The Happy Catering Company
As a Greek kid growing up in a family that ran restaurants, hotels, and banquet facilities, Vassilli “Bill” Bouloukos always dreamed of owning his own restaurant. In 1992, he left his corporate job to chase that dream, and within five years he owned several restaurants around Birmingham. Those restaurants also offered catering, and over time, Bill built a considerable business doing corporate lunches and weddings. In 1998, Bill decided to sell his restaurants and open Happy Catering, a full-service catering company. Robbie Dyson joined Happy Catering in 2005 as co-chef and owner/operator, and together they’ve built up the business so much they needed to expand to a 12,000-square-foot facility in West Homewood, Alabama. “We’ve grown to serve a 200-mile radius around Birmingham. A big part of that is our great cuisine, but it’s also because we’re able to reach so many people through digital media,” said Bill.
Digital makes up 80% of Happy Catering’s advertising budget, and Google Ads have been crucial in solving the business’s biggest challenge: getting noticed by new customers. “Early on, we realized we had to maintain our online presence because we don’t have a storefront,” Bill said. “The hardest thing was introducing people to our services, so we relied on digital.” Bill and Robbie set up a Google My Business account to showcase photos from catered events and customer reviews that help reinforce Happy Catering’s strong reputation. They’ve consistently updated keywords on the company’s website to rank higher on search results and redesigned the site’s layout to be more mobile-friendly. “We do a lot in-house, including social media, but we know Google is the first spot that most people are going to go,” said Bill. Internally, Happy Catering uses Google Analytics to measure its online ads’ performance, track calls from its GMB account, and monitor website traffic.
Today, Happy Catering employs a team of 50 and serves nearly 300,000 customers annually. But amid their success, one of Bill and Robbie’s biggest passions is using their business to help local residents. “Birmingham is big, but everybody knows each other, “ Bill said. “In a tight- knit community like Homewood, it’s important that we give back.” Happy Catering regularly supports local food drives and athletic programs. As for future business growth, Bill and Robbie plan to keep up with digital trends and tools. “Our goal is to keep adding to our team and building jobs in the community,” Robbie added. “If we keep upping our ante on Google and on social, we know our success will keep snowballing.”
Fort Payne, Alabama
In its heyday during the mid-1990s, Fort Payne was known as the “Sock Capital of the World.” One in every eight pairs of socks worldwide came out of the Alabama city, which at the time was home to over 150 mills. Gina Locklear’s parents were part of the fabric of that success. They ran a mill of their own, manufacturing white athletic socks for a large distributor. Years later, as business began to move overseas, her parents worried that they would soon have to close their doors. “But then I thought, ‘What if we start our own brand and don’t have to rely on manufacturing socks for other companies?’” Gina recalls. In 2009, she launched Zkano Socks. The brand preserves the essence of the family business, but with some of Gina’s own twists—vibrant colors and playful patterns using organic cotton and low-impact dyes.
Zkano Socks went online shortly after their founding. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so instead of going to trade shows, we thought it’d be a better investment to spend our budget on digital marketing,” Gina explains. They began using AdWords, Google’s advertising program, to reach customers beyond state borders. “I love AdWords, because it helps us introduce ourselves to new markets and new customers that we would otherwise never be in front of,” says Gina. The company today sees a 325 percent return on investment from AdWords. They also use Google Analytics to optimize their ad campaigns, and YouTube provides a platform for sharing Zkano’s story. “YouTube really helps introduce a lot of people to our brand by telling our story, which has been the foundation of our business since we started,” she adds.
The Locklear family mill is one of seventeen that still stand in Fort Payne. With Zkano’s business nearly doubling every year, Gina is proud to be playing a role in the city’s rich history. “That’s what has kept me going over the years,” she shares. “Whenever I have low moments, I’m reminded of my love for this work, how I’m carrying on my family business, and how Zkano is helping to continue Fort Payne’s tradition in the textile industry.” When asked to share her hopes for the future, Gina’s response was simple: “Honestly, I want to reach more people with our socks. I wish I had something more profound to say, but the thing is, we make socks. That’s who we are. It’s what we know, and it will always be dear to our hearts.”
Villa Lagoon Tile
Gulf Shores, Alabama
When building in Alabama's storm-prone Gulf Coast, Lundy Wilder wanted her home "as hurricane-proof as possible." This meant the flooring needed to survive getting wet. She sought out a fabricator to make durable cement tiles like the bold, ornate designs she'd seen from Cuba and Spain. Realizing that there was a niche market of consumers who were also seeking an alternative to standard tiles, Lundy founded Villa Lagoon Tile. She launched their first website in 2008 and began offering custom cement tiles to residential and business customers.
As an online business, Villa Lagoon Tile relies on digital marketing to bring customers to their virtual storefront. “Initially, we only got calls from consumers who had a history with cement tiles. With the web, we’ve been able to expose our products to people who have never seen them before. Now we’re getting calls from customers everywhere under the sun,” says Lundy. Digital advertising comprises 90 percent of Villa Lagoon Tile’s marketing spend, and AdWords, Google's advertising program, accounts for 25 percent of their business. “AdWords is really perfect for matching clients and vendors in a niche market,” says Director of Technology John Adams. “We could never compete with big-box stores on standard tiles. But we can compete for cement tiles thanks to Google search and advertising.” They also use Google Analytics to “measure where our traffic is coming from and find stumbling blocks where visitors are getting lost,” John adds. Google Custom Search Engine powers their internal website search, YouTube helps bring the Villa Lagoon Tile experience to life, and G Suite supports their office operations.
Today Villa Lagoon Tile stocks 150 different products, many of which have been designed by Lundy, and their warehouse carries over 60,000 square feet of tile. International shipments drive 15 percent of their sales as business continues to grow in North and Latin America, Asia, Europe, and most recently the Middle East. "There's been an explosion of interest in these tiles," Lundy explains. “Architects and designers who love our product will use our tiles job after job.” And as they’ve expanded, they’ve been able to give back to their community by donating tiles to local non-profits. “We are a small town on a big beach,” Lundy says. “Small businesses like ours are everything to this community.”
Back Forty Beer Company
In 2008, Alabama had only two breweries, and it was illegal to produce or sell beer with over 6% alcohol. After touring 150 breweries in other states, Jason Wilson founded the Back Forty Beer Company to begin changing Alabamians’ tastes. “In the South, we definitely know food and we know flavors,” says his brother Brad Wilson, Director of Marketing. “But because our choices were limited, Alabama had lost some of its identity.” In 2009, Back Forty introduced their first beer, Naked Pig Pale Ale, followed by Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale. “The idea was to rekindle the idea of craftsmanship, hard work, and love for what you do, using good local ingredients and having an impact on the community,” Brad says.
The first thing they did, he adds, “was start thinking about how our company would look on the Internet. How would people find us?” They quickly turned to AdWords, Google’s advertising program. “All the cumbersome bureaucracy of the old marketing world was just immediately stripped away,” says Brad. “Google allowed us to craft our own message.” The company also started using Google Analytics to track the effectiveness of their online ads. Together these two Google tools constituted the company’s entire marketing program. In addition, Google Apps for Work helped the brewery’s scattered staff to collaborate and keep in touch through products like Gmail and Google Docs. And Google Groups helped them join other Alabamians in pressing for progressive new state brewing laws.
When Truck Stop Honey won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival, distribution offers poured in from as far away as New York and California. The brewery added workers and moved into a 27,000-square-foot warehouse built in the 1940s. They continue to introduce new beers, such as Freckle Belly IPA, Paw Paw's Peach Wheat, and Trade Day Cuban Coffee Stout. Back Forty Beer Company has created a new brand and helped to transform a portion of downtown Gadsden. The company energetically supports its hometown—“we literally have not said no to any charity or community organization in seven years,” Brad says. “That’s what changes cities, when industries like this come to town. The ripple effect is enormous.”