It was in the middle of the night in the dead of winter when I awoke with a vision of myself in a small engineless boat in rough seas. Suddenly I was handed an oar by a faceless person. I put every ounce of my strength and energy into each swipe through water and wave. I paddled and paddled against the current, the skies stormy and dark, heavy clouds screaming their thunder in the black night.
And somehow, because it was a dream, or maybe a nightmare, or maybe a vision of these times we’re living in, people kept appearing in my boat and each had a small paddle. And though the boat was small, there was always room for more souls onboard. Together, we rowed our way through the storms, through the rising seas, until somehow we came out on dry land and the dark clouds disappeared.
When I awoke from that dream, I knew it was significant. It was a metaphor for these turbulent economic times and I interpreted the row boat as a lifeboat of sorts that I was somehow intended to create and steer toward a safe harbor. The next day, I created the Hiller’s Hometown First program, to promote local businesses and give my shoppers extra value when they do what they need to do: buy groceries to feed their families.
As with all good and true things, we started small. I launched this program in February with 10 restaurants on board. Today, there are nearly 100 various businesses and the list continues to grow.
I realized the merit of coming together in a community of sorts, of dedicated Michigan residents who live here, work here and all want to see our hometown thrive. The only way to build anything lasting and good is to do it one brick at a time so that the foundation won’t collapse.
The Hiller’s Michigan Initiative was a slow-growing awareness campaign to highlight all of the good things about our home state. Our circular front page became a newspaper proclaiming the many Michigan companies whose products we sell. I printed company name, number of employees and location so that every single one of us would focus not only on the price or flavor of a food, but rather how many jobs each company ensures for Michigan residents.
We indicated Michigan products throughout all of our seven stores with little shelf tags featuring a smiling mitten-state icon. And we hosted Michigan food fairs, where we filled stores with as many vendors as we could pack in, all presenting tastes of their locally-created, produced and disseminated products.
Every day, another idea blossomed like the first daffodils in spring. Because the clarion call of working together in the interest of building a stable community and rebuilding, if you will, was louder than any other noise, the background din of fear was reduced to a whisper.
I knew we could focus on how many jobs are being lost, how many houses foreclosed, how many empty shopping malls we drive past.
Or we could focus on the innate knowledge that things go in cycles, that this too shall pass, that there are many steps WE can take to help it go away sooner, rather than later.
I choose to remain optimistic. I’m a bloody realist though. I’ve never lived through a time like this. I never believed our core industry could crumble.
But the key to success is recognizing the times in which we live, embracing them even if they are studded with thorns, and evolving to meet the ever-changing needs of life-as-we-know-it.
Recently, one of my favorite local restaurateurs, Jim Lark, mentioned Hiller’s in his monthly newsletter. It’s unusual, first, that an elegant and refined restaurant with such an established local history would produce a monthly newsletter directed at the community. That’s The Lark, and that’s the signature of a creative and inspiring entrepreneur.
This West Bloomfield fine-fare mainstay devoted a page and a half to the Buy Local craze sweeping through our state. He began by commending Hiller’s for our Michigan Initiative, “during all the years, through every glitch in the economy.”
He mentioned our circulars and our in-store promotions and then went on to name so many fine products – Garden Fresh Salsa, Better Made Potato Chips, Kowalski sausages, Guernsey Dairy and others.
Jim and Mary Lark had a fortuitous vision in 1981 when they opened The Lark, after successful careers – he in law and building, she in art. They had a vision and a dream and they turned those into an experience for the rest of us to savor and which operates now solely by the hard work of their daughter Adrian.
The Larks and their restaurant exemplify what Michigan has always offered – taste, elegance, unusual ambience and vision beyond existing and familiar boundaries. We are not a small-potatoes place but rather a community with a vision and a desire to surmount any challenge.
Without talent and drive, without the willingness to not only take risks, but to lead the way toward exhilarating discovery, we would not be the city that drove the world for so many years. I know, any mention of the automotives today makes each of us cringe with exasperation and sadness.
But even as I drive my American car, I recognize that the company that built it would have benefited from thinking beyond life-as-it-was-known years back. We all would.
Hindsight is perfect, of course, and I have made my share of mistakes. What I’ve learned through these tumultuous years is that it’s not too late, it’s never too late for a new start.
Walk with me toward our collective salvation. Become a part of the Hiller’s Hometown First and focus on rebuilding this place we call home. Bring your businesses and your neighbors on board so that our awareness can build and our economy can once again thrive.