Celebrating our independents

Spending a little more at locally owned businesses could enrich Pasadena in a big way

By Joe Piasecki 07/02/2009

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Even those of us fortunate enough to still have a good job and a nice place to call home have been affected by the economic challenges of the past 10 months. At the very least, most of us are paying closer attention to our wallets — how much we’re spending and for what.

So perhaps now more than ever it’s also important to think about where the money we do spend goes, a message being amplified by a number of “buy local” campaigns in Pasadena and around the country.

“Shopping is kind of like voting. In addition to finding the right product at the right price, where you spend your money is a vote of support for the place you spent it,” wrote editors of Maine’s Portland Press Herald of appeals for support by locally based independent businesses in that city.

Meanwhile, a number of Pasadena-based independent businesses are spreading word about the 3/50 Project (the350project.net), a nationwide campaign for shoppers to identify three local businesses that make their town a better place to live and shop in those places once a month.

The goal, said blogger and project founder Cinda Baxter, is “to try to reallocate $50 [that would go to chains] back into local businesses because of all the positive ramifications. So much of the strength of our local economies ties directly to locally owned small businesses, and even more than that, the color and vibrancy of our neighborhoods ties to them as well.”

Spending money in locally owned businesses instead of national chains, the 3/50 Project and other such efforts argue, means that more of it stays in the community. Local businesses tend to employ residents of their communities and purchase goods and supplies from other local businesses, whereas most chain stores truck in their inventories from other places and send profits off to sometimes faraway corporate headquarters.

One of the strongest examples of local businesses’ potential to enrich Pasadena is Majestical Roof, an art, craft and curio shop off of North Fair Oaks Avenue that stocks its shelves entirely with goods created in Pasadena, the San Gabriel Valley and nearby LA neighborhoods.

“We’re not in it to become millionaires overnight, but it’s rewarding. The biggest thing we get out of it is the people we meet,” said Christina Bernal, who started the shop nearly three years ago with partner Yvonne Russo.

New friends include more than 150 artists — most of them from Pasadena — who participate in Majestical Roof’s adjacent Pop-up Concept Gallery, where local artists are given a chance to display and sell their works.

Nearby boutique Lula Mae also acquires the vast majority of its merchandise locally, and was the first to display a 3/50 Project poster in its window.

“It’s an awesome concept and has definitely been a topic of conversation here,” said Marci Toombs, who started the shop six years ago after working both as a merchandise manager for a large retail chain and at the San Marino boutique Simply Fresh. “I think there’s a strong need for independents. We have 416 different independent or family owned vendors, and about 90 percent are California-based, including several in Pasadena.”

Lula Mae and Majestical Roof are also part of the Buy Local Pasadena campaign (buylocalpasadena.org), founded in late 2007 by Rayne Roberts, Tamara Johnston-McMahon and Shelby Moser — three friends who attended Pasadena Christian Elementary school together and were inspired by the Pasadena Neighborhood Leadership Institute, run by the city’s Neighborhood Connections Program.

“We grew up in Pasadena as [Old Pasadena] was going through its renaissance, but then it just kind of turned into a mall,” said Roberts, a photographer, filmmaker and former PW contributor (Moser and McMahon are founders of the popular Sierra Madre fair trade skin care line Anti-Body).

“We’re just trying to spread awareness that people have a choice of where they spend their money —  and how buying local preserves our character,” said Roberts.

With most large record stores going the way of the typewriter, keeping local character intact is part of the mission of Canterbury Records on East Colorado Boulevard. “We have the current hits at good prices, but we also have an extensive inventory you won’t find elsewhere,” said Rusty Gordon, who along with two of his sisters took over the family business — in Pasadena since 1960 — from his father. “So many of our customers say we’re their favorite store, ‘Please stay in business forever.’”

Business is also a family affair at Flutter, a fashionable-meets-functional boutique on West Green Street in Old Pasadena, operated by lifelong locals Jennifer Allen and her mother, Jane Popovich. 

“The purpose of boutiques is to offer two key things: unique merchandise — we specialize in finding brands [including a Pasadena-based jewelry line] that aren’t always carried in the department stores — and customer service,” said Allen.

But reinvesting in the community is also part of the mission for Flutter, which has recently hosted benefit efforts supporting Huntington Hospital’s Zahorik Breast Center, the Kidspace Children’s Museum, Hillsides, Five Acres, Villa Esperanza and Planned Parenthood, among many others.

“One of the things that put [the 3/50 Project] into perspective most quickly is when local business owners contribute to nonprofits. You get so much more than you ever get from a big box or chain,” said Baxter. “It’s that kind of plug-in back to the community that small businesses offer and we’ll miss if we don’t support them.”

Or, as Allen explains it, “Your clients support you by being shoppers, so it’s important to support your community right back.”
Family and community ties also run deep in Pasadena’s large restaurant sector.

Owned and operated by siblings Dargetta Carlisle and Darren McWhorter and their spouses, Big Mama’s Rib Shack on North Lake Avenue does its part for the community through school, church and Little League fundraisers. After all, Carlisle lives in Altadena and the McWhorters live in Pasadena, where father Dargin McWhorter, the keeper of family recipes, once operated Big Mama’s Kitchen.

A dollar spent at Big Mama’s often stays in town because the restaurant’s owners and staff live and work in the area. “We shop locally, and one restaurant we always go to is Margaritas, also family-owned,” said Carlisle. “We do what we can in the community.”

In fact, “most small business owners live in or close to Pasadena, all our employees are local and money we make we spend locally,” explained Jack Huang, owner of Villa SORRISO and Bar Celona restaurants in Old Pasadena and an active organizer among the business community.

“I don’t have anything against big corporations — they’re good at bringing people into town,” said Huang, but, “rarely do they participate in anything locally. Their managers don’t usually come to business association meetings, and chains are the first to pull out when things get rough.”

Don’t try painting all corporate chains with the same brush in front of 1810 Argentinean Restaurant owners Marcello Sala and Gustavo Landgribe — both longtime employees of Gaucho Grill restaurants who, with the cooperation of that chain, took over its closed Pasadena location in December and revived it as an independent.

The restaurant was one of more than two dozen (the vast majority of them independently owned) that participated in the recent Old Pasadena Restaurant Week, in which restaurant owners donated a significant portion of their sales to help Union Station Homeless Services meet fundraising goals.

“At least we could do something,” said Sala, who — like many small business owners — pours most of his time and energy into
his work.

“Being the owner makes you the most dedicated manager. When it’s your place, you go above and beyond to please every guest that you have,” he said “You’re coming to my house, not my restaurant, because now I live here.” 

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I would love to spend my money in Pasadena. Unfortunately, the restaurants here are HORRIBLE. I moved here recently from the west side and heard many times over how great the restaurants are in Pasadena. There is LITERALLY not a single good pizza place in this town. Yes, I've tried Tarantino's, Domenico's, Avanti Cafe and even Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock. All are terrible. I've tried Gale's and was very disappointed. There are some decent expensive restaurants, but not everyday places. Pasadena needs fewer chain dumps and more nice, inexpensive places to eat.

posted by OffTheBanks on 7/06/09 @ 05:29 p.m.
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