Going local in Lincoln: doing battle with chain retailers in food and clothing

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Jose “Pepe” Fierro crafts his signature guacamole using fresh local ingredients. He serves it with sweet potato quesadilla, tortilla chips and other home-made dishes.

Story by Kay Kemmet, photos by Asha Anchan, NewsNetNebraska

Luring Lincolnites away from fast, unhealthy and convenient food choices is a challenge, but local merchants bet that home-style healthy Mexican dishes, fresh-from-the-oven breads and locally produced vegetarian wraps are savory enough to wean customers off of Big Macs.

“Why should people get out of the car when you have a drive-thru right there?” asks Jose “Pepe” Fierro, owner of Pepe’s Vegetarian Bistro. His answer: the choice is not just between convenience and slow food but between health-conscious and cheap, unhealthy food.

Lincoln’s local food scene also offers something local merchants believe is unmatched by fast-food outlets: ingredients grown locally with minimal environmental impact. The merchants figure such pluses will give them the edge to compete with convenience and national brand names backed by advertising. They also support one another, often providing free advertisement in their respective businesses and sharing tips of the trade.

The battle can be fierce. Fierro’s vegetarian Mexican restaurant in Havelock is less than a block from Amigos drive through window, and Fierro fights with convenience to keep his business afloat. He buys most of his ingredients from local producers.

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Guacamole is a winner for Pepe Fierro.

Cheek by jowl with competitors such as a 24-hour grocery store, Wise Oven Bakery also has a similar problem, and proprietor Todd Rivers said it’s like swimming upstream. Located near Pepe’s, Wise Oven is open only from noon to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays.

“One of the main things I’ve learned is that consumers are really afraid of inconvenience,” Rivers said. “We kind of have our own pattern of how we consume things in our daily routine and we are kind of stuck in that.”

In order to make their products more accessible to consumers, Wise Oven Bread is available at Open Harvest, Ideal and Leon’s Grocery, but even after four years of business, Rivers feels Wise Oven is still under the radar.

“It’s not easy to get their attention, when they are under a barrage of voices,” Rivers said.

But Rivers said their greatest strength is the uniqueness of bakery’s product. The organic, naturally leavened bread is a unique item in Lincoln, according to Rivers. The bakery “appeals to people who are looking for a bread that is out of the ordinary,” Rivers said. Consumers can get bread at their local grocery store, but they can’t get the same product Wise Oven markets.

Photo Fierro varies his menu daily.

And the same is true for Maggie’s Vegetarian Restaurant, located in the Haymarket area.

“Our business is a bit of a niche, so we don’t see much competition by national chains,” owner Maggie Pleskac said. “Our mission is to provide healthy, organic and locally grown foods to our customers. There is no fast food chain out there that can provide that.”

Pleskac wishes she got more direct competition from fast-food restaurants because that would mean they were providing more health-conscious options. When she started Maggie’s 11 years ago, no one had heard of a wrap, she said, but now KFC and McDonald’s both sell wraps. But the chains don’t offer much more than that.

Pleskac says more local businesses will be successful when people realize they should eat healthy. Maggie’s is the only organic focused restaurant in Lincoln, she said.

The other issue for Pepe’s, Maggie’s and Wise Oven Bakery is cost. Because their products are mostly organic from local providers, their food also is more expensive.

The only business in town with a similar model is Pepe’s, but the two owners don’t see each other as competition. Instead, they support one another. Fierro said he got his business idea from Maggie’s and tries to support the vegetarian wrap shop whenever possible.

When Fierro is not cooking his own organic vegetarian food, he doesn’t cook at home, but instead frequents businesses such as Meadowlark Coffee, Ivanna Cone, Maggie’s, the Cup and many more locally owned businesses.

Fierro may be the most vocal small business owner of them all providing free advertisement. He acts as a loudspeaker for his local comrades. Along with Maggie’s and many other local businesses, including Open Harvest where Fierro buys some of his ingredients, he has this relationship with Wise Oven.

“Pepe’s is in the same building as we are so they talk (Wise Oven Bakery) up, and we do the same for him,” Rivers said.

Even though Rivers has a partnership with local grocery stores, he said these examples are not common especially in the Havelock area.

“There is not a lot of coordinated energy in the Havelock district,” Rivers said.

But, according to Stella owner Sheilah Glasco, there is support. Unlike Rivers, she feels like the Downtown Lincoln Association informs her about events and resources and is key to sustaining her small clothing boutique on 14th Street in downtown Lincoln.

This organization is essential, says Glasco. While Stella advertises through UNL Campus Cash, Big Red Welcome, Groupon, KFRX and Facebook, 9 out of 10 times the owner declines advertising opportunities, because Glasco said the store doesn’t have the means.

While Open Harvest feels the heat from competitors — most large grocery stores now carry similar health foods and specialty foods store Trader Joe’s just moved into Lincoln — the local cooperative can still offer local products not offered by competitors, according to general manager Kelsi Swanson. Advertisements in the Lincoln Journal Star get the word out about Open Harvest, she adds, and support the local newspaper.

Unlike Stella and Open Harvest, Wise Oven Bakery and Maggie’s do not advertise. Pleskac has a partnership with Open Harvest and supports local initiatives such as the Ross Media Arts Center and Buy Fresh Buy Local, but Rivers relies solely on word of mouth to sustain the business. He said it isn’t working well.

“You have to be willing to wait a long time if you use that sort of approach,” Rivers said.

One recent Wednesday, Glasco said she recognized half the customers in the store. Glasco and her business partners, sister Juliane Glasco and mother Debra Glasco, opened five years ago, and return customers and word of mouth have become their best advertisements, according to Glasco.

Glasco also said there are people who choose to buy local over stores with similar prices, including Gap and American Eagle Outfitters.This is the crutch local businesses hang on. Fierro started Pepe’s with hopes to support local farmers. He buys directly from farmers or through providers such as Open Harvest, a co-op grocery store with all local products. Unlike businesses that buy from wholesale providers, Fierro knows where his food comes from.

Open Harvest operates under a similar philosophy and shoppers can see a farmer’s face enlarged on a poster as they shop for produce. For Lincolnites who choose to shop and eat this way — Open Harvest has 3,300 member shoppers — these businesses can thrive.

“We appeal to a health conscious folks with organic ingredients,” Rivers said.

The niche products that Open Harvest, Pepe’s, Wise Oven and Maggie’s offer has become their best weapons to compete with the convenient and established.

“(Wise Oven) is quite unique,” Rivers said.“There is always competition. In America, we have a plethora of choices.”

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