Local First Lexington’s (LFL) Coffee Meet-ups aren’t just for dusting off drowsiness with a strong espresso or discussing good business practices. They’re also for business deals. Just ask the owner of Lexington’s urgent care facility, who scheduled her next haircut with a local stylist she met over a cup of coffee. Natalie Cunningham, LFL Executive Director, says of the unintended benefits, “business is happening right there!”
The coffees are one key way LFL cultivates personal engagement among its 180 member businesses. Indie business owners discuss topics pertinent to running their business, such as effective hiring procedures, marketing initiatives or increasing their public involvement. Each month, LFL selects a conversation topic and asks participants to bring one success story and one challenge, which they share and compare with other business owners. “We’re engaging our members in a way they feel is valuable,” says Cunningham. “Since we’ve focused on building and activating our membership, our programming has become more dynamic because more members are involved.”
Founded in 2008, Local First Lexington began as a collaboration of independent business owners ranging from record store owners to local magazine publishers wanting to promote a culture of localism in Lexington, Kentucky. While LFL originally existed as a business alliance and public awareness marketing campaign, the organization now is striving to generate a higher level of civic engagement and activism among its business members and the community as a whole.
LFL also aims for a higher level of involvement from the community, in part encouraged through its Localist program. “Localists,” aka community members who prioritize local spending, join the program for $25 and receive a LFL t-shirt, insider information about the group’s events and member businesses and more. The Localist program is part of LFL’s greater efforts to educate the public about the benefits of doing business locally and shift LFL’s “buy local” campaign from a bumper sticker trend to something that is sustainable and ingrained throughout the community. Cunningham plans to grow this and other community-based programs in the future by developing loyalty programs for those who consistently shop local.
However, building a network of active community members and business owners has been challenging. When Cunningham became Executive Director in November 2016, she visited many businesses in the community where owners immediately recognized LFL’s bumper sticker and logo, but were unfamiliar with the organization behind them. Since then, Cunningham and LFL are educating business owners and community members about the connection between the bumper sticker, the logo and LFL’s larger mission to support Lexington’s independent businesses and local economy.
Business owners also needed to learn that LFL is focused on long-term, economic development and public education, not a marketing firm focused on immediate sales results. Members have come to understand – and appreciate – that they are supporting a long-term shift and must actively participate in order to cultivate the best results.
As part of their local outreach, LFL is launching a robust calendar of events for Independents Week — a national campaign facilitated by the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) the first week of July. Independents Week celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit and individual freedoms independently-owned business embody. The Thursday of Indie Week, LFL will be the featured nonprofit at Thursday Night Live, a weekly summer party hosted in downtown Lexington. At the event, LFL will benefit from increased public exposure and earn all tips from alcohol sales at the event. LFL also is planning to host a bar crawl for their 100 Localists at member breweries across town, a separate family-friendly event and a fundraiser. Cunningham aims to reach different demographics across the city through their events and generate both monetary support and increased LFL exposure.
LFL is working to create an environment that not only values local independent businesses, but also the entire Lexington community. Says Nick Pennington, former LFL director, “a culture of supporting local also helps create a culture of community involvement.” LFL is out to build that community-based culture of support – one cup of coffee and Localist at a time.
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