Twitter and Burritos to the Rescue

February 26, 2009

Written for The Oregonian newspaper and published Jan. 22, 2009.

This is a story about love, shopping locally and the power of the Internet.

And burritos, too.

It began in early December when a man learned that his mother’s Northeast neighborhood business, Broadway Books, faced financial problems more ominous than the struggles small independent booksellers typically see.

“Because I know how much this store means to her, I just sat at my desk in near tears for hours,” Aaron Durand recalled in his blog.

“Then I got angry. Then I thought I’d do everything I can to help from my remote location here in San Francisco.”

The 28-year-old Birkenstock USA employee, who left Portland in August, promised a burrito to anyone buying $50 or more in books by Christmas. Based on his credit card limit, he capped the offer at 166 burritos.

Why burritos? Durand and a friend have long used them as payback for favors, one that ensures they enjoy meals together.

Not expecting anyone to respond, he announced the offer on Twitter, the online social media and networking tool that people use to write about anything but in 140 characters or less.

Other Twitter users saw the offer and “re-tweeted” it — posted it again — and linked to Durand’s blog. They e-mailed the news to friends and family. Some sent it to fellow employees at large companies. Other bloggers wrote about it. Readership of Durand’s blog soared.

Durand’s mother, Roberta Dyer, co-owner of the bookstore with Sally McPherson, was caught off guard.

“He didn’t tell me about it. I was a little nervous at first. It’s embarrassing that your business is having problems, and suddenly everyone could find out. Then I realized he did it out of instinct and with such a full heart.”

Sales picked up. Significantly. One person spent $176. Talk of buying only from locally owned stores became a customer mantra.

Gina Anzaldo says she learned of the offer via Twitter. She bought books at Broadway, told her mother, who also bought books and spread the word.

“It’s just so touching,” Anzaldo says. “And it shows how Portland is so community-centered.”

When the snowstorms arrived, nearly paralyzing the city, Durand feared sales would slow.

“Here I was ecstatic that people were taking notice and … the gods had turned on me in an attempt to foil my plan.”

But business continued to increase, partly because the bookstore at 1714 N.E. Broadway is between several neighborhoods and easy to reach on foot. While many businesses shut down, the store enjoyed its best revenue day since opening nearly 17 years ago.

“It was a perfect storm,” says Dyer, who hopes the store’s experience encourages people to shop more at locally owned businesses.

After news spread at Birkenstock about the burrito offer, the CEO met with Durand this month to learn more about online social media and networking. Now the Grant High School and University of Oregon graduate is getting a promotion in the marketing department.

How many customers were inspired by the offer isn’t clear. Durand says most chose not to collect on the burrito payoff, held last week at Cha Cha Cha restaurant on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.

The restaurant had made 40 for the event. He took the 15 left over to the Portland Rescue Mission where “those dudes were STOKED!” he wrote that night on Twitter.

He sums up the experience this way: “I may have lit the match, but the wonderful people of Portland supplied both the kindling and the air to feed the fire that ensued. Thank you.”

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