Competition, northern Michigan-style: Healthy, friendly appears to be name of the game

TRAVERSE CITY – When a chain restaurant that serves breakfast opened up down the road from Don's Drive-In about 15 years ago, the popular diner saw its morning business take a nose dive.

"It killed our breakfast. Our breakfast went right down the tubes," said Dan Reed, general manager of Don's Drive-In.

But when two longtime former Don's Drive-In employees ventured off on their own this spring to start a diner across town, the new competition had much less of an impact, Reed says.

"Our numbers have shown that Sparky's is not affecting us at all – our July numbers were fantastic," he said, referring to the new diner on South Airport Road that's owned by Paul Sparks and Brent Bartz.

Competition isn't as stiff because the two businesses simply pull from different areas of the city, Reed said.

"Those guys are probably taking up more of the mall side of town and we're still pulling the casino crowd," Reed says.

Sparks, who worked at Don's for 16 years, would like to believe his diner is attractive to the same folks who frequent Don's Drive-In because, unlike Don's, it's located in town. And, if he does say so himself, there's a slightly improved approach to the diner experience: "We do a lot of things that Don's does, but we do them a little bit fancier and better."

Competition is part of doing business, of course, but how it plays out can vary depending upon a number of factors, including the type of industry you're in, just how specialized your product or service is and your location. According to some area business experts, Traverse City has its own unique kind of competition.

While Traverse City has a fair number of chain and "big-box" businesses, it's home to a considerable number of locally-owned, independent operations which create "a more intimate" kind of competition than found in other areas of the state, says Mary Rogers, founder of Marigold, a company that focuses on women business executives.

"It's more personal in the north," said Rogers, who 10 years ago moved to Traverse City from Detroit, where she was active in the business community. "It's not corporation 'X' against corporation 'Y.' It's Joe versus Bill and they do bump into each other. They may go to church together, they have kids on the same soccer team."

In many cases, this "closeness" works out well for business owners who truly appreciate one another because they know who is behind a business and all that he or she does for the community. There's a sense of helping each other out for the greater good of the business community, Rogers said.

One such example of this business camaraderie: similar types of businesses referring customers to one another. Second-hand shops in the area are known for this; should customers not find what they're seeking, they may be told to check out another shop nearby or across town.

Some restaurants also work hand-in-hand. At downtown's Union Street Station, for example, diners can still order french fries even though they're not on the menu. The order will simply be placed with Nick McAllister and his staff at House of Doggs across the street. McAllister's complete menu is actually available at the bar; Union Street Station talked to McAllister about doing this after hearing from their customers that they'd be interested in a larger food menu than what was available, McAllister said.

"For them, it's a way to get added food in there," said McAllister, who figures he sells $60-$70 worth of food across the street. "It's an all-around good thing for everybody."

"A lot of people want to live in northern Michigan and that fuels the competition," said Marti Johnson, 9&10 News media consultant, who has more than 20 years of sales experience in media as well as pharmaceuticals. Sales reps are vying for the same advertising dollars, she said. "They want a piece of the automotive and furniture advertising dollars – they've got a large advertising budget."

Lori Puckett, production and promotions manager at WGTU ABC 29&8, said television sales is competitive in a "healthy and friendly" kind of way.

"One account executive from one media outlet will walk into a client's office and meet with them to try to serve their advertising needs while another is sitting in the lobby waiting to tout their services," Puckett said. "A lot of reps will often pass each other coming and going from clients' offices."

"Each station can give clients different options and those who work in media all know that," she said. "Between the people who work in the market, the competition tends to be friendly as some of them have worked at previous stations that are now their competition. People in media tend to move around a bit, plus this is still considered a 'small' market where everyone knows everyone else."

"You do have to keep it friendly and positive," agreed Johnson, who likes to pass along a lead to someone in, say, direct mail advertising or radio if the potential customer wasn't a great fit for television advertising. "I like to pay it forward," she said.

Given the intimacy of northern Michigan's business landscape, it behooves everyone to really be kind to one another, Rogers said. The ramifications of doing anything otherwise can be quite painful, she said.

"When you as a business person decide to bad talk your competition, it can cut you off at the knees because everyone has close ties to everybody else," she said. "It can really slap you back in the face."

Most business owners who've been in the area for any length of time understand the importance of showing respect toward competitors, Rogers said.

"There's a greater sense of decorum among people who have lived here longer. They understand the negative ramifications of speaking ill will of competition."

Business owner Cindy Lyskawa likes to focus on the positive rather than negative – despite her somewhat difficult transition into owning a business in the same category as the one she left. Lyskawa opened her own copy shop – Copy Queenz on Fourteenth Street – after nearly two decades working for another local copy shop.

"For years I'd been thinking I wanted to own my own business," said Lyskawa, who with help from Gayle Gallagher, who also formerly worked at The Copy Shop, operates Copy Queenz.

Lyskawa decided to leave her manager position with The Copy Shop and open her own business in the same building her former employer had opted to vacate in favor of a new location.

"Our customers did not want us to leave," she said of the regulars she got to know through the years at the Copy Shop's Fourteenth Street location. "We came back basically because of our customers, who we love. We're giving the customers what they wanted."

At least one business leader in the community is hoping the area eventually embraces a different mindset about competition. Instead of looking only at the store or restaurant across town as the competitor, businesses should consider that customers may be looking entirely elsewhere, including other cities in other states to shop and do business, said Tom Menzel, executive director of the National Cherry Festival.

Menzel, a native of the area who has extensive business consulting experience, would like to see the region better branded as a destination, using the Traverse City Film Festival, Horse Shows by the Bay, the Cherry Festival and the Epicurean Classic as anchors for that branding message.

"That (branding) enhances the value of your market," Menzel said. "There's no reason why Traverse City couldn't be a Jackson Hole or Monterrey or a Carmel."

Taking this route, which would require government leadership, would give way to "everyone in the area benefiting," Menzel said.

"If they were to think outside of the proverbial box, they would make that pie a lot bigger and it would make (business) a lot better." BN