Saturday, March 5, 2011

Who's afraid of the big, bad franchise?

So my roommate just got a job (her third job, actually, meaning she is currently working three jobs) at the local Great Harvest Bread. This is great news for me.

I don't know if you've ever had Great Harvest Bread. If you haven't, go to the store locator, find one, and try it. You don't need to buy; every GH store gives free full-slice samples. It is, hands down, the best bread I've ever had. And I've had some bread. My mother in law bakes bread at home. I've had Dave's Killer Bread. Nothing comes close.

But, one might object, what about the local baker? Isn't it important to support local business? (I'm from Oregon, and am generally of the hippy persuasion, so I hear this a lot.)

The answer I ultimately have to give is no. I think that, right now, it's good to buy local ingredients and items when possible. However, once we finally get off our asses (so to speak) and master the use of alternative energies and fuels, driving products across the country in an electric truck that is charged with solar energies will have little effect on the environment. And I tend to think that even now the benefits we get from global trade outweigh the negatives of sourcing from far away places (though my good friend over at Green Vegan Living might disagree).

However, even buying at Wal-mart, you're still supporting your community. Your neighbors work there. While that shirt you're buying was almost certainly made in China, and obtained using ethically questionable bully distribution tactics, the person bagging your groceries lives in your community, and buys stuff in your community using their wages.

For the record, I don't shop at Wal-Mart, because their tactics as a business do not agree with my being a good person. But many people seem to object to the very corporate idea, the idea that a single person (or group, or bunch of shareholders) own stores all across the country, so when you buy from a franchise or chain, no matter where, you're ultimately sending your dollar to New York or LA or wherever the parent company is based.

This is marginally true. A portion of your dollar does go somewhere else. It pays for a customer service call center in North Carolina, or it pays middle managers at the corporate headquarters, or it goes into the pockets of the 12 year old who made that shirt. Sure, a few pennies goes to the guy at the top, the guy we all hate (and I hate because I think for-profit companies should follow non-profit compensation practices, but that's another blog entry), but substantively your money goes to the people who produce your goods and run the company that provides them. I don't see what's so bad about that, even if they don't live in a 20 mile radius of your person.

But don't kid yourself. The mom and pop stores you support are the same way, they just don't have the power to be truly evil about it. They negotiate prices from distributors just like Wal-mart, they just don't have the power to put those distributors out of business by walking away. They cheap out on labor. And to boot, they are often very poorly managed, because while Wal-Mart has the resources for a competent HR department, middle managers, and training seminars for executives, mom and pop probably don't even Google search good management practices. I'm not saying all small businesses are terrible; there are definitely ones who are not interested in growth or expansion, who pay employees well and are well-managed. It's just that in my experience, they are in the minority.

But, fear not, you silly hippies. Remember Great Harvest Bread? They are a national chain with a strong philosophy of community. Franchisers have a ton of freedom to run their own business, and many Great Harvest stores source everything except their wheat (which comes from a dedicated farm in Montana) locally and/or organically. It's a great hybridization of the corporate franchise and the entrepreneurial spirit. It's a chain that I don't think anyone needs to feel bad about supporting.

I think big business has some serious shortcomings to overcome. But the solution is not to blindly support local business as though they're inherently better. Chances are, they buy their shit from China, too. After all, they've got a business to run.


  1. Because bread is relatively easy to make and relatively difficult to ship (while maintaining freshness) the bread industry is one of the most dispersed industries in America. Even large brands like "Sara Lee" or Bimbo ultimately contract from "local" bakeries. Most bread does not travel very far to reach the store you bought it in.
    Aside from my bread digression you make a good point.

  2. Great post! I loved how you were able to use attention-getting and point-sealing phrases without making it too cutesy.

    Having worked for Walmart and having been refused breaks even after all the lawsuits for refusing breaks to employees, and having experienced pretty bad management aside from that, I can remind you from personal experience that even if corporate HR has the right idea, local managers are often completely clueless. Maybe they slept through training.

  3. Ariel: I agree. Having spent a good year or so now studying the most basic of good management practices, it's remarkable how poorly most people in management positions do it. The place I previously worked provided some management training, and it was by far the best I'd seen in that industry (from personal experience, not from impersonal study), and it was woefully inadequate for the actual challenges of managing a business and managing people. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I feel confident that there are good resources for managers out there, they just need a little intellectual curiously about their job!

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