Heather Carlucci Rodriguez Shares Her Success with Others

Steven Van YoderHeather Carlucci Rodriguez was the founder/owner of New York-based Lassi, a take-out restaurant featuring Northern Indian home cooking. As a former renowned pastry chef, Rodriguez is an unlikely Indian restaurant owner. But her love of Indian cooking, along with her reputation for creating unique, intricately spiced dishes that taste unlike any other Indian restaurant in town, helped her get named Best Take-Out in New York City in March 2006 by New York Magazine. Heather is also passionate about entrepreneurship and embraces Third World poverty alleviation as her company cause. Lassi donates a portion of its profits toward helping women micro-entrepreneurs in India and the Dominican Republic, helping poor women lift themselves out of poverty by supporting microcredit programs that reach Third World entrepreneurs. Can you tell me a little bit about your business? We’re a very small Indian restaurant in the West Village in New York City. And when I say very small, I mean it. Our location is about 6 feet wide and seventy feet long! I opened Lassi in 2005 after working for twenty years as a pastry chef. I was motivated to open Lassi because I’m in love with Indian cooking. Since our opening, Lassi has been quite successful. We’ve carved out a unique niche in a city filled with Indian restaurants and developed an Indian spice line we sell as well. We are comitted to freshness and make everything on the menu, including our own cheese and all the masalas and spice blends we use in our Indian cuisine. In a competitive restaurant city like New York, we developed our own spice line as a strategy for building something unique and distinct into our business. I saw it as a way to express our passion for Indian cuisine through our spices and a new income stream that would advance our brand and reputation. What motivated you to embrace a cause-related marketing theme around Third World entrepreneurship? Before our decision to support Third World entrepreneurs, Lassi donated to local causes, including a music program for girls who can’t afford art school. As an international restaurant developing an imported spice line, I wanted to do something to help women around the world because it was a cause totally aligned with our brand.My inspiration came one morning while listening to National Public Radio to a program profiling microcredit founder Mohammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank in Bangladsh for winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The Grameen Bank specializes in helping the poor through a concept Yunis pioneered thirty years ago, which was microcredit, giving small loans to the poor to enable them to become micro-entrepreneurs. It immediately struck me that Indian poverty alleviation would be a perfect cause for Lassi to support, especially since some of the poorest people in India are women. I thought that supporting the Grammeen Banks would be a wonderful thing because, as a women lucky enough to in America where a woman can open her own business, Lassi could help people in India realize this dream and make a difference. After this initial inspiration, what steps did you take? I contacted the Grameen Foundation and introduced myself, suggesting that Lassi could be an active supporter. It easy to make my case and we developed an arrangement where Lassi would donate a percentage of profits to support their programs.Now, every time we sell our spice products we generate funds to support micro-entrepreneurs. Each month, I write Grameen a check. How did you let your customers know about your cause? When you come into Lassi, customers see beautiful shelving for the spices. There’s a sticker on every package that says a percentage of money you spend through our spice line goes to the Grameen Bank, including a description of what it does to help the world. It’s a natural conversation starter.Now that I’m educated about the Grameen Foundation, I happily tell our customers what it does, often introducing microcredit to people who learn about it for the first time. Many customers say, “I had no idea. This is wonderful!” Many come back over and over because they know the profits go toward a worthy cause. Lassi demonstrates that small, local businesses can embrace cause marketing in a way that aligns with your brand I approached Grameen because I personally believed in their cause. I imagined that supporting Grameen would, at most, add a compelling dimension to my spice product line. But shortly after, it hit me how powerful embracing a cause could be for my business. For one, it made my phone ring with people interested in learning more. Cause marketing helped Lassi reach people with a natural affinity for our brand, opened new doors and connected us with new friends and businesspeople involved in the cause of Third World poverty. Cause marketing also resulted in great media coverage! The media love a good story, such as this pastry chef who embraced Indian cuisine and made decision to give something back. We were profiled in the New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine and USA Today. This media coverage around our Grameen project generated new paying customers who walked through the door after reading articles about our cause-related efforts. What’s your call to action for why businesses should pursue cause-related marketing? As businesspeople, especially in this economic climate, it’s easy to see this type of activity as ancillary and should take a back seat to more pressing concerns. But I’m living proof that if done correctly and authentically, cause marketing can bring real business benefits. I’m asked a lot about the costs of putting something like this together. But I’ve found that cause-related marketing doesn’t have to require any money to start. For Lassi, it costs us nothing apart from the price of a sticker we print ourselves and put on our spice packages. Once you embrace cause marketing, the benefits are many. It’s free PR. It’s free karma, if you will. And it’s free networking that attracts people who align with your personal values. It cultivates goodwill, which is especially important for small businesses with a direct personal connection to their clients and customers. Small businesses are now feeling the crunch. But the opportunities that can open up through cause marketing can help you weather down times. Once you embrace a cause, it opens the door to high visibility events where your business reaches more people in a very cost-effective and powerful way. Cause marketing has enhanced our brand and reputation, and encourages word of mouth and strong brand loyalty benefiting both our cause and our business.

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