Roti Mediterranean Grill, a medium-sized chain of 22 Mediterranean style restaurants (mainly in Chicago but with locations in Washington, Maryland, Virginia, and New York), recently announced it’s elevating the quality of its fast-casual food by incorporating sustainable meat and organic products.  One of the most significant changes is the restaurant’s switch to antibiotic-free, vegetarian-fed Freebird chickens, raised on family farms in Pennsylvania.  It now also uses unprocessed salt mined in Utah, California-produced olive oil rather than canola oil, and hummus made from organic chickpeas.

Why? "Our target customers are young professionals who have their head in the world. They care, and they want to know where their food comes from and will pay a little bit more to have food that is sourced appropriately," Peter Nolan, Chief Brand Officer at Roti told Chicagoist.

In the process of upgrading its menu ingredients, Roti has developed a robust community of reliable suppliers who care as much about the food they are producing as the chain does. Can chicken and hummus really forge a bond between people and businesses?  Nolan thinks they can, telling the Chicagoist that businesses can be “nodes of knowledge” that allow people to learn a little bit more, in this case about food, and that generates both interest and appreciation.  That’s how businesses can form communities: by dealing with suppliers who share their values and educating consumers about the benefits of what they offer.

Research shows that those who demonstrate an active interest in people (and places) actually improve their cognition and become better innovators.  Entrepreneurs are uniquely positioned to reach out to others because they aren’t tethered to corporate schedules and hierarchies, and they have the flexibility of both time and infrastructure to allow for more fluid business relationships.  Here are three useful steps:

Get together. Do things as a group and you’ll be surprised how much inspiration will come from, say, something as informal as a weekly walk through a local park or a farmers’ market, or something more organized, such as a community business event.  I know a group of storeowners in a cozy New York City neighborhood who get together for a weekly stroll and coffee before opening time.  It’s a relaxed 45 minutes where they can swap customer stories, sales strategies, and resources for professional services.  Towns and cities have been organizing formal regular events to gather community members and tourists and promote business; Lancaster, Pennsylvania, sponsors First Fridays, a popular arts extravaganza held on the first Friday evening of each month. Art galleries, local boutiques and restaurants, artist studios, museums, performing groups, professional theater, symphony orchestra, and the art college open their doors and get involved.     

Broaden your knowledge. Continuing educational opportunities are and should be a robust part of your business life.  For instance, restaurant owners can gather to sponsor an expert on Umami flavors and learn more about how to apply that knowledge to their menu selections.  While going back to school for an MBA can be a daunting process (it’s expensive and time consuming and you likely don’t need one anyway), many community colleges and other private organizations and institutions offer certificate or vocational programs that require less time and money and enable you to broaden your expertise in a particular field.  You’ll also meet like-minded people in these courses. 

I have a friend who manages the television careers of health and wellness experts who is getting a certificate in Positive Psychology at Kripalulu, a yoga retreat in Lenox, Massachusetts, not only because she thinks it will help her business but because it will expand it and make her even more effective at her job.  The course is taught by one of the founders of the positive psychology movement, Tal Ben Shahar, and blends both in-person meetings and virtual course work. “I feel it’s going to open up a lot of intellectual and networking avenues,” she told me. I have no doubt it will.

Become part of the solution. How can your business solve problems in the community? This may not be a direct money-making idea, but it certainly helps pull a community together and forge important relationships with the people you serve or want to serve.  The South African branch of Richard Branson's Virgin Active, a health club, launched a youth development program called Future Crew, which helps local high schools get physical activity back into the school day. That’s the sort of community building that provides a healthy, safe place for people to meet and interact.  Imagine if you could find a way for your business to become such a hub, even if only on a monthly basis.  Sponsoring local charitable events and becoming a visible presence can really help cement a positive relationship between you and the local population.  That will inevitably help you build a strong and successful business--within a strong and successful community.