Striving for Third Place

By Ari Weinzweig, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner
originally written for Specialty Food Magazine, April 2007

Becoming what‘s known as a “third place" is a status that every community-oriented business should want to achieve. I first heard the idea of the third place in reading Ray Oldenburg’s book, The Great Good Place, originally published in 1989. Here is the key concept:

As Oldenburg explains, the “first place is the home; the “second is work. Most everyone has experienced those two in-depth. The “third place is a public spot that’s neither home nor work, where people like to gather informally and connect regularly. In the old days, the third place might have been the VFW Hall, church, town square, barbershop or tavern. These are places where people like to hang out, spots in which they feel included, recognized, accepted. They’re places where they see like-minded men and women. Often, the people they interact with in a third- place setting are not seen anywhere else. Spending time at the third place helps maintain social balance and provides joy, support and stability in the community.

Although the third place was once a common and critical piece of our social structure, the suburbanization of the U.S. in the second half of the 20th century led to the disappearance of most of them. That resulted in a reduction in the level of connection and community.

The Regulars

Without consciously intending to do so, we had created a third place at the Deli. The characteristics that Oldenburg ascribed to third places were happening in our business all the time. There were a series of regulars, especially in the mornings. We know them; they know us; most importantly, they know each other. Often, they only know each other from having met at the Deli. They connect over coffee; they stand around the tables, at the counter or cash register and swap stories.

Ownership Transfer 

Many of these third place regulars act “like they own the place. I almost laugh out loud thinking about it, because there’s not even any question about it. And that makes me happy.

Some business owners resent the customers who “keep telling them how to run their business, and they go to great lengths to discourage it. To the contrary, we expend a lot of energy trying to get customers to tell us how to run the business; it’s called “feedback".

The more we create a business in which our guests feel a sense of ownership, the more connected they are to what we do, and the more likely they are to stick with us for the long haul. They become a sounding board to deal with upcoming issues, are an early warning system on quality concerns and will clue us in to other customers who are not happy with what we are doing. They stay with us through our successes and also our shortfalls.

When you have this third-place thing going well, regular customers end up training new customers. It goes on every day in our businesses. It’s common to hear someone explaining to a first-timer how to get coffee or where to find a sample.

Creating a Third Place

Here are a few things that help increase the odds of finishing third:

1. Put Personalities in Place and Keep Them There

Interesting people are attracted to interesting people. Find key greeters with big personalities and keep them around long enough that the customers get to know them well and vice versa. This personality can, of course, be you or I as the owners. But it can also be somebody like the bartender on Cheers. They become the master of ceremonies, the host. They look out for the regulars; and help welcome newcomers, always watching out for the interests of the business.

2. Collect—and then Connect—the Dots

In his great new book, Setting the Table, New York restaurateur Danny Meyers shares a concept he calls “ABCD, which stands for “always be collecting dots. We always want to gather information—each bit is a “dot. We might learn that it’s someone’s birthday, that their kid is starting kindergarten, that they have a new pet or received a promotion. The more we learn about our guests, the better we can serve them. We prepare birthday cards for regulars, give them extra food to take on a plane trip, send them thank-you notes and so on.

We use the information we gather to build connections that solidify our role as a third place. We tell a new customer with a dog that the long-time regular sitting in the corner is also a dog lover. One customer is looking for a house; another works in real estate. The more we hook them up, the more connected they feel to us.

We strive to connect the dots whenever we can—from customer to customer but also from a customer to a like-minded staff member; or a customer to our suppliers. The more people connect, the more likely it is that:

a) They have a unique experience in our business.

b) They feel a part of or even a sense of ownership in our business.

c) They actively promote our business to others.

Word-of-mouth is always the best advertising. And people who feel a part of a third place are active promoters. That’s an amazing resource to have in hand.

3. Make Them Feel Special 

Find ways to let customers know that they’re special and that you value them.

For example, this winter we had a severe ice storm and a lot of people who live near the Roadhouse lost power. It was not a huge crisis, but we did any numberof little things that helped make our regulars know we were looking out for them. Nothing fancy—just things like sending them home with a slice or two of coffeecake for breakfast the next morning, a small touch but a way to add positively to their lives.

One very nice couple came into the Roadhouse for dinner the evening after the storm, and told me it had been a rough day. They were without power themselves and were supposed to meet friends, but the friends too had lost power and would not be joining them. They had a good meal and were getting ready to leave when we brought them a small split of sparkling wine to take home. A nice touch to help them finish a bad day in a good way. To make it good service—they had no power and hence no lights—we stuck two champagne glasses in as a “loaner so they wouldn’t have to rummage in the dark to make a toast.

Mostly, this is about doing a nice thing for nice people. But it’s good business too. It’s safe to say that they will tell that story many times over. We built ourselves into their lives as a positive third place, a spot to which they come—physically or emotionally— even through hard times.

4. Be Interactive 

The more active—and interactive—the guests are in creating the theater and action that goes on in a successful third- place setting, the more they enjoy their experience. There are lots of easy ways to make this happen. One simple one is this: When I take samples to a table or to a group of customers, I bring at least one more piece than there are people in the group. Having an “extra requires the guests to talk, hopefully about how good the food was and who gets the extra piece. Similarly, I’ve asked customers to be “in charge at their table by giving samples to one person and asking her to dole them out to the others. All this gets people thinking and talking.

Similarly, we create action by walking people to tables or to their cars, introducing them to cashiers—the whole time we’re learning about the guest, stopping to “connect dots by introducing them to other customers, staff members or products.

5. Give the Guests the Dots 

One way I’ve learned to enhance all that dot connection AND the interactivity is to send customers off to be the bearers of (good) news, baked goods or greetings from us. Letting a customer carry a hand-written greeting card to their cousin who’s moved to Colorado and hasn’t been in Ann Arbor for a few years is more effective than simply mailing the card directly. When the card gets handed off, the guest whocarried it feels valued. Zingerman’s comes up as a topic of positive conversation between two caring people.

The spirit of generosity and the caring that goes with all this is of huge import. They’re consistent with our guiding values; they represent good service; just the right thing to do. We can actively enhance our status as a third place by letting good customers carry the good word around with them. They feel good, they feel valued, their friends are impressed and everyone wins.

6. Build Haunted Houses 

In Setting the Table, Meyers said that we’re more likely to become a third place when we become a “haunt for people in particular fields of work. At Union Square Café, they did it by specializing in the literary world. The key is to become the third place for most everyone in whatever given area of interest you’d like to be in.

You can enhance and support creating a “haunted house by doing things like staying up to speed on the targeted industry; having supporting materials like magazines available in the third place; training the staff on key components of that industry; or promoting the use of the space to outside groups that work in that field.

7. Share the Success

Give positive feedback to the third place regulars in front of their families, friends and colleagues. If you like their jewelry, know they received a promotion, or whatever else, say something. The praise must be genuine, but as long as it is, the positive feeling supports the routine of the regulars.

8. Create Community Spaces

It helps to create community activity in your third-place-in-the-making. We host meetings of local community groups and encourage families to gather at our spots for whatever occasion they have at hand. When customers linger, I don’t chase them out. We have picnic tables, put out bowls of water for dogs, and air hoses for bikers.

These activities must feel authentic. All this has been done by some national franchise chain unsuccessfully. It’s the uniqueness, the personality behind what we do that makes it special, that creates a distinct and appealing proposition as opposed to a staged scene created at corporate headquarters.

Leaving the Community Better Than We Found It Building our business into a third place is good for us. It solidifies our role in the community and builds long-lasting bonds with customers while bringing the income we need to survive and thrive. But it’s not all about us—I truly believe that third places add enormously to the quality of life in the community. They build connections that would otherwise be lost.