New York Times, November 15, 2012
Carlene O’Garro’s cake business was barely a month old when she arrived at the Samuel Adams brewery in South Boston recently to meet with business counselors, but she brought with her an agenda that hinted at outsize ambitions. Ms. O’Garro bakes nondairy cheesecakes that she was selling at a handful of grocery stores, including two Whole Foods outlets, in the Boston area. She hoped to learn how to expand the business and distribute the cakes nationally. “I know Jim is all over the place,” she said, “and I want to be like that.”
Jim is Jim Koch, the founder of the Boston Beer Company and one of 36 advisers who spent an evening last August “speed coaching” fledgling food, beverage and hospitality businesses. In 20-minute sessions, some 95 bakers, brewers and restaurant owners peppered the coaches — Boston Beer employees and consultants who included lawyers, accountants and small-business counselors — with questions about both basic day-to-day issues and more strategic concerns.
Speed coaching is one element of “Brewing the American Dream,” a program Boston Beer established with a microlender, Accion, to help small businesses. Mr. Koch, who started brewing Samuel Adams Boston Lager at his house in 1984, remains central to these efforts even as he presides over a company with a market capitalization of $1.4 billion and annual revenue of more than $500 million. He said he had not forgotten his early days, when he struggled to find capital, get his beer into distribution networks and expand.
That has been a particular concern for chains like Wal-Mart and Starbucks, given their longstanding reputations for forcing local competitors to close. Helping small businesses, Mr. Hessekiel said, “helps them deal with an old issue.”
But some critics of the big chains dismiss their chivalry as mostly cosmetic.
“The public relations value of being associated with small business is quite high,” said Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit based in Minneapolis and Washington that promotes strong local economies. “You’ve got companies that have very aggressive expansion strategies — they’re really squeezing out opportunities for small businesses. These programs do very little compared to the larger shifts in market share that these companies are driving. They’re drops in the bucket.”