Photo by Caroline Cohen

It seems many towns are slowly turning back the clocks to recapture the days when everyone knew their neighbors, when block parties and pot luck dinners were the norm and, most importantly, when local stores were locally owned. Perhaps it’s society’s backlash to the proliferation of social media, online shopping and big-box retailing.

West Orange, NJ – where I have called home for 20 years and where my wife has spent her entire life – is one of these towns seeing a resurgence in community spirit. In the 19th century, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent bulb in West Orange. In the 20th century, West Orange was home to Carole King when she wrote her iconic song, “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” which the Monkees famously recorded and which makes reference to the community as “status symbol land.” From the song’s heyday in 1967 to now, West Orange has managed to retain a sense of its old fashioned Main Street, while also sprouting chain stores and shopping centers. But, I can tell you, this is a place where local ownership is making a comeback.

As a local business owner who has kept a keen eye on the changes in my hometown, I’ve discovered lessons that can impact all franchisees—especially those who are moving into new communities. Like most of you, I’m under the impression that everyone loves Dunkin’ Donuts and there is no one who wouldn’t benefit from the convenience of having one right in town. But, after watching what occurred recently when a national convenience store chain tried moving here, I realized we should never assume a community will automatically roll out the red carpet for any business—locally-owned or not.

In the case of the convenience store chain, while the parent company quietly identified two locations and the architects drew up plans for the planning and zoning boards, a negative undercurrent – fed by social media and highlighted in community meetings – created a divisiveness that, ultimately, cost the company millions of dollars to curb. Yes, they got their locations approved but, even after two years, they haven’t broken ground.

It’s not always easy to get that red carpet rolled out. One thing I learned watching the convenience store saga is that it’s better to involve the townspeople and its leaders at the very beginning of the permitting and building process, so they understand your vision for the business and they feel invested in your success.

So, when the opportunity arose to purchase a vacant restaurant location and move my existing shop to a spot that could accommodate a drive-thru, my wife and I thought long and hard about how to succeed where the convenience story guys failed. We did not have the money – or the stomach – to fight it out with town leaders and neighbors over building a new Dunkin’ Donuts we knew would be a bigger draw than our current West Orange location.

So, we decided to take the upfront approach. I invited the Mayor to join me for coffee and discuss the opportunity. I asked him if our concept could fit with the Township Council’s long term plan and I listened to his counsel; I did not pretend to have all the answers. He gave me great insight and offered to introduce me to key influencers and decision makers in town. I met with the Chamber of Commerce, the president of the PTA and civic leaders. I also asked the opinions of my customers who live in the community.

Response was mixed. Many recognized the benefit of replacing a boarded-up eyesore with a bright, new Dunkin’ Donuts; others were concerned the 24-hour drive-thru would impact traffic and possibly increase crime. They were also concerned that Dunkin’ Donuts was a big, national company—not a locally-owned business. I was able to explain how franchises were locally-owned businesses and I looked at how to address their concerns before we began putting plans on paper.

We explained that the building would not be a tear-down and by repurposing it we could incorporate environmentally-friendly elements like LED lighting, energy efficient HVAC units, and reusable materials. We informed the PTA we would create a seating section that would allow high school music students to hold jazz or acoustic nights. And, we discussed our internship program with the high school principal so he understood students could gain real-world retail or culinary experience at our Dunkin’ Donuts shop.

We sought input from the fire department, town planning board and town engineer and we received several suggestions that would improve operations and the customer experience. What’s more, these suggestions were cost-neutral. We even asked for suggestions on our signage so our final plan could be in synch with what the town thought could look best.

The final hearing and presentation to the town will take place while this magazine article is being published and we are confident we will receive approval, not just because we have a good track record as business owners in the community but, more importantly, because we actively sought the opinions of the leaders and citizens who make up this community.

I’ve learned over the years that people love to talk and they appreciate someone who is willing to listen. A franchisee who offers the opportunity to engage in a discussion about how their business will impact the community – and offers to provide the coffee to fuel the conversation – has a better chance at seeing that red carpet rolled out.