When we travel, we aren’t merely visiting a dot on the map, we are immersing ourselves in the nuances that create a destination’s character. The neighborhood restaurants, mom-and-pop shops, and hidden gems are the beating heart of the communities they serve. It’s no wonder we find ourselves delighted by unexpected artwork, wandering into family-run bookstores, or sampling delights from a specialty grocer.
These kinds of experiences are the reason we explore unfamiliar locales – and for that we have independent business owners to thank.
That’s why we teamed up with Lenovo in support of its Evolve Small initiative, which champions small businesses across the US and Canada by providing financial aid, technological resources and mentorship programs. In the spirit of supporting these local mainstays, we reached out to Lonely Planet travelers across our social media channels with one request … to tell us their favorite small businesses. They delivered. Here, we’ve rounded up six can’t-miss businesses that represent the best of what a small business can do for its customers, community, and visitors alike.
The Culture Candy promotes underrepresented and minority artists in New York City © Stefano Giovannini/Lonely Planet
The Culture Candy
New York City, NY
The Culture Candy is a woman- and POC-owned arts organization based in NYC that works to promote underrepresented and minority artists by showcasing their work and providing networking opportunities. It was created by Lee Lee La Cubana and Zalika Zeni to preserve urban culture and provide more exposure for visual artists – especially women of color and other minorities. The collective launched in 2020 with a pop-up event at a park in Long Island. When the turnout hit 300 people, they knew they were onto something special. Since then, The Culture Candy has created opportunities for more than 200 artists and small businesses to be seen throughout the city, with more than 35 events and public curations.
Cubana said she loves making a difference in artists’ lives and showing them they have real career options.
The Culture Candy are (L-R) Zalika Zeni, Vice President; Crystal Bissessar, Director of Art and Engagement; Tayler Hernandez, Director of Technical Design and Finance; Lee Lee La Cubana, CEO; and Danielle Wynter, Director of Global Development and Operations © Stefano Giovannini/Lonely Planet
“We’re here to support local artists and grow our art family,” she said. “We believe buying local art is really beneficial and can change someone’s life. Even if you don’t buy anything, you can support artists with a like or share on social media.” She admits it can be challenging to get businesses that want specific artwork to showcase lesser-known artists, but this only makes the collective more determined, and they continue to forge strong partnerships with businesses that see the value in keeping the exhibits true to the vision of the artists. They show artists on-the-rise at their pop-up shows at the Brooklyn Art Cave and at ongoing shows, like On View at BQE Fitness, one of the largest gyms in NYC. They also do takeovers at Chelsea Market as well as Art & Dines around the city.
With so many projects going on at once, The Culture Candy relies on mobile technology to keep it all running smoothly. “It’s amazing to look back and see that we coordinated and marketed our first event using our smartphones,” Cubana said. “Technology has allowed us to continue to grow our business remotely, making it easier to be several places at once when we have multiple curations going.”
Logan Bryan and his partner, Brian McQuade are the founders of The Veganist, a grocer and boutique in Chilliwack, British Columbia © Urban Fig Photography
Chilliwack, British Columbia
Five years ago, when Logan Bryan and his partner, Brian McQuade, became vegan, they struggled to find high-quality plant-based products at the markets near their home in Chilliwack, British Columbia. Their solution? To open their own specialty vegan grocery and boutique with everything from vegan calamari made from mushrooms, to hair products and shoes. They want to make the vegan lifestyle attainable for anyone who is living a full or partially plant-based lifestyle.
The Veganist offers everything from vegan calamari made from mushrooms, to hair products and shoes © Urban Fig Photography
“We enjoy helping people discover veganism, but we believe strongly in not pushing anything on anyone,” said Bryan. “The store has a friendly, relaxed vibe and good playlists so everyone feels welcome.”
Many of their customers are gluten-free or vegetarian and moving toward the vegan process while some are just trying to eat healthier. Their biggest seller is a locally-made vegan fried chicken burger that is popular among meat-eaters and vegans alike. Bryan and McQuade work to bring otherwise hard-to-get items to their shelves and help supply vegan products to regional restaurants and other local vendors. The pair also owns a sister company, Talk Vegan To Me, that sells locally-made, ethically-sourced clothing – from which a portion of the proceeds support four different animal sanctuaries in Canada.
Owner Margie Teeter of Margie’s Book Nook in Susanville, California has loved books since she was six years old © Rachel Wilson/Lonely Planet
Margie’s Book Nook
Margie’s Book Nook is a local landmark in Susanville, California – a hub for local events and knowledge of this small community located about 85 miles north of Reno, Nevada. As long as she has a book to dive into, irrepressible owner Margie Teeter says she’s happy. She’s been an avid reader since she was six years old.
In 1983, the only bookstore in town was going out of business, so Margie quit her job as a newspaper reporter and bought it. Since then, with her family, she’s been selling new, used, rare, unusual, and banned books at her 4,000-square-foot shop on the town’s main street. The store also serves as the town’s ticket broker and event manager, which makes it a popular place when shows go on sale.
With its location in the Shasta Cascades region, Margie’s Book Nook often caters to outdoor adventurers. © Rachel Wilson/Lonely Planet
Margie admits she enjoys knowing almost everyone in town and relishes her role in the community. Susanville residents often bring her special requests for hard-to-get books, and Margie says one of her favorite parts of the job is helping people find what they’re looking for.
With its location in the Shasta Cascades region, Margie’s Book Nook often caters to outdoor adventurers. “It can be tough to decide what to stock, but we try to keep a good selection of hiking and natural history books and, of course, we do have some Lonely Planet books,” she said.
Margie’s granddaughter moved from Kentucky to keep the legacy of the store going and now runs daily operations © Rachel Wilson/Lonely Planet
But for all the unusual and local knowledge she purveys, what’s the best part about owning a bookstore? “Never running out of books to read.”
Housed in a two-story barn on the eastern side of South Bass Island in Lake Erie, Island Hardware and Market is the place where everyone on the island goes to get what they need. © Courtesy of Island Hardware and Market
Island Hardware and Market
Island Hardware and Market is a small family-owned store with a big purpose. Located in Put-in-Bay, Ohio – the perfect launching point for Great Lakes adventures – Brothers Jason and Chris Cooper have been running the shop for almost 20 years. In that time, it has become a community anchor for hundreds of year-round residents and thousands of summer visitors.
Housed in a two-story barn on the eastern side of South Bass Island in Lake Erie, the store is the place where everyone on the island goes to get what they need. And we do mean everything. Island Hardware and Market has everything from automotive parts and lumber, to groceries and gifts.
Brothers Jason and Chris Cooper have been running Island Hardware and Market for almost 20 years © Courtesy of Island Hardware and Market
“We seem to know everybody because, at some point, everyone comes through our doors,” Jason says. He said the brothers love solving problems for their customers, and if there’s something they don’t have in stock, they will special order it. “We joke around that our unofficial slogan is ‘We can get it for you on Wednesday if you order it by Monday.’”
Whether you need a case of coconut milk or a box of boat fenders, the Coopers can get it. The store is also the main supplier in town for contractors in need of plumbing and electrical supplies as well as the go-to provider for the township when it needs everything from road paint to parking curbs. In the winter, when the store isn’t as busy, the Coopers host holiday parties and other special events that bring the community together.
Visitors to the island will find everything they need for a stay in the Great Lakes region, from groceries to fishing and camping equipment. But Jason encourages everyone who comes to make sure to wander through every aisle. “You never know what you might find.”
Tiffany Ramsubick welcomes a visitor to Ode, a family-owned boutique hotel in Toronto that revels in its ties to the neighborhood © Ryan Fung/Lonely Planet
Located about two miles west of downtown Toronto in the Dundas West neighborhood, Ode is a family-owned boutique hotel that revels in its ties to the community. Four siblings, the children of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, opened their one-of-a-kind accommodations as a tribute to the spirit of Dundas West in 2022. The two-story building has eight unique rooms with their own personality, decorated with furnishings and rotating artwork exclusively from community creators. A rooftop deck offers guests access to yoga classes, performances, and other events – or just a great place to hang out during warmer months.
A rooftop deck is decorated by murals from local artists © Ryan Fung/Lonely Planet
There isn’t a lobby or lounge, but when you stay here, you’re immediately part of the family – one of the siblings or their mother is always on hand to greet guests and address their needs. And no one knows Toronto, especially Dundas West, better.
Tiffany Ramsubick said all her siblings have non-creative regular careers, so it’s fun for them to flex their creative muscles together. Their passion project takes plenty of hustle though – by day, they’re a commercial lawyer and mom, a psychiatrist, a software developer, and a chemical engineer and business analyst. They rely on accessible and affordable tech options to help manage day-to-day operations and Smart TVs and Bluetooth speakers give guests convenient, personalized in-room entertainment options.
Ode has eight unique rooms with their own personality, decorated with furnishings and rotating artwork exclusively from community creators. © Ryan Fung/Lonely Planet
“Working with family can be challenging,” Ramsubick said. “But we all really like working with each other, and we share the common goal of wanting to help people experience the up-and-coming neighborhood. The community has been really supportive. The past few years have been a watershed moment where people want to support black-owned businesses.”
By all accounts, their little boutique hotel is making its presence known – occupancy rates hit 90 to 100 percent during high season.
Andrea Johnson opens Aunny’s Country Kitchen – a Georgetown, SC, staple for country homestyle meals © Michele Coleman/Lonely Planet
Aunny’s Country Kitchen
Cooking comes naturally to Andrea Johnson. She grew up in the kitchen, making recipes passed down from her great-grandmother. So, when her husband became the reverend of their small church in Georgetown, South Carolina, it was no problem for her to cook dinner for the entire congregation after his first sermon. Her food made an immediate impact. One church member was impressed with how well she provided for the large group and said she needed a restaurant. Another had a line on a storefront on the main street in town. Before she knew it, Andrea’s dream was becoming a reality.
She set up shop with her family, serving up authentic Low country recipes and comfort food. Her 76-year-old mother still comes in every day to make every dessert from scratch, cooking side-by-side with her daughter the recipes they’ve perfected over four generations. For the most part, they do things the old-fashioned way at Aunny’s, but she’s steadily transitioning the business to more technologically advanced points of sale, inventory tracking, and social media marketing to get the word out.
Georgetown is a lovely waterfront town filled with live oaks and tons of Southern charm © Michele Coleman/Lonely Planet
It’s working. Fourteen years after she opened her doors in 2009, her famous pork chops and bestselling pancakes are flying out the door, and the accolades are coming in. Customers say her food reminds them of their grandmother’s. Others are even brought to tears.
It still takes Andrea by surprise. “I have to ask my husband, ‘is the food really, really that good?’” she says, when she gets a particularly raving review. Believe it, Andrea – it’s that good.
Georgetown is a lovely waterfront town filled with live oaks and tons of Southern charm, where visitors come for boating, fishing and historic Low-country explorations. Andrea’s restaurant in the heart of town makes her the unofficial expert for travelers and locals alike. She also loves to give back to the community. Every year since 2009, she has served a big Thanksgiving meal to the community, free of charge. The first year she served 125 meals. This year, an incredible 1,106 people showed up.
It’s the least she could do for a community that has given her so much, and she says is the friendliest in South Carolina.
“When you come here, you just feel like you belong here,” she said.
Fourteen years after opening in 2009, Aunny’s famous pork chops and bestselling pancakes are flying out the door © Michele Coleman/Lonely Planet
Whether it’s for fresh new accommodations and artistic connections, the comforting smell of well-loved books, or a friendly face offering everything from provisions to local knowledge, there’s no match for a good small business. In serving residents and visitors alike, they form the backbone of the location – and the heart of the community.
In Celebration of its Evolve Small initiative, Lenovo has tapped Queen Latifah, the ‘Queen of Hip-Hop,’ to be the Queen of Small. Learn more about how you can make her the face of your small business, and other ways Lenovo is supporting small businesses across the US and Canada.