Paying for a coffee or sandwich with plastic at Freedom Coffee Co. in downtown Stockton is a slightly different experience than at other stores.
Owner Darrell Griffin will slide your credit or debit card through a small plastic scanner connected to a smartphone. Want a receipt? Check your email.
Griffin has switched from using traditional credit card scanners to Square, a credit card payment system that uses an iPhone, Android or iPad. Accepting credit cards is less expensive through Square, Griffin said, to the tune of $3,500 a year. For an independent coffee shop competing with a big green giant a quarter-mile away, every dollar counts.
"Switching over to (Square) saves me about $250 a month," Griffin said, later adding "and I'd go through a roll of receipt paper every other day ... so I save another $40 a month."
Whether it's a change in technology or a flurry of innovative ideas, local mom-and-pop shops in San Joaquin County are hopeful 2013 is a year where they can thrive. Some say their path to success is through barter. Others say they risk small to nonexistent profit margins just to get work and keep their heads above water.
"In a general sense I would say, at least, we are starting to have a few clients talking about some growth opportunities instead of just talking about survival issues," said Nate McBride, director of the San Joaquin Delta College Small Business Development Center.
"Some businesses have been hit harder than others, so you still have some doing what they can to cut costs. For others, the revenue declines seem to have stopped," McBride added.
One business that is trying to innovate its way out of the doldrums of the recession is Whirlow's Tossed and Grilled.
Owner Lisa Whirlow said she has done everything she can think of to drive business. She's had live music, karaoke nights and art events that bleed out from her restaurant onto the Miracle Mile.
"We've started an art cafe with art going up on the wall. We'll serve coffee, herbal tea ... (and have) a wine bar and free Wi-Fi," Whirlow said. "I'm getting involved with so many nonprofits and neighborhood watches to make our city safer. To say we are doing everything we can is beyond true. I feel like the more I give, the more I'll get back."
Whirlow said despite her efforts, her business is under some duress because of accumulated debt. Her answer is to just keep moving forward with new ideas.
This month, Whirlow started a First Wednesday beer night and comedy night. For $25, patrons can stop in for beer tasting and appetizers from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month. At 7:30 p.m., comedians will take the floor to entertain.
"Maybe I should have stayed semi-retired, but I really do think I'm going to see the other side of the tunnel," she said. "I really feel good about 2013."
Outside of the food service industry, small businesses are doing what they can to stay afloat.
The construction and contracting industries have also struggled. The only way to make ends meet for small businesses in those areas has been to bid low.
"You want higher volume with lower profit margins," said Jose Gutierrez of GG&G Cabinets, Stockton. "The one thing we invested in was online advertising. Getting our name on top of Internet searches has brought in a lot of calls."
Other service-based industries have also had to get creative.
John Smartt, owner of New School Aikido, Stockton, has taken to bartering instead of demanding contracts.
"We used to try and get people to sign a year contract. We've gotten rid of that altogether. Now, if people can't afford a lesson, we'll take in-kind services." he said. "There's always clean-up to do around here. I've had one customer who is good at repairs fix the roof."
Smartt said he's also not refusing any customers, even if they can't pay. He has run some free clinics at Victory Park near his studio, and will take walk-ins on their word that they will start paying when they can. One customer who had been receiving free services came in after a payday and made a large back payment.
"I'm barely making it. But, in a way, this is a lot more fun," Smartt said. "I'm connecting more to the community."
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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