Just off of I-5, about 12 miles south of Eugene, is Blue Valley Bistro, what owner Seth Clark calls “the living-room of Creswell.” Inside the comfortable restaurant with its dark wooden walls and scattered tables, Clark serves food and coffee to a group of regulars.
Clark recently celebrated the 11-year anniversary of the restaurant. Running a small business like Clark’s, which he describes as a “glorified coffee shop,” in a small town like Creswell comes with a fair share of challenges: smaller pool of customers and employees, increased employee expenses and, of course, most recently, the pandemic. But Clark works with Oregon RAIN, which partners with communities and businesses to provide entrepreneurial services, and they are helping Creswell navigate these obstacles.
“I’m supposed to be somebody that helps small businesses with creating an entrepreneurial ecosystem in a rural community,” Clark says.
Clark works with RAIN as an “entrepreneur in community,” meaning he can advise other business owners from a similar perspective. Clark helps other owners run accounts with wholesale distributors and with programs like 12-week business finance classes. When he first started with Blue Valley Bistro, he got involved with RAIN for support, taking advice from other business owners. He says he had access to already-written business plans for coffee shops.
Business was slow in the beginning, but then it grew. In 2010, his first year of owning the business, his sales were less than $160,000, and that was before he paid his small staff and all his expenses. He got by because he didn’t have a mortgage or kids.
Over the next five years, he established his restaurant in Creswell and saw an increase in sales, and he had his best year in 2015.
In 2016, however, things changed. The salon next door to the restaurant moved to a different location, and he immediately lost 25 percent of his business. So he decided to expand to support the business by opening a Coburg location.
Then in 2020, the pandemic brought other challenges for business owners, and especially for Chelsea Pisani, owner of the Creswell Wellness Center. When the lockdown first took effect, Pisani turned to RAIN for information about Paycheck Protection Program loans. She met with Clark and other people in the community to see how they were dealing with the situation.
“The ability to connect with other business owners and have those roundtable discussions or seek additional funding or grant resources, that’s the reason my business still exists,” Pisani says.
RAIN helped Pisani and others navigate the pandemic, but owners have faced other challenges since then. Clark says that right now he’s having trouble finding good employees to work when he needs them to. Because of the shortage, he can only open six out of seven days of the week.
His challenge is shared by many small business owners across the country. While larger businesses have addressed the problem by offering higher wages, this isn’t always an option for Clark. He says Oregon’s rising minimum wage has posed another challenge.
“Not that I don’t think my employees deserve a livable wage, I totally do,” Clark says. “But for every dollar an hour I pay them is a dollar less an hour that I can keep for other things, including my own pay.”
Additionally, as wages go up, Clark says, so do the prices of the products he needs for his business — most of which he buys locally, like beans from Cafeto Coffee Company, pastries from Palace and New Day bakeries, and milk from Umpqua Dairy. That means his prices go up as well.
“I’m getting hit twice in that regard,” he says. “As a consumer, how comfortable are you paying five dollars for a drip coffee? If you have to pay $8 for a latte, are you cool with that?”
Employees are scarce in a small town, but so are customers. Clark says he doesn’t get the same number of customers from foot traffic as a coffee shop in Eugene would. He estimated that 90 percent of his customers are locals who frequent the shop regularly.
On the one hand, he enjoys that aspect of his business.
“We forge some amazing friendships with our customers, because we see them very often,” Clark says.
But in another light, it presents what Clark sees as the biggest challenge he’s faced in mowre than a decade of owning Blue Valley Bistro — negotiating the intricacies of a small town.
“The people I’m serving live in this town,” Clark says. “If I happen to piss off the wrong person, there’s a really good chance that person and all of their friends are going to stop supporting my business.”
When Pisani runs into similar problems at the Wellness Center, she says she can ask Clark about his strategies for the same problem, and the two benefit from the relationship.
“As a business owner I’m always faced with new challenges,” Clark says. “You sometimes feel like a lone wolf, but that’s hardly the case. A lot of people have done it before. You just have to figure out how to get access to them. RAIN provides that access in a lot of different ways.”
Blue Valley Bistro was robbed on Dec. 11. To support the small local business, head down to 116 Melton Road, next to Bi-Mart, or BluevalleyBistro.com. And to check out Creswell Wellness Center, go to 24 W. Oregon Avenue or CreswellWellness.com. For more information about Oregon RAIN or to request free startup help, visit OregonRain.org.