At the beginning of the pandemic, in March, the startup Brij formed in the fight to protect beloved local businesses, the favorite restaurants and bars that truly become part of the communities they live in and serve.
Dr. William Putsis, a professor at the Kenan-Flager Business School at UNC and at the Yale School of Economics, was watching what was happening to his favorite businesses.
“As the colder weather approaches, our favorite restaurants are going to be challenged to find ways to stay connected with their community,” Putsis said. “We’re all being told to stay home, and smartly so, but that leaves a beloved aspect of our community vulnerable. Which is why we developed Brij, so people can support small businesses that are near and dear to the heart.”
While Covid-19 has thrown a wrench into the lives of many local business owners, the Chapel Hill- and Boston-based Brij hopes to be a place for support.
The Brij founders looked at the vulnerabilities in the marketplace in what other platforms failed to deliver, said Sam Poley, a Brij consultant. GoFundMe and Kickstarter have some hurdles in time windows or funding thresholds. And while Facebook is algorithm-driven, Brij is not.
Brij is not a charity site, he said, but it does provide the option to give small business owners help through donations under certain campaigns. These local businesses offer incentives for these donations, like promising to name a chair for the person who donated.
“How is it that we can create a place for businesses to connect with their communities, free of the algorithmic noise, and make it a place where businesses can provide people a sense of ownership without actually owning anything, a sense of participation?” Poley said. “And that’s where Brij comes in.”
It takes only minutes for business owners to set up on Brij, and the site and soon-to-be app is free for both businesses and users. Users can self-select search criteria to find something as specific, such as bars in Durham.
Poley said some people have compared Brij to Groupon, but Brij is the exact opposite of that.
Groupon typically brings in customers just looking for the best deal, he said. Instead, Brij allows users to express sentiments like: “‘I love this place. I feel a sense of pride in this place. I want to participate in this place. And I want to do it with a sense of purpose.’”
In terms of one big question—how will Brij make money?—Poley said Brij will sell businesses the data analytics it collects on which promotions gain the greatest involvement, plus other additional services that will be offered in the future.
Poley himself was the owner and chef of a Triangle-area restaurant that went under in 2007 as a result of the Great Recession, so he wants to help business owners avoid losing their businesses at the hands of another economic crisis.
“They (the founders) came to me because I knew all the restaurant owners in Durham, and they said, ‘we think that this is applicable to restaurants’ and I said, I think you’re wrong,” Poley said. “I think it’s applicable to everybody.”
The everybody includes dance troupes, hair salons, chapters of the American Cancer Society and more—and there is no barrier to entry.
Durham’s Cocoa Cinnamon and NuvoTaco are some of the first businesses to make their own pages on Brij, but the startup is looking to rapidly increase the businesses listed on the site.
And chain restaurants are welcome too, as the majority have local owners who just might live down the street from you, Poley said.
Brij’s technology is innovative in how it bridges the gap for these local businesses, Poley said. And at the end of the day, most business owners are all about community.
“You don’t open a restaurant because you think you’re going to make a lot of money,” Poley said. “You don’t open a bar because you think you’re going to make a lot of money. You don’t open a record store because you think you’re going to make a lot of money. You do it because you want to service the community in some way about which you are passionate. And to forsake that is a tremendous shame.”