Mimi Vanderhaven: Behind the Pink Curtain

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Yeah, it’s kinda long—but here’s how the magic happens.

By Mitch Allen

In the new year, the team members here at Mimi Vanderhaven’s Mimi Magazine are doing some inner work, reassessing our mission and values and doubling down on our commitments to our readers and local business clients. We thought it would be a good idea if we opened up and let you in on some of that, I mean, let you peek behind the curtain to see who we are and who we are not.

Mimi Is Local
First, we are not a franchise. We launched Mimi here in Northeast Ohio in June of 2003 and here we’ve stayed. Yes, during the cold winter months we dream of expanding to Marco Island, Florida, but so far we’ve pulled our jacket collars up tight and kept our noses to the grindstone in Greater Cleveland. As far as we know, there is nothing quite like Mimi anywhere else in the nation.

Almost 19 years ago we published our first issue in Strongsville, calling it Mimi Vanderhaven’s Fabulous Buys. The original business plan called for it to be printed on pink paper and sprayed with perfume. We decided against this, especially after realizing the dedicated USPS mail carriers upon whom we rely so heavily would be forced to smell our perfume in their trucks for their entire delivery routes.

That said, our offices are painted with pink accent walls, we sit in pink chairs, and it’s not unusual to see a pink hat and a pink feather boa on the coat rack by the front door.

“Why Do I Get Mimi?”
Since 2003, we have expanded to 17 different zoned editions that cover more than 60 communities—from Avon to Aurora, Beachwood to Broadview Heights, Medina to Mentor, West Akron to Willoughby. Our current monthly mailing is 254,000 copies, and this spring we are adding two more zoned editions.

You may be wondering why you receive Mimi. The short answer is your address is within our footprint, which is determined by demographics of United States Postal Service carrier routes. We base our mailing largely on median home values, which can be highly diverse on any given route. And please don’t worry about the $3.95 cover price; the copy you receive in your mailbox is free to you.

Supporting Local Businesses
Mimi’s original mission was “to promote business diversity by shining the spotlight on quality, locally-owned businesses.” In 2003, the big threat to local businesses wasn’t Amazon; it was national chains and big box stores. And we hit them hard editorially, pointing out how there is no flour at Panera Bread because their dough is not made onsite, and how the recipes for the Italian entrées at Olive Garden are developed in laboratories by food scientists in white coats. After all, if you can cut a penny of expense out of Olive Garden’s breadstick production costs, you’re going to save a boatload of money because they serve 9 million breadsticks a day.

Conversely, locally-owned Italian restaurants can keep that extra penny of quality in their recipe because they’re serving only 200 a day, making the $2 savings not worth the continuous reduction in quality. As a result, locally-owned restaurants are simply better than national chains (though their food scientists have learned how to placate us with extra sugar and salt...but that’s another story).

Many “support local business” initiatives are rooted in guilt, such as, “Keep your money in the community.” But that doesn’t work. If it did, there would be no Walmart or Amazon. Instead, we should support local companies because they are superior. Their owners know the local market and they stay true to their traditions. We will gladly take that back the minute McDonald’s starts serving fried sauerkraut balls.

The “Mimi Blindfold Challenge”
We often ask people to take the “Mimi Blindfold Challenge” in which we blindfold you, take you to an intersection in a major retail area in America, then ask you to remove the blindfold and tell us what city you’re in. As you look around at Target, Walmart, Outback, Taco Bell, Dollar Tree, Cheesecake Factory, Home Depot, etc., you have no idea where you are. Mimi calls this the homogenization of America. “National chains are like vanilla wafers,” she says. “They’re safe. They won’t disappoint you and they won’t astonish you, but that is no way to live a life.”

After almost 19 years we have toned down our editorial criticism of national chains and big box stores. They have their place and—compared to Amazon—they are not the evil they once were. But we should keep in mind that without choice, freedom is an illusion. Therefore, we should support local business owners who give us the remarkable and diverse choices available to us.

Amazon has been credited with killing many middle market retailers (e.g. Borders and Toys “R” Us) and it’s moving full speed into pharmacy, grocery, office supply, and more. But the demise of established national retailers may be opening the door for more local boutique retailers. In my neighborhood alone there is a bird store, an olive oil and vinegar shop, a stationary shop, a baby gift boutique, a toy store, a custom clothier, and many others. We hope to introduce you to more of these kinds of local boutique retailers in the coming year.

Our New Mission
Today our new mission is simple and more inclusive:

We bring together quality businesses and informed consumers.

An important word here is “quality.” We want only quality businesses appearing in our magazine and we’ve struggled over the years with how to define that term. After all, Walmart is a quality business, but so is Tiffany’s. We’ve decided to define it this way: If you research a company heavily and come to fully understand its brand promise, products, services, warranties, prices, competition, etc., and your propensity to do business with that company increases, then it is a quality business. If after all that research you are less likely to do business with that company, then it probably isn’t.

In other words, “quality” is determined by how well a business makes and delivers on its promises, and that arises from a culture that is authentic. Walmart promises the lowest price and that’s what they deliver. Starbucks offers a high-quality cup of coffee, but their true brand promise is far more complex. They promise a moment of personal indulgence that says, “I’m worth it,” and they offer that experience for just five bucks. No wonder the line of cars at the Starbucks drive-thru wraps around the building.

In the 1990s when Target was about to expand into Northeast Ohio, I was a part of a panel developed to help their leadership team understand the nuances of the Northeast Ohio market. After our presentations, their biggest question was this: “What’s a Marc’s?” We all laughed. Love them or hate them, Marc’s promises freshness and savings—and that’s what they deliver.

Home & Health
You may have noticed Mimi’s content has shifted a bit in the past couple of years. Due to our new stay-at-home culture induced by the pandemic, we’re featuring more home improvement and home maintenance companies than ever before. There is a high demand for their services right now. The same is true for healthcare services. We’re all looking for ways to better care for our homes, our families, and our health—along with quality and value we can trust. That’s what we try to offer within our pages.

Educated Consumers
Anecdotally and from studies we have done, Mimi readers are more affluent and more educated than the general market. In addition—and let’s be honest—to enjoy this magazine one has to be a reader, and readers are not only more educated, they want to be educated further, which is why we dedicate so much space to providing informative details about local businesses. It’s wonderfully reassuring that quality businesses actually want educated consumers.

These values of quality and authenticity also pertain to our digital services. Mimi has built hundreds of websites for local businesses and we offer other digital marketing services, too. It’s a bit trickier online. Carving out your legitimate space amid the millions of scoundrels in the Wild West of the internet requires careful strategic planning, and—for the moment—one has to play by Google’s rules (which are constantly changing).

We Love What We’re Doing
I’ve heard that for a business to be successful its culture should be rooted in either fear or love. At Mimi we choose love. We hire talented, hard-working people and let them be themselves; we hire highly creative people who may have idiosyncrasies we forgive and accept; and our values are rooted in being kind and respectful to each other. That includes looking out for the safety and well-being of our staff.

Many of our employees are working from home right now and have meetings via Zoom, but that hasn’t stopped us from being affected. Most of our staff and their families have had Covid; some had an easy time of it while others were hospitalized; some lost family members dear to them.

And that has broken our hearts.

It is a strange and difficult time we are in, but I am proud and overwhelmed at how our team has come together to help and support each other and our cherished local business clients, all of whom have been understanding, steadfast and supportive despite facing their own challenges. We don’t think of them as customers; we see them as partners.

Thank You All
Thank you for helping us do what we do. We believe in our hearts that we are helping make Northeast Ohio a better place to live by introducing quality businesses to informed consumers. Everywhere we go someone tells us, “We found our contractor / doctor / dentist / favorite restaurant / hair salon / personal trainer, etc., in Mimi—and we love them.”

That warms our hearts.

Finally, if you are wondering whether there really is a Mimi, I can tell you there is no way we could do what we are doing without her constant guidance, vigilant attention to values, creativity, trust, and support.

Thank you, all. May you have a joyous, healthy and happy New Year, and God bless us, every one.

Categories: Smart Living