(First published in the July 26, 2018 issue of City Pages)
How some local companies thrive without the internet
Erwin Leid, foreground, and Edwin Leid at Leid’s Greenhouse in Athens. As Mennonites, they don’t used the internet, but customers are finding it nonetheless
We’ve all heard it before: If your business isn’t online, it’s basically invisible. Without a website or Facebook page, how will you sell anything? How will people find you? It’s as invaluable as the Yellow Pages directory was 20 years ago. And social media? Get on it! You absolutely must respond instantaneously to every single message that comes in through all variety of apps, including email, Facebook messenger, text, and so on.
And yet there are businesses run by people who completely defy that notion. They don’t use the internet. Their phones in fact are set up specifically to block internet access. Even their computers are designed not to log on to the web in any way.
Mennonites and other “plain clothes people” (as one member of the Mennonite church describes Mennonites and others in similar religions, such as the Amish or German Baptists), defy the idea that the internet is completely essential for business. Despite choosing not to have internet access, these businesses are not only surviving but thriving.
One local Mennonite business owner even said they’re cutting back on print advertising because they have more business than they can handle.
To most people, Mennonites stand out because they dress plainly, in clothes that look anachronistic by modern standards. They’re often mistaken for Amish, though other than eschewing the internet, they do use most of the same technologies many others do: cars, appliances, power tools, etc.
It’s hard to find exact numbers of Mennonite, Amish and German Baptists in the county or state, since the U.S. Census bureau doesn’t track religious preference. A report in the Pittsburgh Gazette estimates there are roughly 320,000 Mennonites in the U.S.
The Athens Mennonite Church, for example, is comprised of about 40 families, and the church in Gleason has about 25 families. In that church, one of its members tells City Pages, once a congregation reaches a certain number of families, some families are encouraged to “swarm”— to spread to new areas and start new congregations. In Gleason, there are only Mennonites; in Athens, there are Mennonites, German Baptists and Amish, the latter of which forego most technology. Amish and Mennonites share common roots in Switzerland, and split off at various points in times over disagreements in how strict each should be.
Mennonite entrepreneurialism has changed in recent times, according to a study in Ethnology, a journal through the University of Pittsburgh. While agricultural occupations once dominated Mennonite and other plain clothes people’s occupations, a survey in 2007 revealed only 8% were involved in agricultural occupations. Mennonites interviewed by City Pages for this story included wood craftsmen, greenhouse owners and grocery store owners. None were strictly farmers, though obviously running a greenhouse has an agricultural component and its owner before running the greenhouse cultivated and sold seed to farmers.
The one theme running through all the interviews with Mennonite business owners is that their children are taught in Mennonite-run schools, usually part of their church, and they are taught integrity and the value of hard work at a young age. Though many chose to work and live among other Mennonites—which provides a strong support network—their services are sought out by the general public because of their reputation for getting the job done quickly and competently. These business owners say banks often extend that same trust because Mennonites are known for paying their debt.
In a time when many are questioning the wisdom of being constantly connected to the internet, one can’t help but be intrigued by the way of life of a society that has intentionally chosen to ditch the internet (or really, not adopt it in the first place). Throughout the interviews, I’m tempted to say “Well, you’re not missing much. Just a lot of angry comments and cat videos.” Apparently, at least in terms of business, they aren’t missing much business either.
Wilfred Martin manages Martin Woodcraft, located near Athens. Reputation has spread via word of mouth, and not using the internet hasn’t hampered business, Martin says. In fact, they plan to cut down on advertising because they can barely keep up with the business coming in.
Mennonites in Athens don’t even have to tell the phone companies to block the internet on their phone service any more, says Prairie Pines Bulk Foods owner Luke Martin. They’ve known the Mennonites in the area long enough that workers there are already familiar with their disconnection requirements.
That holds true for all their devices, Martin says. Sure, they have computers for the store, where they can track inventory and keep the books. But try logging on to the internet on one of those computers and you’ll be sorely disappointed, Martin says. He and his family started Prairie Pines Bulk Foods in 2001 on the main road in Gleason.
It didn’t take long for the business to get a reputation, and now customers travel from Merrill and Wausau to buy fresh flowers, cherries from Washington State and blueberries from Michigan, as well as bulk spices, sugar, flour and other snacks.
Reputation has spread via word of mouth, and not using the internet hasn’t seemed to hamper business, Martin says; in fact, they’re planning to cut down on the amount of advertising they’re doing because they can barely keep up with the amount of business coming in, Martin says.
“They often say, ‘I looked for you on the internet, but I couldn’t find you,’” Martin says. “But they find us anyway.”
Prairie Pines ison Facebook— not by Martin’s doing. Loyal customers posted the business there themselves. The basic page has 15 reviews, and a nearly perfect five-star rating. It has 299 likes and 104 visits, and Martin and family don’t know much about it. Even in Wausau and Merrill, people will call out to Luke Martin by name, even though he doesn’t always recognize the person calling out to him.
Prairie Pines isn’t the lone business benefitting exclusively from the power of word of mouth. Many Mennonites in the Gleason area are involved in the building trades and sought after for their skills.
The Mennonite roofing company in town gets work from a 50-mile radius, and is booked through the end of the year, Martin says. One local company hired five young Mennonites to tear down an old greenhouse — they completed the job so quickly that the owners told them they could have work any time they want it.
And business is going strong for Martin Woodcraft just east of Athens. Martin Woodcraft started in 1990 by Wilfred Martin’s father, Paul, who since started a store in Two Rivers. The company is run in a partnership with the seven Mennonites who work there, says Wilfred, who runs the company with his brother.
Like most businesses, Martin Woodcraft experienced a downturn during the Great Recession between 2008-2010, but overall the business has stayed steady or grown incrementally over the years. Customers don’t seem to have a problem finding their business, which primarily focuses on bedroom and living room furniture; the dining room furniture division spun off into its own business, Wilfred Martin explains.
Not being on the internet can be a challenge, Wilfred Martin says, but for the most part it doesn’t impact them much. About 75% of their business comes from wholesale customers where business-to-business trust is key, so phone and fax work just fine.
And for those rare occasions when the internet can’t be avoided, the Athens Mennonite Church has exceptions where two people can go together to a public setting like a library to take care of whatever internet-required business needs doing.
Wilfred Martin pointed to a similar phenomenon that Luke Martin experienced— that enthusiastic customers posted information about the business on the web anyway. “I have people say that they Googled us and found us,” Wilfred Martin says. “Even though there isn’t much, it’s still there.”
It’s that power of word of mouth that Edwin Leid is counting on. Just opened in January, Leid’s Greenhouse and Garden Center has 5,700 square feet of plants and two large greenhouses along County Hwy. A east of Athens. Edwin and his wife, Ruth, are originally from Pennsylvania, have lived in Iowa, and located to Athens in 2014.
Edwin and Ruth, with their son Erwin, look pretty traditionally Mennonite. They also have an accent, and speak Pennsylvania Dutch at home sometimes, a dialect of high German. “We’ll have people ask about the way we live,” Edwin says. Most people are just content to buy their plants.
Leid acknowledges that there are plenty of ways they could spread word about their business if they go online, but their beliefs forbid it. But so far, business has been steadily growing. “People are finding us, though it might be at a slower pace,” Edwin Leid says.
Taking care of their own
Martin Woodcraft employs fellow Mennonites to build furniture at the company.
The Mennonite way of doing business is unusual in other ways, too. Mennonites generally don’t carry insurance on their businesses. That’s because their community essentially acts as their own insurance companies, Luke Martin says. For example, when a bar belonging to a member of the Mennonite church in Gleason burned down, Mennonites across the U.S. pitched in to help pay for building a new one. Banks are familiar enough with this that most allow exceptions into their loans where insurance is concerned, because a Mennonite defaulting on a loan is almost unheard of. “It’s all covered by Mennonite commitment to making good on our losses,” Luke Martin says. “Whenever there is a loss in one state, that deacon asks what the needs are so we can help each other. I hope we never lose that.”
Being charitable and operating with integrity is part of the Mennonite schooling system, Luke Martin says. Martin is 73, and attended school in the public school system when he was young; now Mennonite children attend schools especially for Mennonites that are connected to their church. Before the shift to its own schooling, only 25% of Mennonites stayed with the congregation; that changed to 91% staying after adopting its own school system, Luke Martin says. “The school made all the difference.”
Both Martins chuckle when asked about free time; Mennonites don’t tend to have a lot of it. “We could use barrels of free time,” Luke Martin jokes. Mennonites travel a lot; Luke Martin and his family have traveled all over the country and around the world, and he has children living in Guatemala, Africa and England.
But most of the time, they’re working hard on their respective businesses. And those businesses often will be the only contact the outside world will have with Mennonites and other plain people. And based on the online reviews that they’ve likely never seen, they seem to be largely positive ones.