Earlier in the month, Kojo Nnamdi spent an hour discussing the challenges that small businesses have in the District when trying to find affordable retail space. Small businesses have a tough time, even when they can afford to rent space, because landlords are often more interested in leasing to “credit” tenants who they believe are less likely to go delinquent on the lease.
One of the callers into the show brought up the small business culture in Portland, Ore. This is something I intended to blog last winter, after I spent four days in the city.
People in Portland absolutely love small businesses. It’s like there’s something in the air or the water there. They will go out of their way to patronize a small business in lieu of a chain. I’m not sure there’s another city where Powell’s bookstores could not just survive but thrive, for example.
I went to one great little coffee shop in downtown Portland (it was not Stumptown, but it was a few blocks away). The owner told me that he is one of 32 coffee roasters in Portland. Not just a coffee shop, but a roaster. A bar owner I met was basically serving glorified homebrew from a hole in the wall pub, and he explained that Portland has dozens and dozens of microbreweries scattered across the city.
This was incredible to me. By my count, the District has two coffee roasters (plus another two or three in the suburbs); and three microbreweries (and a handful more in the suburbs), all three of which opened in the past two years.
There are a lot of reasons why D.C. isn’t Portland, or why pretty much every city isn’t Portland, for that matter. There are local laws and regulations, local economies, etc. But one key consideration is simply cultural. In D.C., people get excited about the prospect of a new Dunkin Donuts at least as much as a new local donut shop. I got myself into a whole lot of trouble when I asked why everyone was getting so excited about WaWa last year.
Arguably this is the result of the “mixing pot” nature of D.C. People come to D.C. from all over the place. So people from the Northeast feel safe at Dunkin Donuts. People from everywhere else feel safe at Starbucks. People like eating at Chipotle because they remember eating at Chipotle back home. I was the same way for a while. I bought foods and drinks that reminded me of back home. I’ve since stopped buying them quite so frequently.
Small business culture isn’t nonexistent in D.C. It’s pretty good, actually. But the culture in Portland is just out-of-control good. If I could say there’s a single thing about Portland that I wish I could have brought back with me, that’s what it would be.
Rob Pitingolo blogs at Extraordinary Observations. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.