Eco Evolution: The unofficial hub of Norwalk, plus connecting over sustainability with Brad Kerner (AKA the Eco Dude)

I recently spoke with Brad Kerner, founder of The Eco Evolution market and cafe in Connecticut. Brad started his shop as a pandemic career shift, drawing on his background in behavior change to promote sustainability. Though retail proved more challenging than expected, he remains dedicated to his mission.

We discussed Brad's emphasis on facilitating connections in his community-oriented space. He shared his vision to transform the shop into a vibrant 'third place,' though organically attracting groups has been difficult. Brad also opened up about the constant struggles small business owners face, and the importance of community support.

Overall, I was inspired by Brad's resilience in the face of obstacles, and his enduring commitment to foster inclusive spaces that bring people together.

Watch the full interview here or listen on your favorite podcast platform here.

Starting business as a pandemic pivot

Brad lost his job in international development due to the pandemic. He had no prior retail or coffee experience, but started The Eco Evolution Market as a way to enact positive environmental change. However, he found retail was much harder than expected.

"It was never part of the plan. It also isn't my dream come true."

"I had no, I have no experience in retail and no experience in food service or coffee." 

"Little did I know that retail is so fricking hard."

Though the retail business has proven more difficult than expected, Brad remains dedicated to his mission of promoting sustainability and community. He has overcome major obstacles and demonstrated resilience in adapting to an unexpected career shift.

Being welcoming and facilitating connections

Brad aims to create an inclusive space where everyone feels comfortable. He trains staff to greet everyone, learn names, and connect customers who may share common interests. 

"I wanted a space that's inclusive for everyone where everyone feels comfortable."

"We say hello to everyone that walks through the door and you've been to my space."

Brad's emphasis on inclusive spaces and human connections exemplifies his core values. His hospitality strategies aim to foster a warmth that converted customers into friends.

Vision for a community "third place"

Brad envisioned his cafe as a lively community hub and coworking space. But it's been a challenge to organically attract groups and events beyond occasional one-off gatherings.

"I wanted my coffee shop to be a space where people would meet up." 

"I thought if you build it, they would come at least for that aspect, 'cause when have you seen a cafe with like not, they don't have a ton of people sitting there working."

"I actually paid for, I don't know if you realize this, but I put in all those plugs in the back."

While Brad's vision of a bustling community hub has not fully materialized yet, he remains committed to promoting his shop as welcoming gathering space open to all.

Challenges facing small business owners

Brad has struggled with high rents, loan interest rate hikes, and erratic customer traffic. He relies on community support, though many visit infrequently or only with out-of-town guests.

"My interest rate went from 4% to 11% on that loan. And that alone literally could close my doors."

"There's probably 10 empty storefronts on the street, I think because rent is too high, and there's really no daytime foot traffic."

"I get a lot of people who bring, when their families visit, they bring their families to show them my store."

Brad's story underscores the uncertainty small business owners face, but also their determination. Supporting local shops returns dividends to the entire community.

Using subtle cues to shift customer habits

Brad uses behavioral design strategies like defaults, rewards, and terminology to subtly shift customer habits towards sustainability.

"By asking someone, Oh, can I make that for here? You know, you want to go to stay, you know, most people, most coffee shops default to a to go cup."

"We write your name on it. So we had, 'cause you don't always remember the name, but what's, you have a punch card, don't you? What is it under? Oh yeah, Tony."

"I try to train my staff like this is what makes us different. This is part of our brand."

Drawing on behavior change principles, Brad creatively institutes systems to encourage sustainable choices. Small tweaks can spur wider ripples of impact.