Mobbing Stores in Broad Daylight

“Cash mobs” recognize and support local businesses in one fell swoop

By Hannah Miller

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When Joe Cafaro started Joe's Italian Kitchen in Boone a dozen years ago, he brought in not only family recipes dating back 100 years to Calabria, Italy, he also brought in his retired father, Tony, to help out.

"He was making meat balls the day he died" (in 2010), Cafaro says.

And the Kitchen, which started out to be a delicatessen with paper plates, has added fine dining and become a place where business groups meet. At first, Cafaro recalls, "We had no room for a dishwasher," thus the paper plates.

He's fiercely proud of his and the restaurant's place in the community. They support youth athletics – softball, baseball, T-ball, "whatever," Cafaro says, and also Appalachian State University's theater and the local Red Cross. They're a corporate sponsor of Watauga County's famed 100-mile bicycle race, "Blood, Sweat and Gears," which draws more than 1,000 participants and benefits several local charities.

"My money goes back into the community," says Cafaro.

Local health food

Across Boone Heights Drive from Joe's sits Bare Essentials Natural Market. Like Joe's, it's local down to its roots, but in this case the roots are spinach, kale, lettuce and the like.

Blue Ridge EMC members Ben Henderson, a former health care professional, and Mary Underwood had been married two years when they decided in 1988 to buy the store and specialize in items dear to their hearts but practically unheard-of in Boone. They would specialize in local, organic produce and natural food supplements and remedies. At the time, Henderson recalls, "There was no local produce. Back then, the only agriculture was tobacco and cabbage."

Now, in addition to packaged organic supplements and remedies, the store carries local farm products ranging from eggs to lettuce and even including kale chips, a locally-produced snack made from dehydrated kale. "It's hard to keep those on the shelves," says produce manager Susan Hoke.

Payback time

When Boone's recently formed "cash mob" chose Nov. 3 as the day to shower cash and support on locally-owned businesses, Joe's and Bare Essentials got the nod. Like the sometimes-infamous flash mobs, cash mobs coalesce via Twitter and Facebook. Unlike those mobs, which aim to create spectacle, their mission is to generate support for locally-owned businesses.

Boone is only one of many North Carolina towns where stores and restaurants have been "mobbed" this year. Others include Cary, Thomasville, Pineville, Mount Holly, Franklin, Wake Forest and High Point.

This was the fourth adventure for the Boone group. "You actually start to look forward to these outings," said mobber Virginia Roseman. "It's like a dinner club."

Blue Ridge EMC member Pam Williamson got the ball rolling after learning about cash mobs on the Internet. "I knew about flash mobs," she said. "People would show up and sing Christmas carols and stuff."

But cash mobs? "I thought it was fascinating," she said.

Boone mayor Loretta Clawson echoed her at Bare Essentials as she stocked up on lettuce from Wild Pilgrim Farmstead of Lenoir. "I love it," said Clawson. In the current economy, she said, "so many of our businesses are hurting."

Pam Williamson knew it would take someone with social media experience to carry out her idea, so she took the idea to the executive committee of the Watauga County Democratic Party. The party organization already helped out at a homeless shelter and in building Habitat homes, she said. Her idea was accepted, but party affiliation isn't required for participation by either visitors or retailers. Among the eight establishments visited, more were Republican-owned than Democratic, Williamson guessed.

At Joe's, "We filled the place up," said Blue Ridge EMC member Charlotte Mizelle. "That's great."

In about two and a half hours, mobbers spent $700 at Joe's, then $2,200 at Bare Essentials.

Pam Williamson and Ben Henderson think that's the tip of the iceberg.

"Part of the plan here is to get visibility for those businesses as well as that one-day infusion of cash," Williamson said.

Many of Henderson's customers he knew already, but some he'd never seen before. "I think they'll be back," he said.

About the Author

Hannah Miller is a Carolina Country contributing writer who lives in Charlotte.

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