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How Running Shoes and Coffee Help a Woman-Owned Business Build a Sense of Community

How Running Shoes and Coffee Help a Woman-Owned Business Build a Sense of Community

This article originally appeared on Womens Running

Brittany Katz has always appreciated the value of community that can be fostered while sharing a cup of coffee or a five-mile run with a friend

Although both allow for authentic connections and easy conversations, she knows those moments need the right place to blossom. In Cleveland, Tennessee, one of those singular places is actually at the convergence of two businesses Katz has built in a circa-1895 brick building on the historic courthouse square that she purchased and remodeled in 2018.

Despite not having a background in business–“I’ve never taken a single accounting class,” she admits–the 34-year-old entrepreneur has developed Terra Running Company and Cleveland Coffee and Market as places for the local community to thrive.

“I’ve always loved running, it’s just always been a passion of mine and kind of my avenue for creating community,” Katz says. “I think there’s a unique opportunity with running stores to create community, and that’s really where my heart is, giving people a place where they belong, where they feel like they have friends that know them and, and are passionate about similar things to them. My favorite thing is connecting people and making them friends.”

After earning three degrees in education and working as a middle school teacher in the Atlanta area for four years, Katz, a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, switched gears in life and jumped head-first into the running industry. She has been a runner since she was a young girl and has run numerous races from 5Ks to marathons. But without any formal training, she learned the businesses by doing–interacting with customers, learning from sales reps how inventory buying systems worked, fitting runners into new shoes, engaging the local population via a variety of fun runs, races and clinics and following her instincts about how to connect people.

She initially operated an outdoor and running store in the touristy mountain town of Blue Ridge, Georgia. But sensing a greater opportunity in Cleveland–a city of 50,000 people in the southeastern corner of Tennessee–she took the risk of investing in remodeling the 125-year-old building and also opening the running store and coffee shop.

“I could have paid the rent in Blue Ridge selling T-shirts, but I didn’t want to do that,” Katz says. “Blue Ridge is a mountain tourist destination and it’s great, but Cleveland is a different community in that people actually live and work and shop there. I knew right away I wanted to be all-in on Cleveland, and since then the local community has really embraced its own running store.”

Opening the first coffee shop on the town square was a natural complement, Katz says, knowing that coffee can be a social lubricant and is the beverage of choice for runners after an early morning jaunt. Plus, the store is just a few blocks from Lee University, a small private liberal arts college with 5,500 students. Although the businesses operate in separate but adjacent 1,500-square foot spaces, they are connected by a pass-through doorway that has served as a gateway to merge two of Katz’s passions and also provide a unique gathering place for the revitalized downtown area of the city.

After a few challenging months during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, each side of the business has grown and thrived, and Katz now has a combined staff of 10 employees.

“It really breaks down the barrier to getting into a run specialty store,” Katz says. “When people come to the coffee shop and while they’re waiting for their coffee, they wander in the running store and we chat with them. Once they’re in the running store, even though they say they might not be runners, we can engage with them. And what we find out is that they never would’ve stepped foot in a running store, but they admit they’re interested in what we have to offer.”

Terra Running Company

(Photo: Tiffany Skinner)

Breaking the Glass Ceiling of the Running Retail Industry

Small, locally operated running stores are still the lifeblood of the running world, but increased competition from online sales and promotions have made the business model much more challenging than the halcyon days of the early 2000s. However, if there is a recipe to success, it’s a combination of great customer service and deep engagement in the local community, Katz says.

While she humbly says the joint running and coffee business is still a work in progress, it’s so far an inspiring success story of a woman-owned business in the predominantly male-dominated running industry. Fewer than 15 percent of independent running speciality stores are owned by women, while most of the executives and brand managers in the running shoe industry are men. That’s an archaic reality that’s slowly changing with more female input, management and ownership.

“I definitely notice when I’m the only woman in the room, and that happens relatively often in industry meetings or trade shows,” she says. “But the majority of retail customers at running specialty stores are women, and that’s only been growing. Running, in general, and trail running and outdoor activities are growing for females, so it makes sense to have women in managerial positions.”

In its first five years of existence, Terra Running Company has twice been celebrated as one of the 50 Best Running Stores in America at The Running Event trade show. Last year, for the first time in the 17-year history of the program, a woman-owned store–Connecticut’s Ridgefield Running Company, owned by Megan Searfoss–was named the top running store in the country.

“There’s just a barrier for women in leadership roles in business, period,” Katz says. “That’s especially true in the running retail industry, but I think we bring a unique perspective that’s been one of the reasons we’ve been successful. Our customers are not just women, but I think customers are drawn to wanting to support women-owned businesses and women in leadership roles in business.”

Katz boldly gives her input and opinion to brands whenever possible and won’t put up with inauthentic products or disingenuous marketing programs.

“Women make up the majority of runners. It’s where the money is,” she adds. “Women are making the buying decisions in a household, and I think it’s important for running brands to recognize that and know that they can’t just make a shoe pink and call it a women-specific shoe or have women’s clothing be a secondary line of apparel.”

RELATED: Ridgefield Running Company Named 2022 Best Running Store in America

Terra Running Company

(Photo: Tiffany Skinner)

The Local Community’s Pulse

In addition to selling a wide range of running, hiking and casual shoes and apparel, Terra Running Company also owns five local running races and operates a race timing business for about 20 more. While the races serve runners of all abilities, the running store’s Monday night Terra Trot all-abilities group run and seasonal coaching program has helped engage more locals in the local running scene. The store also provides free running form clinics, works with local school programs and offers resources for the best places to go trail running.

While Katz is involved in many aspects of the businesses, she trusts and relies on her employees to help execute her vision. Asher Johnson is one of her original employees who has helped fit running shoes on thousands of runners, worked as a barista in the coffee business, and also taken on a big role in the race-timing operation. Tiffany Skinner, the store’s new marketing and engagement manager, has spearheaded T-shirt designs, email marketing and the creation of an ambassador program.

Last year, Skinner helped the store inaugurate its own Facebook Live events, as well as launch the Terra Girls Podcast, which hosts running-related guests from around the Southeastern U.S.

“It’s the kind of environment where, if you have an idea, you can bring it to Brittany and have a conversation that we should do this, and usually she’s like, ‘Great, let’s make it happen,'” says Skinner, 33, who grew up in Maryland and previously worked at the university and had been a customer of the store for several years. “We’re just small enough that we can pivot very quickly, but it’s also a place where your contributions are immediately seen, and that’s pretty rewarding. Everything we do makes a difference to the store and to the people in our community, and I think that’s why we’ve been successful.”

Katz takes her role in the local community seriously. In addition to running the businesses, she also volunteers on a few local non-profit boards, teaches introduction to running classes at Lee University as an adjunct instructor, gives free running clinics at local schools and is involved with Cleveland’s downtown business association.

“I really think, you know, rising tides lift all ships,” she says. “I want the store next to me to do well because we’re connected and it’s going to help everyone. Having passion and support in a local community is what’s important. I’m sure I have the least efficient store of any owner you’ve talked to, but it’s doing great because of the passion we put into it. I know just enough to be dangerous, you know? But I also know just enough to be able to do it really well.”

RELATED: Why Your Local Running Store Matters

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