A little over a year ago, Bill Putsis was sitting at Durham’s Bar Virgile, saving a seat for a friend. When a man walked over and took the seat, Putsis politely informed him that it wasn’t available. But the man didn’t get up.

“I was like, ‘Excuse me, is this the third grade?’” Putsis says. 

Then he took a closer look at the chair. 

“I’ll be damned, the seat had his name on it,” Putsis says. “He was such a loyal customer they put his name on the seat.” 

A few months later, as the pandemic began to wreak havoc on small businesses around the country, Putsis watched consumers turn to crowdsourcing sites as their primary way of offering support. Thinking back to his interaction at the bar, Putsis started tossing around an idea for a different way to help small businesses—something that wasn’t just one-and-done, but instead facilitated long-term relationships between businesses and their clientele, in the way that Bar Virgile had bestowed upon a faithful customer his own special seat.

“What crowdfunding sources do is take a business’s most valuable asset, their customers, and then walk away,” Putsis says. “It helps in the short term, but the businesses are left hanging. I was looking to create something more enduring.”

Putsis, a tenured professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, reached out to a handful of friends—a financial advisor, a marketing specialist, and a law school student, among others—and in March 2020, they conceptualized Brij, a start-up creating a centralized platform for small businesses to connect both with their customers and with each other. 

“I liken [Brij] to the anti-Groupon,” Putsis says. “Groupon was an organization that attracted your least loyal customers: those that were just in for a deal, then would walk away and go to the next deal. We want to help businesses create an ongoing relationship with their most valuable customers.”

To cultivate these lasting relationships, the patent-pending start-up developed a vehicle called “Brij Promotions.” It allows consumers to exchange financial contributions for a personalized deal that will keep them engaged with businesses on a regular basis. For example, Funky Bow Brewery in Lyman, Maine, rolled out a Brij Promotion where patrons can make a donation and get a beer named after them. In another promotion, Durham’s Convivio will put the names of people who help fund the expansion of their outdoor patio on a permanent plaque.

Brij is currently most active in Durham and Boston, though the start-up has teamed up with a few businesses in other locations, such as the Maine brewery and a bakery in Chicago. As part of its Durham launch, Brij hosted a Main Street Crawl this month, a ticketed event that invited Durhamites to show their love for local bars, restaurants, and art galleries by shopping and enjoying complimentary samples along a map of more than a dozen featured sites.

“The goal [of the Crawl] is partially to raise money from ticket sales, but beyond that, it’s to regenerate awareness of the dynamic, vibrant nature of downtown Durham,” Putsis says. “We want to have foot traffic so businesses can show off what great things they do.”

After checking in with the Brij team, the Crawl’s 100-plus ticket holders received a wristband and a tote bag and set off on their journey around downtown. Crawlers moseyed from business to business, soaking in the sun and cramming their totes with goodies: a box of pastries from Loaf, a bag of chili and lime chicharrones from Dos Perros, and a sack of house-made Chex mix from Fullsteam, to name a few.

Jason Youngbar, a Crawler who moved to Durham in April, says his favorite stop was Littler, where he tried a refreshing cucumber tonic and a flavor-packed spoonful of marinated octopus salad. Youngbar discovered the Crawl on Facebook while looking for a fun way to spend his birthday.

“It supports the local economy downtown, and it gives us a chance to connect with our new community, so we figured it would be a beautiful day for it,” Youngbar says.

Beyond introducing recent transplants to the local scene, the Crawl afforded veteran Durhamites the opportunity to check out spots that opened their doors during the pandemic, like pastry shop Sweets by Shayda and restaurant Indian Monsoon. 

Once they’d filled up on snacks, ticket holders admired work from area artists at PS118 and stopped by Cecy’s Gallery & Studios to contribute to artist Sarah Glickman’s Durham Community Art Piece. Prompted with the question, “What does Durham mean to you?”, Crawlers used red, yellow, and blue markers to fill in the empty space around Glickman’s drawings of well-known bulls from around the city. Many people drew their homes; others sketched pints of beer and cups of coffee; one simply wrote, “A place to be yourself.”

“Community and collaboration is massively important for me and my work,” Glickman says. “COVID definitely set me back because it isolated me from that, so I’m really excited that [the Crawl] gives me the opportunity to meet more people and more fellow artists.” 

 One hundred percent of the proceeds from the Crawl’s ticket sales were distributed to featured businesses, and there was no cost for businesses to participate. This business model exemplifies the way Brij plans to function on a broader scale: all revenue earned from Brij Promotions will go straight into the pockets of small business owners. For at least the next six months, Brij will not make any money, but once the start-up can accumulate data on which of its promotions are most successful, it will profit by selling analytics to businesses.

“The goal of this would be to help businesses find revenue opportunities that they hadn’t thought of,” Putsis says.

In the short term, Brij is working to help small businesses “bridge” the gap to post-pandemic life, stimulating traffic through events like the Main Street Crawl and strengthening relationships with customers via Brij Promotions. But the start-up intends to be more than just a temporary service.

“A longer-run vision is to be a platform for businesses to connect to each other,” Putsis says. “The ability for businesses to connect on a platform so they can learn from each other and communicate—that isn’t out there now.” 

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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