To what extent are these CFEs replicable worldwide? A skeptic could look at our case studies and conclude that every success depended on special factors: the particulars of a local market, an exceptional business plan, extraordinary timing. Our view is that any reasonably competent entrepreneur, small business planner, or even a business student can take the insights from this study (and others like it), and put together a compelling CFE business plan that’s right for his or her given community. The limiting factor is not the plan, but the entrepreneur. The critical importance of a visionary person or two comes through in each our CFE stories.
As Judy Wicks discovered in her 30 years of running the White Dog Café, it was very hard to replace herself. She couldn’t find the right manager of her restaurant, couldn’t see how she could recruit the right person from her staff, and couldn’t locate the right buyer. She ultimately did find a new owner she could live with, but the larger point remains. CFE entrepreneurs are special people, with their own exacting sense of what works and what doesn’t, with their own sensibility about what kind of business is just right for their community. They are uniquely able to channel the food needs of their neighbors into a strikingly original and profitable business model.
But it’s possible to read too much into personalities as well. Recall that our case studies were chosen in part because they contained great individual stories.
We can also say that all of our CFE proprietors understood their strengths, drew from the strategies we outlined to become competitive, and creatively overcame the obstacles common to small businesses. Put another way, there is no inherent reason small-scale CFEs cannot compete—and also no inherent reason they will succeed either. Again, in the United States, where consolidation in agriculture and the food industry have run riot, there are plenty of examples of local success across every type of food business.
It’s almost as if two different yet parallel economies have emerged. There’s a corporate food economy that drives to maximize shareholder returns, minimize costs, emphasizes expansion and consolidation, and pitches to mass markets. And then there are thousands of community food economies that seem content with a modestly positive rate of return, that emphasize quality over quantity, that are prepared to incur more labor and environmental protection costs in the name of community relationships, and that pitch their goods and services to the specific needs of the surrounding community. Both models are viable. And both are replicable.