• The Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) from the SBA was created to help small businesses like mine who had no choice but to either close or lose business in order to help the health and safety of their community and their neighbors.   Today, there are many questions about the PPP including

      • Whether the PPP has accomplished its goal

      • How the SBA decided on how to give out the loans

      • Why individual companies - such as multi-million dollar companies -  like Shake Shack, Lindblad Expeditions Holdings, Potbelly Sandwich Shop,  Ruth's Chris Steakhouse or Continental Materials Corp - or those businesses not impacted by COVID-19 restrictions applied for the low interest and potentially forgivable PPP loans (maybe because they could)

      • Why large businesses received a disproportionate share of the money (maybe because of their  existing relationships with banks and their internal legal and accounting teams able to quickly prepare and process the application)

      • Why the Senate changed the rules towards the end of crafting the PPP  to allow such companies to be able to apply (maybe because of lobbying and money)

    • The question for me at the moment is what small business owners like myself whose PPP applications were never reviewed once funding ran dry and who had hoped to be able to support their employees during these restrictions should do given our remaining funding options. 

    • Last May, I, along with two business partners, took over a small neighborhood coffee shop that had been around for five years.  The original owner started the coffee shop as a promise to herself of pursuing dreams unpursued if she beat breast cancer which she had recently been diagnosed with.  She named the coffee shop after a character in a John Greenleaf Whittier poem titled Maud Muller who's life was defined by a choice she didn't make.

    • We bought the coffee shop because we all lived in the neighborhood and wanted a place that could be the local meting spot with the comfort of your grandmother's living room.  Where it would be filled, like the neighborhood itself, with people from every background and every philosophy.  Where all were welcomed and encouraged to come together to hang out, work, meet or just relax.  Our inspiration of "coffee, conversation, collaboration and conviviality" was what drove our vision and business plan.  For the first six months, we transitioned the business from a place that was part coffee shop, part fairy garden shop to a  place that was embedded in the community by partnering with locals to promote reasons to come together.  We partnered with a local book store "Dog-Eared Books" and built a library where we have thousands of books for sale for $1 a piece.  We partnered with a local coffee roaster - Carrboro Coffee Roasters who form direct relationships with coffee farmers all over the world to deliver the best coffee beans and coffee to our customers.  We partnered with a local apiary - The Pleasant Bee - to offer locally made honey in all of our house special "Bee" drinks.  We partnered with a local chocolatier - Videri chocolates - to sell both their wonderful chocolate bars but also offer their famous sipping chocolate.  We partnered with a local brewery - Ponysaurus - to offer some of the world's best beer to our customers.  Even our wine distributor - Ocean South Imports - are locals who have helped us share some wonderful wines from some of the lesser known regions with our neighbors.  We partnered with the local schools delivering free coffee for teacher meetings, parent meet-ups,  hosted fundraisers for yearbooks and exhibited their students' artwork on our walls.  Our focus was to support our community in all ways and in any way.  We hosted over a dozen local author nights, exhibited numerous local artists, hosted pumpkin painting at Halloween,  cookie decorating at Christmas and a Bob Ross painting night for those looking for happy little accidents. 

    • During this time, we were able to transition ourselves to the neighborhood meeting spot and foster the true community that already existed with our customer base.  As an homage to it's history where the shop was known as "The Heart of North Raleigh", we decided to rename the place to "NoRa" to represent both North Raleigh as a geographic location as well as the community that our customers and friends have created.  During the short time we've owned the place, we've celebrated birthdays, mourned the passing of one of our customers and honored our regulars by hanging their family's memorabilia on our walls.  And through it all we grew.  We grew in despite of unexpected challenges such as when our original credit card processing agency decided on our busiest day to lock us out of our system (for over 7 months) because of a billing dispute they had with the previous owner a year before we took over.  (and in a true Catch-22 situation, they continue to charge us a monthly penalty for not meeting the minimum monthly processing amount because we're locked out of their system. )

    • We grew in part, I believe, because of some advice I received prior to taking over the shop from a fiend of mine who owned a couple of small and well respected businesses.  A hard-working owner who is highly regarded by his peers and staff, he asked what would make our place different than everyone else's.  His point was that everyone believes their place is special.   I recalled a previous conversation we had about another venture I was considering  he had encouraged me to focus on civility - something he felt had started to erode in our community.  I wanted NoRa's focus to be on creating a community based on civility.  To treat our team, our customers and our friends with civility and respect and expect the same from all those who worked with us and visited.  And people responded.  The community came together and stood up with each other, by each other and for each other.  Often times, customers who had never met before would be seen together at tables discussing each others' lives, offering help, support and a friendly ear. 

    • And the message and our approach seemed to resonate with our customers.  Without any advertising, people started to talk about us - share in conversations and online their experiences about our amazing staff, the quality of their food and drinks and the warmth of the environment.  And we grew.  We grew at such a rate that we struggled to keep up - twice running out of coffee beans - a bad thing for a coffee shop.

    • But more importantly we grew our customer base.  We pride ourselves on knowing almost every single person by name, by having their drinks ready before they enter the shop, by knowing about their kids, grandkids and parents.  We pride ourselves on knowing when a free cup of coffee might just be the thing needed to change a person's outlook on a rough day.   Our customers became our friends and - to a large extent - our family.  We created buttons on our register with pictures of our regulars so they could order their favorite drinks.

    • The NoRa community supported one another in all ways.  Prior to the pandemic, one of our customers - the mother of our manager - made aprons and sold them, donating the proceeds to support the family of patients at the bone marrow transplant center where she works.  It was so successful, she made more aprons and donated to another local charity.  Since the start of the pandemic, the NoRa community has worked with local neighborhoods to help support the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina and are proud of the fact that we've raised $2,000 so far with more being collected every day.

    • From the time we took over to before the pandemic hit, we were able, by one measure to nearly triple the  business.  We grew in terms of revenue, number of customers and even ratings.   

    • People ask me almost on a daily basis how the pandemic and its restrictions have impacted us.  The fact is that from the first week of March to the last week of March, our core business was down 70%.  We've cut employees' hours by 67%.   Unlike our multi-million dollar peers who applied for the SBA PPP loan, our employees have been hit hard by this.  They generally work a couple of jobs to help pay for their rent, their utilities, the gas in their cars or the maintenance of their vehicles.  They live paycheck to paycheck and often without the generosity of landlords willing to forgive rent during these unusual times. 

    • At NoRa, we did what we could to encourage business as the pandemic started to take it's toll.  We hosted drive-in movie nights to draw families in cars to come out each night to watch a movie.  We give away free coffee to encourage our customers to tip our baristas to help make up for the lost hours.  And our customers responded tipping our staff generously.  We've had more than one customer come in asking us to distribute large donations between the staff.  One customer come in and bought hundreds of dollars worth of gift cards in small increments so he could hand out to the cashiers and other workers of the neighboring Food Lion grocery store to show his appreciation for them.   As I said before, these aren't just customers - these our neighbors and active supporters of our community.

    • So the real question for me is not why the PPP program decided to set up the program as they did, or why multi-million dollar companies applied for the loans, or why they received  loans that would have funded 277 NoRa's and approximately 3,800 employees, my real question is do I accept the funding that I'm being offered in lieu of the money that I had hoped to receive from the PPP?  This "funding" includes a $100 hand-written check from "Mary", a loyal sweet customer who celebrated her birthday (I won't say which but it was north of 70) with us and visits us each Sunday after church.  The real question is what do I say to another regular - a huge Harley Davidson biker named "Bear"  who surprised his wife Chloe with a "sweet 16" birthday party at our place for her 61st party the other month -  who texts me yesterday morning to check in on me and see how we're holding up.

    • What's  amazing to me is that in the short time that we've owned the place, that we have succeeded in achieving what I had hoped to do - create a neighborhood meeting spot that could inspire a community feel.   Before we took over the place, I wanted to create a place where people would feel that they are a part of that community - that THEY are NoRa.  Shortly after the pandemic hit and it became apparent that life was going to change, I set out an old door that we had acquired when we took over the shop.  At the top of it, I put the phrase I use to represent our little community "We Are NoRa" along with the latitude and longitude of our shop and a tagline "Located directly above the heart of North Raleigh" which I paraphrased from a bar from my college days.  I encouraged our customers to ask themselves "Are you NoRa?" when they came to visit and if so, sign and date the door.  Each day I come into the shop, I look at the door and marvel at the growing number of names and messages from the NoRa community. 

    • While I fully expect NoRa to survive this pandemic - whether through funding from the government or through the contributions and donations of our customer base - I realize that in the ten months since we've taken over, I believe we've had a larger positive impact on the lives of the 10,000 customers we've served then on the millions of  people I tried to help in my previous 30 plus years working in the health and life sciences industry.   Industries with lots of good people and noble intentions trying to achieve the fundamental goal of trying to improve a person's life and health but whose efforts and impact are often mitigated or thwarted by economics, ego, equity, equality, evidence and expediency.  At NoRa, we are just a bunch of people looking for a comfortable space, a good drink, a friendly smile and a place where we feel welcome, where people really do know you by name and where people leave feeling just a little bit better than when they arrive. 

    • Maybe I don't really know what the question is, but this sure sounds like the answer to me.   #WeAreNoRa

NoRa

12333 Strickland Rd.

Raleigh, NC 27613

 

 (919) 322-2202

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