Last Sign Standing: Athens Restaurant Battles Code Enforcement

By Kyle MacArthur Wingfield

A little sign is catching big attention.

Ryan Myers, owner of Amici Cafe, said for years his restaurant used a sandwich board to market deals to the public.

“We have an A-frame sign we’ve been using for three years to advertise daily specials,” Myers said. “It generates money for not only us but the city in tax dollars. Whatever we put on this sign, it sells. The sidewalks create business for everybody.”

The sign did not become an issue until recently, according to Myers. A code enforcement officer would “come around once a year and tell us not to do it,” Myers said, “and that’s all you’d hear from them. We’d put the sign out, the code enforcer would come by, we’d take it in for a week, then put it out again. It became a battle, and we kept getting warnings.”

The warnings are the result of a sign ordinance passed by the Athens-Clarke County Commission in 2005 due to safety concern and Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, Sarah Anne Perry wrote in Flagpole. The ordinance came to fruition due to a visually impaired man who was tripping over signs in the sidewalk and had threatened to sue, according to Perry.

The ACC government established that it is “unlawful for any person to direct, order, or instigate placing of signs in the public right-of-way,” according to Section 7-4-9 of the ACC Code of Ordinances.

A business usually receives two code violation warnings before consequences escalate, according to Mike Spagna, Community Protection Administrator for Athens-Clarke County. If the violation does not improve after the initial warnings, said Spagna, business owners are then brought before a judge.

Myers’ restaurant continued receiving warnings until his business was issued a citation to appear in court. “I get that,” he said. “You can only write so many warnings.” But Myers is determined to seek change in the county’s sign ordinance.

“I feel petty, getting wound up about it because it’s such a silly thing,” Myers said. “But it is such a silly thing. It’s a very grey area […] the code needs to be revised and revisited.”

Local business owners side with Myers. A recent survey conducted by the Athens Downtown Development Authority asked businesses for their thoughts on sidewalk sandwich boards. The ADDA received responses from 16 local businesses saying sidewalk signs have a positive impact on business.

Myers said sidewalk signs add to the Athens experience. “A lot of times, we’d put something funny on it that would make people look at it,” Myers said. The signs “give character to downtown; some people are funny with them. It allows you to see something.”

Athens business owners told the ADDA survey that sandwich boards are “creative and tasteful” and “add a charm downtown area.” Even owners who do not advertise with signs felt strongly that other businesses should be allowed to use them, so long as they are “reasonably sized and do not block pedestrian traffic.”

Amici’s sign sat flush against the building, according to Myers. “In no way does anybody have to change their pathway to get around it,” he said. “What they do have to change their path for is the railing, our café area.”

So Myers looked for ways around the ordinance. “We asked if we could move the sign into the doorway,” he said, “but that was still in the way.” Myers also questioned the code enforcer about removing a table and placing the sandwich board inside the railing of Amici’s dining area. “But they said no,” he said. “There was no way around it.”

A walk down Clayton Street Wednesday afternoon revealed multiple businesses with similar signs. The sandwich boards were placed in doorways, walkways, and inside the railings of restaurants and shops.

Athens local Ross Thomas, a junior at the University of Georgia, walked past a portable sign entering an Athens venue Tuesday. Thomas became heated when informed of the city’s sign ordinances.

“I think the city should spend time fixing broken and uneven sidewalks instead of fining honest businesses,” Thomas said. “A sign is a more visible obstacle than uneven cracks and curbs and presents a less physical danger.”

Amici’s sandwich board is currently in storage. “Part of me wanted to keep putting it out and just take the fines,” Myers said, “but I’m not sure what would happen if the sign were out again when we’ve already been ordered to court.”

Myers is awaiting the verdict of the court before placing the sandwich board on the sidewalk again. “The battle is being fought,” Myers said. “I don’t want to add fuel to the fire. I’ve been pretty vocal about my thoughts on it.”


Social Shops: Local Businesses Use Social Media to Stay Competitive

Megan Ernst would not have patronized Red Dress Boutique had it not been for a Facebook post.

The shop runs giveaways for customers who share a designated picture on Facebook. The first time Ernst, a junior journalism major at the University of Georgia, entered Red Dress was after winning an item through this system and shopped for more items while there.

“I realized it wasn’t as expensive as I thought,” Ernst said.

For small boutiques like Red Dress in Athens, Ga., walk-ins and window shoppers are still relevant, but the driving source of customers is shifting to social media.

“Social has now been adopted pretty much universally,” said Sarah Giarratana, a junior copywriter at IQ, a digital advertising agency. “It makes perfect sense. You want to be on people’s feeds, to remind them, to make them say ‘I want that.’”

The trend is clear. Over 80 percent of Americans now use a social network and with audiences moving online, local shops are doing the same. In a retail environment dominated by the low prices chain economics afford, small businesses are using social media to compete. It’s working, and Athens businesses are no different.

“We have people call in a few times a day saying they saw something on the Facebook page and asking the price of it and if we still have it in stock,” said Katelyn Moore, a sales associate with Heery’s Clothes Closet.

Name a social media platform and you’ll find a presence from Heery’s.

“There’s something for everyone– we do Pinterest, Twitter, Instagram. The majority of our focus is on Facebook because that’s where we see the majority of our results,” said Lindsay Lucas, the boutique’s Director of Marketing and Social Media. “None of it is hindering us at all, it’s only appealing to different people.”

Lucas, a three-year veteran of the shop, said this position was created for her upon graduation, so social media has been at an all-time high during her past year as director. Lucas runs giveaways directed through social media outlets and promotes merchandise with pictures, especially during seasonal shifts.

“When it’s cold outside still and people are looking forward to spring, that’s when people go a little crazy on the social media,” Lucas said.

All the hype– and the online interactions with customers– is far from anything Heery’s ever did when it was founded in 1959, but it’s proven worthwhile.

“We definitely see the results,” said Lucas, referring to increased store traffic and revenue.

Facebook is the dominant social media platform for Community Boutique, a vintage and sustainable fashion boutique in downtown Athens, but for owner Sanni Baumgärtner, it’s about selling an image rather than items.

“Customers ‘like’ things and they come in a week later just in general to see what we have,” said Baumgärtner. “I don’t know that we’re selling the individual pieces so much as we’re selling a general aesthetic and image for the store.”
Baumgärtner feels social media marketing is less likely to draw customers into the store for specific purchases because the at vintage stores, sizes are fixed.

“Someone may ‘like’ something, but it’s on a size four model and she’s a size ten,” Baumgärtner said.

Still, for Community, social media has been a marketing necessity for a small business operating on smaller funds.

“We started so low budget, there wasn’t ever a budget for paying for advertising,” Baumgärtner said. “I was a musician before I opened the store, so I was already familiar with the concept of promoting something on social media.”

But familiarity with social media for one purpose does not mean you know how to use it for another.

“Just because we’re native to it, because we’ve been using it our whole life, doesn’t mean we know how to use it,” Giarratana said of social media-based marketing. “There’s an immense amount of strategy.”

Giarratana suggests local storeowners pay attention to search engine optimization, keyword usage, tagging, hashtagging, user-generated content, including creating contests or opportunities where customers are asked to tweet out or post themselves using a product.

“The ones who are going to survive and thrive create engaging content,” said Giarratana, suggesting boutiques utilize trend forecasting and fashion advice.

Business owners agree.

“Rather than just putting tons and tons of stuff on there I think it’s important to create more content that’s meaningful,” Baumgärtner said. “People are on social media because they want to see what’s going on with their friends, they’re not on social media to see ads. We don’t want to overwhelm people.”

To differentiate their online presence from big chain stores, Baumgärtner recommends local businesses emphasize what customers already appreciate about their brands.

“I definitely think it is important for local businesses to keep it personal and maybe tied into local things,” Baumgärtner said. “That’s where we have the advantage over the big companies that have to be so global with their marketing.”

Giarratana says small businesses can improve their distinctive brands through social listening– monitoring posts and reacting to and replicating what people respond to and like best.

“People who run social media in boutiques should reach out and learn,” Giarratana said. “Find people doing it well and emulate that.”

There are customers to be gained from the effort, including students like Ernst.

“There’s a market of people who go to boutiques frequently, but there’s a second tier that sometimes have the money to spend but don’t spend all their time focusing on what to buy next,” Ernst said. “The social media aspect keeps people who wouldn’t necessarily be in the store every week engaged.”