey, 8 out of 10 respondents said they made efforts to support small businesses during the pandemic. Another survey by Union Bank revealed that 4 in 10 people were willing to spend $20 more on a purchase to support them during the 2020 holidays.

This recognition extended beyond Main Street to Washington, where several bipartisan efforts throughout the last year materialized to expand access to grants and loans for small businesses during the pandemic to help keep their doors open.

“I think COVID restrictions led many to have a greater appreciation for what is available locally,” Harati said, “and policymakers realize how fundamental small businesses are to their communities.

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Last updated: June 21, 2021

About the Author

Cody Bay is an award-winning writer, editor and media ace based in Seattle, WA. With a focus on social good storytelling and content strategy, she recently led the Microsoft News for Good initiative at MSN, creating content experiences to inform and empower readers to take action on the causes they care about. She has contributed to a wide variety of local and national publications, including Microsoft’s IT Showcase, The Seattle Times, Seattle magazine, The Travel Channel and the Puget Sound Business Journal, and was previously a multimedia editor at The Associate Press in New York.

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