The Small Businesses That Make Us

Here's why you should always visit local businesses when you travel.

When you think of the phrase small business, a certain destination likely comes to mind, and probably a nostalgic one at that. It might be a family-owned restaurant from your hometown, a neighborhood coffee shop that never fails to make you feel welcome and knows your order by heart, or a specialty shop that always has the perfect gift for any occasion. For me, it's Proud Mary's Restaurant in Dana Point, California, the harbor-front restaurant where I spent many childhood mornings enjoying stacks upon stacks of silver dollar pancakes with my family and friends. I can picture the interior exactly even though it's been years since I've visited, and although some elements may have changed over the years, I'm confident that the next time I return, I'll be flooded with memories; and I'll know exactly what to order. 

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That's what's so special about small businesses; they're rooted in sentimentality. And while many of us associate small businesses with our hometowns or our current neighborhoods, there's no shortage of reasons to visit locally-owned businesses when you travel. After all, what's better than experiencing a new city or town through the lens of a local when you visit a restaurant or shop that the surrounding community holds dear. Why should you visit local businesses when you travel? Let us count the ways:

  • You'll be able to tap into the local culture and history of a destination
  • You'll have more opportunities to interact with locals
  • You'll support the local economy
  • Your souvenirs will be unique and memorable 

These are just a few of the reasons why patronizing small businesses, including hotels, restaurants, and shops when you visit a new place will enhance your travel experience, but the actual scope is far broader, especially as we see the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on small business owners across the country. 

Credit: Emily Lundin

Small Businesses and COVID-19

The pandemic has been undoubtedly tough on small businesses across the country. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, across a sample of more than 5,800 small businesses in the U.S., 41.3 percent reported that they closed their doors temporarily due to COVID-19 between March 28 and April 4, 2020, shedding light on the uncertainty of the pandemic's early days. These losses and closures have been particularly hard on BIPOC business owners. A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that "losses for businesses owned by women, racial minorities, and immigrants were especially severe," in a sample taken from February to June 2020.

At the same time, we've also seen the power of passionate local communities rallying around their favorite small businesses, as well as these institutions finding creative, COVID-minded ways to engage with customers. We've seen new, more expansive takeout menus when dining in wasn't an option, to-go drinks for taking happy hour on-the-go, and brick-and-mortar shops opening online stores to reach their customers near and far. And as hard as the pandemic has been on small businesses, the past 18 months have also seen tremendous growth for businesses and their owners. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 4.4 million new businesses were created in the U.S in 2020, which is a 51 percent increase from the decade average.

Credit: Emily Lundin

A Pattern of Local Support and the Power of Resilience

In a way, you could say that this country is built on small businesses, whether that's a coffee shop, independent bookstore, bed & breakfast, or dive bar, and community support is in large part what keeps them going. And when you're traveling, there's nothing better than visiting these businesses to get a sense of what a destination is like from a local's perspective. As a traveler, there are plenty of ways to learn about the local culture of a destination. For example, staying at a locally-owned hotel not only supports the local economy, but you'll also have the opportunity to ask the concierge about their favorite spots in town. Similarly, when you shop with local business owners, you'll be able to learn about the area's history and popular industries, further contextualizing the cultural fabric of a destination. 

Credit: Emily Lundin

Take Pearl River Mart, for example, an institution in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood. It's a go-to spot for locals to buy snacks, home goods, and clothing made for both everyday use and special occasions. For T+L, Kayla Hui wrote about how she visited Pearl River Mart last winter to buy an authentic cheongsam in preparation for Chinese New Year. The immigrant-owned shop has become a haven for the Chinese American community in New York, offering products that remind them of home, while providing other shoppers with a window into the world of what makes Chinese immigrants feel at home in the Big Apple. It hasn't always been easy though, the shop has had to relocate several times to due gentrification in the area, forcing them to fight for their spot in their Manhattan home. Nonetheless, Pearl River Mart is the perfect example of the diversity of New York City's retail scene and the sentiment that whatever you're looking for, you can probably find it here.

"You have people come in, they have a chance to interact with you, to see you as people. And if they bring something home, it stays in their home and it's something they remember for decades." - Joanne Kwong, President of Pearl River Mart
Credit: Emily Lundin and Sarah Maiden

In fact, Pearl River Mart's president Joanne Kwong commented on the benefit of bringing its multicultural offerings to the wide audience of New York City residents and visitors. "You have people come in, they have a chance to interact with you, to see you as people," she said. "And if they bring something home, it stays in their home and it's something they remember for decades." 

Harriett's Bookshop in Philadelphia, PA, is another spot that is beloved by locals and first-time visitors alike. Located in the city's Fishtown neighborhood, Harriett's celebrates women authors, artists, and activists. The store gets its name from abolitionist Harriett Tubman, and founder Jeannine A. Cook says that customers have called it a "literary sanctuary." In fact, Cook's presence is what keeps people coming back, in turn building a loyal fanbase.

Credit: Emily Lundin

"You constantly see Jeannine out in Philadelphia as an activist, handing out free books, [and] organizing events," Eric Smith, an author, literary agent, and fan of Harriett's said. "Books can be a catalyst for change, and well, so can bookstores. Jeannine is proof of that."

As far as lodging goes, staying in a locally owned hotel offers an invaluable experience if you're looking to understand a destination from the point of view of someone who actually lives there. Pattea Torrence opened up The Bee's Knees Fruit Farm and Farm Stay in San Luis Obispo in 2018 after running a handful of other successful businesses in the area, so she's no stranger to sharing her passion for the natural beauty of the Central Coast. "It's all so encompassing here, there is so much beauty everywhere," she said of the farm. Torrence's passion for her farm stay is clear to see from her willingness to share it with others, making it a must-stop on a trip to San Luis Obispo and something for community members to be proud of. 

"From handling day to day operations, to reservations, to caring for the fruit orchard to the veggie garden and all the other things that come along in between, focus comes to mind; extreme focus is an absolute necessity" - Pattea Torrence, The Bee's Knees Fruit Farm and Farm Stay
Credit: Emily Lundin and Sarah Maiden

Small Businesses and the Future of Travel 

As we look ahead to a new era of travel within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a variety of new factors to consider. Beyond finding a protective vaccination cardholder, keeping a comfortable face mask on hand, and making sure you book travel in a place that is open to visitors, many of us are re-evaluating what we want to get out of our travel experiences.

If your travel priorities have shifted since the pandemic began, you might want to consider making it a point to visit small businesses during your upcoming travels. Whether it's a locally-owned restaurant that sources ingredients from nearby farms or a shop that spotlights artisans who live in the area, visiting these types of small businesses is a surefire way to enhance your trip, and will give you the ability to experience a destination from an entirely new perspective. It is these small businesses, after all, that make us who we are, and that goes for both the ones in our hometowns and favorite vacation destinations.

Credit: Emily Lundin

Madeline Diamond is a Brooklyn-based e-commerce writer at Travel + Leisure, and she's constantly fighting the impulse to overpack for her next trip. You can follow her on Twitter @madgdiamond and Instagram @madelinediamond.