Downtown shopping convenient all year

Sandwiched between the corporate-driven madness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday lies Small Business Saturday, which falls on Nov. 30 this year. American Express launched the event in 2010 to prod people to spend some holiday cash in mom-and-pop shops, if only for a day.

While the blitz may add a few bucks to the little guy’s pocket, Small Business Saturday better serves as a reminder to frequent the local shops that depend on community support. These entrepreneurs often take jaw-dropping financial risks to bring identity, character, and quality goods and services to the neighborhoods they serve — all with a personal touch.

“Shopping local and shopping small is a direct reflection of the values of a community,” said Nicole Chinchar, executive director of the Metuchen Area Chamber of Commerce, which serves a number of businesses in the borough’s downtown.

That starts with the everyday grind of small-business owners. They don’t benefit from the ad campaigns, national name recognition and formulated practices of megachains. Instead, local merchants must spend long days in the trenches with their employees to make sure they get everything right. The involvement of the owner, who is ultimately responsible for every cheeseburger or trinket sold, usually drives experiences that are delicately tweaked to satisfy the consumer base.

“The beauty of a small business is that hopefully the owner is close or present and can remodel his business almost daily, based on his presence and what he’s hearing from his customers,” said Steve Goldberg, owner of the American Hotel and Market Yard Grille in downtown Freehold.

For Goldberg, that began long before he opened the 20-room hotel, restaurant and banquet hall. After he bought the East Main Street building, he meticulously planned every decorative and architectural detail to create a setting that is true to Freehold’s past and present.

That spilled over into his daily operations, when the establishment went live about four years ago. The proof is in the pour, which many recognize to be the most generous in the borough, Goldberg said.

Between the small army of staff members, regulations and the threat of failure, it’s not a simple task to run the American Hotel. But it’s worth it in the end, he said.

“People in Freehold feel they own the American Hotel,” Goldberg added.

Some small businesses offer patrons a niche refuge, in which rare finds and relics of pop culture abound.

That’s no more apparent than in the aisles of Jack’s Music Shoppe, on Broad Street in Red Bank. Although the record and musical instrument store took a harsh hit with the rise of online sales and piracy, Jack’s has been a goldmine for music junkies since 1970.

“It’s just different. We have the new and we have the used,” owner Jack Anderson said. “If you want to visit the product and look it over, there aren’t many stores left to do that in.”

Anderson’s employees are knowledgeable and personable. They love what they do, and they’re happy to share that passion with customers. It’s tough to burn half an hour talking punk rock with iTunes.

Like the American Hotel, Jack’s sits in an energetic downtown center — the kind that fuels the sepia-toned vision of Main Street America. These tight-knit, diverse commercial strips are the rewards that communities and business owners share when they stand up for one another.

“There’s the nostalgia that’s coupled with the positive consumer experience that you won’t get in, say, a mall or a city setting,” Downtown Freehold CEO Richard Gatto said.

For 17 years, Tom Mezzetti and his family have filled the rumbling bellies of Metuchen residents from the kitchen of the Main Street Trattoria. His respected pizza and the cool downtown vibe have called customers back for years, Mezzetti said.

“We have regular clients who came in as kids with their parents when we first opened, and we’ve seen them grow up, go to college, get married and come into the restaurant with their own families,” he said.

A strong connection with customers makes a rock-solid case for small businesses, whether it be a Saturday in the holiday season or a quiet weekday afternoon.

Jack Murtha may be reached at [email protected].