As Rick Paul, owner of Rick’s White Light Diner in downtown Frankfort, prepared for the day ahead, he expected fewer than half of the customers to walk through the door to be locals.
And he'd consider himself lucky to get that.
“I’m not complaining about my business, but that’s because we get lots of tourists and we have a very loyal local following,” Paul told The State Journal. “But we have several small businesses in Frankfort struggling because of a lack of local support.”
Paul has run the White Light Diner as a staple eatery in downtown Frankfort since 1991, serving Cajun cuisine cooked by a small staff of local chefs, including himself. While it doesn’t appear local support has increased or declined for him over the years, it's apparent to him that only a fraction of the 25,000-plus residents of Frankfort are keeping their dollars local.
“You hear all the time people say buy local and shop local,” Paul said. “I just have to wonder why we can’t get 10 to 15 locals in here for breakfast or lunch … . We need more locals. We shop local and we encourage others to.”
A few blocks away on Broadway Street, Rachael Peake has been the proprietor of Capital Cellars since starting the wine and spirits business from scratch in 2006. She estimates that 40-50% of her daytime customers are tourists. And while the nighttime crowd tilts dramatically toward locals, that customer base has been on the decline.
“We heavily depend on tourists and hope it keeps growing,” Peake said. “We have seen a slight drop-off of local business, but we’ve picked it up some with the growth of tourism.”
In Frankfort’s economy of locally owned businesses, there is a common concern among merchants: A local base of support is lacking.
That became abundantly clear this week when Danny Bryant, owner of Bryant’s Pic-Pac grocery store in South Frankfort, announced he would be closing shop soon, ending the store's more than six decades of service to downtown neighborhoods.
“The customer base just isn't there,” Bryant told The State Journal of the decision.
It's a concern reiterated in variety of ways among local businesses. According to the almost 700 businesses to participate in surveys collected over the years by the Frankfort Area Chamber of Commerce, locals don’t shop local.
“The main problem we have is getting locals into businesses,” said Carmen Inman, president and CEO of the Chamber. “We get visitors to shop local, but getting locals to shop local has been an issue.”
Inman was in the process of crafting this year’s list of survey questions Thursday in order to determine where the Chamber should focus its efforts. She told The State Journal that while the survey is done annually, the closing of a locally owned business that has been in place since 1953 has heightened the importance of this year’s feedback.
“I think when you hear of a local staple going out of business, you start having those conversations about what we could have done differently,” Inman said. “We don't want our Pic-Pacs leaving our community. We have to do everything we can to keep them here.”
The topic arose at this week's Frankfort City Commission meeting, with commissioners broaching the idea of how to encourage a downtown replacement for Pic-Pac. One described the grocer as a “lifeline” to the low-income, fixed-income, elderly and disabled residents of the area.
Commissioners expressed a desire for business-development agencies in the community to recruit a replacement, provide incentive information to whomever that may be and gather institutional knowledge so the Pic-Pac successor has an understanding of the community’s needs when entering the market.
With input from businesses on the Chamber surveys, Inman said, city leadership can also get an idea of where funds and resources can be allocated to aid small businesses.
“We want people to realize local business is unique business,” Inman said. “The shopping experience is unique, and that is what we’re trying to show.”
At Capital Cellars, Peake said events that bring people downtown are key.
“Those special events like Bourbon on the Banks or the Summer Concert Series help a lot,” she said. “Those are targeted toward local. And that’s what we need.”
Some aspects of business — such as competition with national chains and internet retailers — are inevitable in the current economy. In the past, though, the top concerns expressed by Frankfort businesses have been properly educating a workforce, advocating for business needs and encouraging locals to support local small business, according to Chamber survey results.
Despite the difficulties they face, Inman said, Frankfort has seen small businesses flourish downtown this year amid excitement over a new state office building and prospects of developing the Capital Plaza land formerly occupied by the Frankfort Convention Center. However, private and public partnerships and support are necessary to build a base upon which those businesses can thrive, she said.
“We have to build a small business base,” Inman said.
The Chamber’s 2019 survey of business leaders will go out over the next couple of weeks. Inman hopes to have the results compiled by December.
The need for support from local consumers likely will rate high again on the list.
“I think it would make a tremendous impact if more people bought local,” Peake said. “If you shop at an independent, local business, the money stays in the community and with families in the community and pays for schools and other public services. Supporting big corporations that aren’t even based in Kentucky does us no good.”