After spending more than 12 years in the healthcare industry in Massapequa, New York, Laura Maier noticed a problem with her town: There was no Dairy Queen. With memories of family get-togethers at local ice cream shops in mind and a nostalgic desire to provide that atmosphere to locals, the New Jersey native set out to change that.

Maier’s dream of creating a community hub despite her lack of industry experience became a reality last June when she opened the area’s first Dairy Queen unit. She operates a Dairy Queen Grill & Chill, which serves hot food items like burgers, chicken sandwiches, wraps, hot dogs, and side dishes in addition to traditional ice cream products. Maier attributes much of her success to continual involvement in the community she sought to serve.

Maier discusses how franchisees can achieve long-term success by staying relevant within the community and leveraging the unique qualities of their product.

1. Remember that customers are the source

When we first opened, we had customers lined up outside the store to stay overnight to be our first patrons. From our first day of business, I knew if I didn’t pay attention and stay committed to my customers, I would not have a successful business. Every day of the week, in any capacity, I make it a point to be in the store and to communicate with the customers. They drive my business, but they also have so much to say about the needs in their community. I am doing myself a disservice if I don’t actively listen to them.

You cannot simply open up a business and then walk away. I have a fantastic team, and Dairy Queen has been a tremendous help in every aspect of the business. But if I don’t stay connected with my customers and hear what they have to say, my business is not going to work.

2. Hit the ground running

I was fortunate to have a brand that was new to the area. Because of this, we did not have to do much advertising in the first few months, and we had enough foot traffic to sustain good business. Nonetheless, I knew I should not let time get away from me with regards to getting involved within the community.

Not long after opening, I joined the local chamber of commerce, which was extremely helpful. I became involved in many activities and meetings, and I would highly recommend it to any franchisee. This is the local community, full of business owners just like you. Aside from what my team told me about operating the business, I had very little experience with trying to start one from the ground up and grow beyond the four walls. The involvement with our chamber of commerce was a big help, and it seemed after that first step, opportunities became more apparent to me as a business owner.

3. Consult with others

I am a very open person. Moreover, I don’t like saying “no” to any opportunity that has the potential to grow my business. However, having little exposure to how the industry operates, I constantly am asking questions to other business owners, other franchisees, and, if applicable, other participants who have worked similar fundraising events, sponsorships, etc.

Some of our sponsorships and fundraisers we ended up scheduling later in the year because of the advice I got from other participants. Community involvement can be daunting because of all the options out there. It’s hard to know what to choose and what will work. Going to others for advice is always a good tactic—never be afraid to ask too many questions.

4. Capitalize on local events

For most community-based events or fundraising opportunities, there is a relatively low cost for a business. It doesn’t take much work to talk to your local businesses, schools, and other establishments. Don’t be afraid to rely on your past work experience, either. We were fortunate enough last year to be a part of Miracle Treat Day, Dairy Queen’s fundraiser for Children’s Miracle Network (CMN) Hospitals, where $1 or more is donated to the local hospital for each Blizzard sold. I happened to work at CMN Hospitals prior to my franchising career, and I knew participation in this event would be crucial to my community exposure.

Our location was lucky enough to have Miss America stop in on her media tour to help promote that nationwide event, and we raised $3,000, plus an additional $2,500 in private donations, for the local hospital in one day. Being able to give back to the community in such a manner was truly gratifying. Additionally, the cost to promote such efforts is minimal.

Social media, specifically Facebook, has been the direct line to my efforts. Simply posting a flier on the company page merits a ton of feedback directly from customers and, in turn, creates word-of-mouth exposure I could not generate on my own.

5. Leverage your employees, customers

By keeping your ear to the ground in and outside of your business, opportunities will come. For instance, one of my employees is an Eagle Scout and needed to renovate part of a local church. We did a fundraiser to help him raise the money for the renovations, and in one night raised the necessary funds. Because of this, we are looking to partner with the local Eagle Scout Chapter this year for more fundraising opportunities. These and other chances for community involvement can be closer than you think; they could even be within the unit itself.

However, I cannot stress enough the level of importance a customer base has when it comes to community involvement. I plan to open up another unit within the year, and I have customers giving me advice on the community, the real estate, where to go, and more. They are on my side, and that is a great experience to have as an owner. Without the involvement, I would not have this blessing.

Additionally, if you are in an unfamiliar area—as I will be when the new unit opens up—do not hesitate to talk with other local businesses to see how they got involved. I will do as much as I can to try and get the same community exposure, but having little knowledge about the new area, it’s vital to rely on advice from others.

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Charitable Giving, Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Marketing & Promotions, Restaurant Operations, Story, Dairy Queen