Paying it forward and giving back means community for area businesses

Businesses giving back and investing in their communities is a time-honored tradition in the American economy. Yet in this day and age, where social media and word of mouth tend to be what gets more and more people through the doors of independent operations some companies have taken a creative approach to how they invest money that may otherwise have been set aside for advertising.
Latitude 42, which opened its brewery doors four-and-a-half years ago in Portage and is kicking open a second set of doors on West Main Street in Oshtemo next week, is one of those businesses.
"We have never really done any kind of traditional marketing," says Brad Bishop, who serves as general manager of both locations and has been with the company since it began. "We’ve always said, ‘Hey let’s spend that marketing budget on giving back to the community instead, making sure that we can really have an impact.
"When I write a check to one of these great organizations that are really helping the people in our backyard I know what our return on investment is. With traditional marketing you can’t always tell what your return on investment is."
Latitude 42 has been helping more than a dozen nonprofits a year and with a new location opening, Bishop says that number is about to double. According to co-owner Joe Stoddard, the family-owned company has contributed north of $120,000 to nonprofit and charitable organizations since August 2013.
In addition to special events, the company has accomplished that feat with a pay-it-forward cheesecake--the flavor and beneficiary change by the month--as well as a quarterly donation brew and a monthly Dine and Donate night.
The Dine and Donate night takes place the first Tuesday of the month in Portage and will be the first Monday of the month at the new Oshtemo location. On those nights, 20 percent of all proceeds from take-out and dine-in orders from 5-8 p.m. as well as $2 per cheesecake sold is given to that location’s nonprofit of the month. Throughout the month, $1 from every cheesecake sold also makes its way into the beneficiary’s hands. Bishop says that while some months proceeds are less than others the Dine and Donate night has raised as much as between $1,500 and $2,000 on a given night.
Some of the area nonprofits that have been a focal point of Latitude’s work have been Kalamazoo Communities In Schools, Team Taylor, Kalamazoo Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative and Pathfinder Church in Portage just to name a few.
The company does help out national charitable organizations such as ALS, Cares’, Big Brothers and Big Sisters as well as Make-A-Wish, but they are always in search for a local angle or tie-in when it comes to those larger organizations. As Bishop says, they are all about the local impact, whether it is through the beneficiary of their quarterly brew--of which a dollar of each beer sold goes to the chosen charity--or their nonprofit of the month.
"There are so many great organizations out there on a national level that have a great spotlight," he says. "My goal is to find organizations that we can really make an impact with that are local, so when I give a check for $1,000 to $1,200, whatever it turns out to be, it can really have an impact, not only on the money side of things, but also showcasing what they do, what the organization is all about, what they do to help the community. It not only gives them a nice check but hopefully a platform as we help raise awareness with our guests."

'Grounds for Giving'
As companies like Latitude 42 continue to pay it forward, other long-running local businesses like Water Street Coffee, which just launched its "Grounds for Giving" campaign, are just getting in the game. It's a step they've wanted to take for a long time.
"Every single penny went into the business in years past as there weren’t really extra pennies and extra dollars to invest," says owner Mark Smutek, who opened Water Street’s first location 25 years ago. "We know the concept of giving back is nothing new and we are probably a little late to the game, but it’s more where we are at and that we can finally afford to do something so hopefully we can start to help raise awareness for a few great organizations and create an impact."
Smutek and his employees carefully selected four Kalamazoo-area nonprofits and four Detroit organizations for the first year of the initiative, which will involve all 300-plus of Water Street’s wholesalers around the state. The wholesale partners will choose from the eight nonprofits on the list and at the end of the year, 1 percent of all of their wholesale purchases from Water Street will go directly to that organization. Using past numbers, Smutek anticipates Water Street will be able to spread approximately $12,000 between the eight organizations in year one.
The organizations that will benefit this year are Kalamazoo Community Foundation, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Girls on the Run Kalamazoo, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Grounds for Health, Downtown Boxing Gym Youth Program, Gleaners Community Food Bank, and Recovery Park. Each organization touches on something a little bit different that Smutek and the Water Street family are invested in on a personal level.
"Girls on the Run, for example, is a phenomenal organization that helps build confidence and self-awareness in young women, while the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is just so connected and does so much for the arts in the area," Smutek says. "The Alliance for the Great Lakes was really an easy one for us living here as we’ve all spent a lot of time on the water and coffee is made with water so we wanted to have that be part of the piece too."

And while Water Street’s wholesalers are spread across the state, the Kalamazoo-focused company decided to take its focus to Detroit specifically when leaving the immediate area as that is an area that needs more attention, Smutek says.
"We have a lot of love for Detroit and all things Detroit," he says. "Anything that is going to help Detroit come back, anything we can do in any small way, we are all about helping them out."

The whole point of giving back, for both family-owned companies, really comes down to one thing, being part of the communities that have helped them get where they are.

"For us as a company, every single year we want to do more and more to give back to the community," Bishop says. "To be able to support these local nonprofit charitable organizations that do so much in the Kalamazoo and Portage area--that is always going to be our commitment--and as our checkbook continues to grow with us we’ll be able to have more of an impact right here in this county."    

Ryan Boldrey is a freelance journalist and editor living in Kalamazoo. A Michigan native, he returned to his home state in 2016 after spending the better part of a decade working as a writer and editor in Colorado. He spends much of his time traveling to see live music and is an avid Michigan State and Detroit sports fan.
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