| 2015 Q1 | story by MARK FAGAN | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
Nick Wysong rolls out two new tables, provides the 14 paddles and restocks the seemingly endless supply of balls.
Then he welcomes the two dozen competitors who stroll into his restaurant and bar in downtown Lawrence. They’re ready for the night’s four hours of double-elimination pingpong and all that comes with it: the fun, the food, the drink.
“It’s healthy competition,” Wysong said, owner of Ingredient and Five Bar, the side-by-side establishments whose tall windows face the street at the northwest corner of 10th and Massachusetts Street. “It’s a workout. And it’s good fun.”
The additional foot — and paddle — traffic is proving to be an added bonus for Wysong, who is among business owners in Lawrence building both community and business loyalty by organizing or affiliating themselves with a range of energetic activities.
Whether it’s a restaurateur organizing pingpong or a running store conducting free group runs, businesses built on service are finding that they can boost connections with customers by feeding their desire for shared, active experiences.
“It’s a critical ingredient,” said J. Jenkins, manager of Garry Gribble’s Running Sports at 839 Mass St. “We’re all about community and connecting with the community, and probably the biggest part of that is the events we put on: everything from the clinics to the fun runs to our weekly group runs. It’s definitely an opportunity get people excited about running and to keep our name in people’s minds.”
Two years ago, Jenkins launched Mass Street Milers, a club for runners of all ages, experience and expectations. Just show up to the store at 6 p.m., ready to run and you’re off. Most runners head out for 40 to 50 minutes, covering anywhere from three to seven miles.
The weekly runs typically draw about two dozen people, sometimes more when a vendor makes the latest products available. Earlier this year, a technical representative from Adidas brought in the company’s newest running shoes: the Glide Boost 7 and the Energy Boost 2.0 ESM.
Each Mass Street Miler could try on shoes, ask questions and even wear the high-performance shoes out for a test run on the Kansas River levee.
“They can go out there for a half hour, an hour and think about whether they like the shoe before they commit to it,” Jenkins said. “That lets people form an opinion about a shoe they might be interested in before they buy.”
Alex Beecher is a regular participant in the free program, which he credits for helping him train consistently and build speed. He appreciates the group dynamic, which motivates him to show up each week. Faster runners push him to pick up his pace, providing a “consistent intensity” that accelerates his pace. Experienced runners share insights for avoiding injury, and less-experienced participants offer him opportunities to share his love for running.
“The biggest thing for me is it’s something I look forward to every week,” Beecher said. “It’s something you can’t get from an online forum. You can talk about running online, but you can’t share in the activity. The people I run with, they’re people I know 100 times better than I do otherwise. They care about my race goals, and I care about their race goals. It’s a sense of community you don’t get anywhere else.”
And there’s financial motivation, too. Runners who head out with Mass Street Milers come back to the store entitled to a 20 percent discount for the evening.
“It’s awesome,” Beecher said. “This is really something only a local business can provide. It’s certainly not something any of us could organize on our own. It’s really valuable.”
Even programs unaffiliated with any business can help people in business increase their business. Red Dog’s Dog Days, for example, brings together hundreds of people to stretch, jump and run, a collection of commitment that can’t help but spur occasional business talk.
Jeff Sigler, a Lawrence pharmacist, has been working out with the iconic Don “Red Dog” Gardner for 20 years now — from doing jumping jacks and running laps at Memorial Stadium to touching his toes and running stairs at Allen Fieldhouse.
Many of the faces he sees are familiar, folks haring their commitment to friendships, fun and fitness. And while it’s not his intent, the regular gatherings to stretch and sweat inevitably lead to successful business connections.
“Most of the Dog Days people are fairly healthy, but I have a number of Dog Days friends who ask me to take care of their parents,” he said. “They know me, they get to know me and trust me enough to take care of them. You develop relationships with people, and that’s what life’s all about: relationships.”
The biggest payoff, of course, comes from the workouts themselves. Sigler uses the sessions to stay in shape and get energized for long days at the office. Weekday sessions during winter are conducted at 6 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays at the field house, and each runs for less than an hour, giving him time to make it home, get cleaned up and grab a bite to eat.
“It’s a great way to start your day off,” he says.
Activities also can be a worthwhile way to close out a day.
At Ingredient, Wysong’s Tuesday- and Wednesday-night table tennis tournaments drive significant business while nurturing a loyal business following. He figures the tournaments add 10 percent to his daily receipts.
Players start showing up at 8:30 p.m., some with their own shoes, sweatbands and paddles, but most simply with a willingness to play. Participation in the Lawrence Ping Pong Social Club is free, and members enjoy specials on drinks and food. There are even mugs with the club’s logo etched on the sides, and winners receive gift cards for the restaurant and bar.
“This is something we can offer,” he said. “And it’s an opportunity for people of all ages to come down and have some fun.”
Lu Vaccaro is among the club’s dedicated players, and certainly the one with the deepest experience. She started playing back in high school — beginning in 1948 — and welcomes the chance to try her hands against subsequent generations.
“I’m not as good as a lot of them, but I get a good workout,” Vaccaro said, a robust 80 years young. “I’ve got two artificial knees, asthma and I can’t walk for any distance, but this is great. It’s the best exercise I get. It’s intense fun.”