Will big box stores meet their Honey Porter match?

When I went to college in the 80s, there was a bar in Ann Arbor that served imported beer from all over the world. Back then, that was about the only alternative to boring corporate beer—the mega-breweries had all but killed independent American brewers.

Today you can find exotic American micro-brews on the shelves of any Dominicks. From just 89 American breweries in 1978, there are now well over 2000, with more than 350 opening since mid-2011 alone. While overall beer sales are flat or declining, craft brew sales were up more than 12% in 2012, and the parent company of Sam Adams is now a $1.5 billion juggernaut in its own right.

What a perfect case study! (Heh-heh, case, get it?) Americans can only take so much of the cheap and predictable—eventually, the independent and unusual will find a way to break the stranglehold.

When I moved to Des Moines in 1989, Iowa’s rural economy was still reeling from the arrival of Walmart. When family-owned stores couldn’t compete with the Arkansas colossus, whole towns dried up and died. The big boxes haven’t killed independent retailers everywhere yet, but when you see Walmart Express stores opening on Chicago street corners, you might figure their victory is inevitable.

Or not.

Earlier this week I attended a “Knowledge Exchange Panel” hosted by the Small Business Advocacy Council where one panelist received more questions than all the others combined: Sebastian Villarreal, President and Founder of LendSquare.

LendSquare is a 2011 Chicago startup whose crowdfunding platform lets small businesses borrow money from their customers and communities. So far they’ve secured loans for a produce market and a fair trade artisan shop, and are currently seeking pledges for a pizzeria and (wouldn’t you know?) a craft brewer; their stated goal is “to strengthen the bond between small businesses and their communities.”

That same evening, at a completely different panel, I was struck by a comment from Patty Huber Morrissey, of Groupon Grassroots, who asserted (I’m paraphrasing here) that if Groupon didn’t exist we’d soon be living in a world where independent businesses had been wiped out by anonymous big box stores.

So, twice in one day, I heard entrepreneurs describe business models built to help independent businesses survive in a world of Panera, Starbucks, Target and Walmart.

It’s too early to know if Lendsquare will succeed, and Groupon hasn’t exactly been dazzling Wall Street lately. But I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping independent businesses are the craft breweries of the next twenty years. Cheers!