The Town of Chapel Hill prides itself on supporting local businesses over franchises, but it’s not always easy to own and operate a small business.
Local business owners agree that they started at a disadvantage when opening their stores, but now they rely on residents to close the gap between them and their chain competitors.
Mimi Hock, a UNC alumna, opened Perennial Coffee & Pastries with her husband, Tanner Hock, in August 2017.
When opening the shop, the Hocks lacked the level of money, resources and brand recognition that franchise coffee shops usually have when debuting a new location, she said.
“It’s a struggle for independent businesses,” Hock said. “It’s difficult to compete with larger franchises that have more resources to pay the average Franklin Street rent.”
Since opening, Perennial has been able to grow their brand recognition, though not to the level of bigger chains like Starbucks, she said.
“It’s not as scary at Starbucks,” she said. “You know what you’re gonna get, and it’s gonna be quick.”
Hock said she feels the town and residents are very verbal about wanting lots of unique businesses, but they don’t always go out of their way to support them.
“It seems like the businesses that thrive are the Chipotles and the Starbucks,” she said.
Dwight Bassett, economic development officer for the Town of Chapel Hill, said that he works with businesses during the opening process.
Although the paperwork process is the same for both franchises and independent owners, Bassett said small businesses are more likely to turn to him for help.
“Small businesses need more information, they don’t have the resources, so we have to step up and play that role," he said.
Paula Gilland, acting manager of The Purple Bowl, said although the required permits for franchises and small businesses are the same, it wasn’t easy for them to complete the process.
When The Purple Bowl opened in 2017, the town didn’t have a permit “roadmap” for business owners to follow, she said. The restaurant experienced several setbacks, often due to them not knowing the right questions to ask, and had to push their opening date back three times.
“For us, it was really hard to lose two weeks,” Gilland said. “Franchises can absorb those time snags.”
After experiencing so many frustrations, Gilland shared their experience with the town to try to help streamline the process for future independent businesses. She said the town is now doing more to fix the situation.
Both Hock and Gilland praised the Downtown Partnership for their support and vision for Franklin Street.
“We need to examine as a community how we want Franklin to evolve,” Gilland said. “I think there’s energy and efforts to go in the right direction.”
Hock shared Gilland’s opinion that the community needs to decide what they want Franklin to look like in the future but expressed concern that the recent changes haven’t been moving toward what the community needs.
“I think the idea for the Carolina Square area was great,” she said. “But I think the execution missed the mark in terms of the architectural design and the spaces there.”
The Carolina Square project created a commercial area adjacent to the apartments.
Basset said having franchises mixed in allows small stores to feed off their traffic.
“In a perfect world (local businesses) would be our preference,” he said. “But they tend to thrive more when you have enough franchises in the market; it’s sort of a paradigm, figuring out that right point.”
Hock said that producing a product that feels authentic to the local environment and crafting a unique customer experience are the fun parts of being a small business owner.
“The hope is that these values resonate with enough of a certain type of coffee consumer that in turn we will see the volume of traffic we need to succeed,” she said.
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