Tri-Village News

French Loaf first beneficiary of chamber 'makeover'

City's chamber of commerce channels reality shows to tackle bakery's issues

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It sounds like something out of a Frank Capra movie -- or perhaps a reality TV show called Extreme Makeover: Business Edition.

The Grandview Area Chamber of Commerce is calling it Chamber Challenge. That's the name of its pilot program designed to provide assistance to struggling local businesses.

The French Loaf bakery, located on West Fifth Avenue near Grandview Heights, will be the first beneficiary.

"We were looking for ways to promote small businesses and brainstorming, and this idea was suggested by Scott Preston, one of our former board members," said Michelle Wilson, the chamber's executive director.

The inspiration for his idea came from reality TV shows such as Restaurant Impossible and Bar Rescue, Preston said.

"On those shows, you have one expert who comes in and helps the restaurant or bar that's in trouble," he said. "I thought, well, Grandview has a whole lot of people and experts who can come together and pool their knowledge to help one of our businesses."

Preston, owner of Preston Research and CodeGin, is serving as facilitator and leader of the Chamber Challenge project.

"The timing for this project is perfect for us, because with Destination Grandview (the city's convention and visitors bureau) up and running, the chamber is looking to focus again on our core mission, which is to promote and assist area businesses," Wilson said.

The "challenge" the chamber had in mind is for local companies and businesspeople to volunteer to provide their areas of expertise to help a business, she said.

"It's not a request to help drum up business or provide financial assistance," Wilson said.

Instead, the participants can provide services the target business may not have the resources or time to accomplish themselves, she said.

French Loaf owner Marijon Lococo said she was thrilled when Wilson contacted her and asked if her business would be willing to be the guinea pig for the Chamber Challenge program.

"I said, 'Are you kidding? Where do I sign up?' " Lococo said. "I'm very grateful for the support the chamber and its members are providing. It's been phenomenal. It's more than a person could ever wish for."

"In the Grandview community and chamber, we kind of help our own," Preston said. "This is a perfect example of this. Everyone is volunteering their time, and we're so grateful for the response we've received."

"The past year and a half has been a challenge for us," Lococo said.

She became co-owner of the bakery about two years ago after her former partner invited her to participate. She became the sole owner after he dropped out of the operation unexpectedly, she said.

"It's been a lot to handle," she said.

Before Lococo became co-owner, the French Loaf had lost about half its space to the Walgreens store that opened next door.

"We used to have a space to do our baking in and a retail space, but we've had to combine both in the space we have left," Lococo said. "Somehow we keep it all going, but it's a struggle."

Improvements are needed to the bakery's interior space "to bring us into the 21st century," she said.

Wilson said she believes the Walgreens store did more than take some of the French Loaf's space.

"The bakery's kind of hidden away by Walgreens and people don't know it's there unless they've been longtime customers," she said.

"The French Loaf's been a mainstay of the Grandview community for more than 30 years and we want to keep it that way," Lococo said. "We have customers who used to come in here as children and now they bring their own children in."

The businesses that have stepped forward to assist the French Loaf are:

* Shelby Management, which will help with marketing and business branding.

* Adept Marketing, which will design a new website for the French Loaf.

* 2 Shea Creative, which will create a new logo for the bakery.

* Vital Companies, which will chronicle the entire project via video and photos.

* Holbrook & Manter CPAs, which will provide accounting services.

* Lillian Zarzar, director of eLearning with Synergy National Networking, who will offer business coaching and online eLearning programs.

* Preston, of Preston Research, who will serve as facilitator and leader of the project.

The project also will include an architectural firm that will help to remodel the interior of the French Loaf and improve the efficiency of its operations, Wilson said.

The chamber also has arranged for mystery shoppers to visit the French Loaf and provide their input on the service they received, she said.

"We will be collecting that data and presenting it to the French Loaf," she said.

All the work will be conducted over the next four months, with a final "reveal" tentatively scheduled for a weekend in July, Wilson said.

"It will be like what they do on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," she said.

"We'll be asked to vacate the premises on Friday and we'll come back on Sunday when they make the big reveal," Lococo said. "I can't wait to see what they come up with."

In addition to doing some remodeling work to the French Loaf, the businesses each will offer Lococo recommendations in their area of expertise, from how she runs the business to how she spends her money, Preston said.

"We'll be trying to figure out what are the reasons her business has not been able to be all she hopes it to be and what she can do to get it there," he said.

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