Tiffany Roper is wrapping Akron small business up in a box.
She initially intended to open a multipurpose venue to accommodate the three aspects of her new business: Eat Speak Love. She aspired to provide a kitchen to rotating chefs serving Akronites new cuisine similar to North Akron CDC’s NoHi pop-up restaurant, a stage for public speaking and performances and retail space for entrepreneurs to sell their products inspired by the Northside Marketplace.
Then, Roper realized the pandemic would be more than a temporary roadblock to her storefront, and she needed to switch gears.
“I just was so eager to get started,” she recalls. “I asked a friend, ‘How can I box everything up and give it to people?’ She told me simply, ‘Box everything up and give it to people.’ So I did.”
Subscription boxes, such as Barkbox’s monthly pet supplies collection or HelloFresh’s meal prep kits, have taken off in recent years. Roper decided to create a subscription box of rotating products from Akron entrepreneurs, calling the collection “SmallBig Boxes.”
“We have so many entrepreneurs popping up all the time, and especially right now, we need to support each other with our dollars locally,” says Roper.
Last year Roper completed Bounce Innovation Hub’s inaugural 15-week MORTAR course, an accelerator program that teaches existing and emerging entrepreneurs about business ownership. “I met so many incredible people through my MORTAR cohort and decided to partner with a few of those businesses to get the word out.”
The first batch of boxes released in December, which featured products from minority-owned businesses in the Akron area, sold out within 72 hours.
“There was just this incredible buzz,” she says. “We strive to partner with minority businesses because we think that visibility and awareness is so pivotal to their success. The pandemic has just decimated small business and early-stage ventures of women and people of color. People really wanted to support those businesses.”
“I’ve gotten quite a bit of orders from Tiffany and people who bought the boxes with samples of my products,” says Andrea Neal, the owner of Generations5Plus, an all-natural skincare business. “The bars of soap and whipped shea butter lotion have gone up in sales since Tiffany put samples in her boxes, and that’s really exciting. My goal is to ultimately open my own store, so this is a good way to get new customers.”
The 2021 yearly subscription of SmallBig Boxes, which includes three packages and is currently marked down from $90 to $75 (or $30 for individual boxes), will include a box each season with a different theme. The first box of the year, on sale in late January and early February while supplies last, features women-owned businesses.
“The second I saw Tiffany advertise her box, I immediately bought six of them and gave them as Christmas gifts,” says Gina Betti, a subscriber who attended University of Akron but now lives in Sharon Center. “Supporting local is my passion, and I thought it was a great way to learn about new companies I’m not familiar with. It’s really notable that her goal is not only to promote her own business but to support the success of others around her.”
When customers are ready to collect their items, Roper hosts “pick-up parties” at businesses across town. For the December box, customers collected their items at Beanhead Brothers, a coffee shop that recently opened on Romig Road. If they made a purchase from the shop, they received an additional item from Eat Speak Love: a promotion she plans on continuing at other businesses.
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“I would say nearly every person who came to pick up a box also bought something from Beanhead Brothers,” Roper says. “The whole point of this subscription box is to encourage people to patronize local, small businesses. The pick-up parties are another way to do that.”
Though her plans to open the storefront she dreamt of are on hold, Roper is thrilled with the support she’s received so early on, even doubling her inventory for the upcoming boxes.
“The boxes are really the ‘love’ in Eat Speak Love,” Roper says. “It’s not necessarily about bringing people to Eat Speak Love; it’s about putting Eat Speak Love at the forefront of what small businesses should be: connection, collaboration and support.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report For America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.