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Planning Holiday Treats, but No Papa's Cream Puffs for Me

In the spirit of giving, you can help folks at small businesses—and they may be able to give back to you.

November 30, 2012

His white beard covers most of his face, but you get the feeling that jolly old soul is smiling at you even as he puffs away on what appears to be a tapered-apple pipe. Always warm and inviting, his eyes almost beg you to step into his shop filled with gifts.

But then he went away unexpectedly, and I don't think he's coming back to see who's naughty or nice. Even though we were never formally introduced, I'll miss the big guy dearly.

After all, I never got my cream puff! Ah, missed opportunities.

In late November, Chicago's Beard Papa's café closed. Part of Muginoho International's cream-puff chain, which started in Japan in 1999, the Chicago store opened in 2009. It was located underground in the Windy City's "pedway," a series of not-so-well-known indoor passages that can get you around many downtown buildings without your cream puff turning to frozen custard outside. I've passed by the store on most days in the winter, and I can't tell you how many times I considered stopping in for what looked like delicious pâte à choux. Instead, I danced and pranced around it. Now my appetite for trying the pastry will remain unfulfilled.

So sorry, Papa; I could have helped by offering a little support.

While this small business didn't get off the ground the way it hoped, it appears small companies are on the comeback trail as firms with a "small" or "very small" staff added 50,000 jobs in October, according to ADP's National Employment Report. In fact, the number of small-business jobs (from companies with 50 or fewer employees) has gone up every month going back to October 2010, according to ADP, following 23 months of job losses in that category between May 2008 and March 2010.

Small businesses are an integral part of Americana going back to the colonial days, and franchises have been ingrained in the culture for more than 150 years. In the 1850s, Isaac Merritt Singer (check out that beard) began charging licensing fees to business people to expand distribution of his sewing machines, similarly to what beer-makers were doing in Europe decades before that. While big businesses tend to garner more attention, keep in mind that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 17,236 firms with more than 500 employees in 2010 compared with almost 5.2 million firms with 20 or fewer workers.

But new businesses don't always have the necessary ingredients to bake properly. The U.S. Small Business Association estimates that about 70 percent of new employers survive at least two years, and only about half survive five years or more. That's a lot of businesses that don't make it, and maybe an opportunity for you to think outside the big-box store.

I'm not saying you should go poaching workers from these small companies. I, for one, would much rather see these businesses succeed, but the reality is turnover can be high and companies come and go. Perhaps befriending some of the hard-working folks at small businesses in your area and a little patience could come in handy when a worker is ready to move on or if a business is suddenly no longer in business. With the proper seasoning (read: training), maybe you could bring an unlikely but promising candidate into the mix.

Or … you can think about giving, not getting. Many, if not most, small businesses don't have human resources folks to help their employees out. Perhaps in our litigious society it wouldn't work so well and maybe your employer would frown upon it, but what if, as an HR expert, you could donate an hour or two of your time this holiday season, much like how the SCORE Association works? You could counsel people at small businesses needing help. Maybe you could help the manager get a better handle on recruiting in the era of Facebook and LinkedIn, help a worker understand benefits, or counsel someone on the pros and cons of COBRA insurance. Another idea, if the shop is going out of business, you could go over someone's résumé to ensure that worker is prepared for the upcoming job hunt.

What a holiday treat that would be for someone in need of advice.

James Tehrani is Workforce's copy desk chief. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.