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What You’ll Learn

Jay Sanders of Middle Tennessee discusses how the co-op is using a grilled cheese sandwich trailer and Cooperative Community Forums to reach out and listen to members.

Guest Speaker

Jay Sanders

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What are some outside the box ways to reach your members? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns. I’m your host with WordSouth and Pioneer. And I’m joined on this episode by Jay Sanders, who is a community relations supervisor for Middle Tennessee Electric. Jay, thanks for joining me.

Jay Sanders: Absolutely! Thank you for having me, Andy. A couple of years back, we decided to come up with this idea, and it was out of the box for sure. It was something called the “electric griddle.” And we were excited about it, it’s turned out to be something that is unexpectedly great, both for the co-op and the members.

Andy Johns: It’s a really cool idea. And I don’t know if we have a grilled cheese sound effect that they can throw on or not, but I’m excited to get into that. We’re recording this here at Pickets Landing State Park at the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association Communicators meeting. So if we have any, like I always say on the live episodes, if we have any background noise, it’s not background noise, it’s ambiance. So that’s what we’re going for here where there’s a lot of great communicators, a lot of good ideas being shared around, including this idea. So let’s get into that a little bit more, tell us what it looks like.

Jay Sanders: Absolutely! Andy so, the electric griddle is a 16-foot trailer, and we have a porch on the back of it. And it’s all lit up, we have a 3D sign. And we really focus on providing just a simple, easy promotional item to us, but it can be eaten for our members. So we have a grilled cheese sandwiches is what we provide. And they have muenster, American cheese, and sharp cheddar, all on artisan bread. And we put mayonnaise on the outside. And it is fantastic. I know it’s a little, it’s a little different for a co-op to maybe serve their members with food on a regular basis. But it’s been catchy. And it’s something that our members really remember us by, they’ll come to us and say, “Hey, when’s that electric griddle coming back to our football game in our hometown?” And so we’ll give them a date, and they put it on their calendar, and they get excited about it. I mean, they’ll post on our Facebook page, they’ll see us out in the community. And it’s just been something for us. It’s been really successful.

Andy Johns: Definitely! And we don’t do a lot of recipe tips on this podcast, usually, but the mayonnaise on the outside, the artisan bread. That’s, we’re getting close to dinnertime, here. That sounds great to me. So I like it. So, does the staff [are they the ones] flipping the sandwiches and making them or do y’all have somebody come in to do it? Or how what’s it looks like on a day when you’re setting that up at an event?

Jay Sanders: Yeah, absolutely! So let’s just say that we go to a high school football game, right? What we’ll do is we’ll normally talk to the staff and see maybe who attended that high school or if they have any dependents that attended that high school, and we’ll ask them first if they would like to participate, because they’ve already got that connection within that particular community.

Andy Johns: Sure.

Jay Sanders: Let’s say that we go out to a different school and maybe we’re doing a Teacher Appreciation Day. Well, the PTO staff, they may want to volunteer and help us serve those teachers. So, we’ve created a volunteer waiver in which they can do that. So then we don’t actually have to depend on our staff. We can just have one of our staff members there, managing the trailer and then depend on the PTO staff to help serve the teachers.

Andy Johns: So materials wise, what does it take to build this, to make this the electric griddle?

Jay Sanders: Yeah, it’s really simple and any co-op out there can do it. You know, we started out with a 16-foot enclosed trailer. We had a few tables, a tablecloth, a 10×10 tent, a small generator and an electric griddle. And we were able to pump out 200 to 300 sandwiches, and these are fantastic sandwiches. These are like gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, and we could pump those out in about an hour and a half just with that supplies. So in all if you already have a trailer at your co-op that’s not being utilized, a 16-foot enclosed trailer. You’re probably looking at about $1,000 in supplies, just to give it a shot.

Andy Johns: So when you’re looking at the way to make it work. Tell us a bit about story. How often do y’all take it out? And how do you pitch the idea of, “Hey, boss, we’re gonna make grilled cheese for people.” How did how does that go? Because I know there are a lot of communicators what, whether it’s this idea, or whether it’s a crazy fun idea they have that just might be a little timid to throw something out like that.

Jay Sanders: Oh, yeah. Well, first and foremost, I would just say that, you know, if you’ve got an idea, please present it. Whether you think it may be crazy or not, you never know if you don’t try. And so, I would task you with that, just to give it a shot. Second of all, we looked at a couple of different co-ops from around the country that were kind of doing something a little similar. There was one co-op, it had a trailer called Bratts and Watts.

Andy Johns: There was like that. I do appreciate a good rhyme.

Jay Sanders: Yeah, we looked at another co-op that that just set up and made hamburgers at high school football games. And we thought to ourselves, “Hey, we need to reach a different demographic than what traditionally knows who we are. We need to reach a younger demographic. How do we do that?” Well, they’re not going to come to us. They’re not going to come in our office. Because they’re busy, and they have busy lifestyles. But if we go to them at high school football games, at college football games, if we go talk to teachers at schools, and we have this food product that we can provide them, and they enjoy it, and it’s something really good, then we can provide them with information about the co-op as well. And then on top of that, they’re going to remember who we are. I mean, this food is great, guys. I’m telling you. We get invited to food tasting events. That’s how good it is.

Andy Johns: Wow! So that’s next level. Certainly not your grandmother’s grilled cheese. I like it. So, I just a couple more questions, because I know that we’re going to talk about the forums that you guys do as well. But, you mentioned several of the events. You guys are fortunate to have the University of Middle Tennessee, right there in your backyard. What are some of the other events that you guys typically take this to?

Jay Sanders: Yeah, so a lot of nonprofit events, we’ll also attend. Nonprofits are something that, I think all co-ops tend to support in some way or another. But if a nonprofit has a fundraising event, we’ll go out there and provide this electric griddle, and it’s free. I want to emphasize that. I mean, we don’t ask anyone to pay anything. It is so cheap; we can make 200 grilled cheeses for $100. And so if you were putting that into perspective and trying to compare it with promotional items, I mean, that’s 50 cents. And so what are you going to get for 50 cents on a promotional item? You have to ask yourself, is that pen a good promo item? Or would a grilled cheese that they’re going to remember for many months, or many years to come, something that I would like to provide to my members?

Andy Johns: Absolutely! So last question, as you’re branding it or as you’ve on the trailer itself, or the sandwich itself, how is the co-op represented? Or tell us a little bit of how the branding plays into it. And then we’ll move on to, I’m kind of stuck on the grilled cheese for a little bit longer than I had planned. But I think it’s a pretty cool idea. So, how does the branding come into the service scape of the space there where the sandwiches are being served?

Jay Sanders: Oh, absolutely! Well, first of all, the trailer is called the Electric Griddle. And it’s ran off of electricity provided by a generator, but it’s Middle Tennessee Electric’s logo is plastered all over the trailer in the form of a wrap. And we’ve also got lights all over the trailer, and integrated battery storage that actually powers the lights. And we felt like that was important, just to show the members that, this is another way that we can show you how electricity actually works by using battery storage.

Andy Johns: I like it, good thinking. So maybe a little bit more serious topic, but still a fun once something a little bit different. So tell me a little bit about the co-op community forums that you guys have been doing. And I guess just kind of a brief overview of that program first before we dive in.

Jay Sanders: Yeah. The Co-op Community Forum is something that’s provided by the North Carolina Electric Cooperative Association, and it’s called the Front Porch Forum. We kind of rebranded that as the Co-op Community Forum. And what that is, is we view it as an advisory council for our co-op. Now we started this a little over three years ago, meeting with about 75 members per quarter. And we’ll rotate those members on a yearly basis. But I want to say that we were proactively thinking, but we had no clue that before we started this, COVID would come along and smack us all in the face. And it did. And just out of coincidence, we had this council already set up. And we were communicating with them on a quarterly basis, and it worked perfectly. We didn’t have to alter anything. We just kept rolling, like we were already.

Andy Johns: Outstanding! And we talked a little bit about it. So you mentioned that the front porch forum was the original name of it, but in the area, like you guys have, it’s a very, I guess, varied region from you guys have urban or suburban and then on out into the rural area. So renaming it made sense for you guys.

Jay Sanders: Absolutely! Yeah. Just renaming it to The Co-op Community Forum did make sense for us. We felt like that was a perfect name to integrate the community into that name, and it’s worked great.

Andy Johns: So how do you find the folks to be on the forum? And then how long are they on before they rotate off?

Jay Sanders: So, through our ACSI score, we provide a member data, Excel sheet, and we contact those members directly from that sheet. We’ll ask them if they would like to participate in the forum, we look for a particular age demographic to participate in this form, we really focus on the 25 to 55 age bracket. And then we’ll also focus on different geographic areas to kind of spread the forum out throughout our whole service territory.

Andy Johns: That makes a lot of sense. And what kinds of issues are they talking about? What kinds of things are you asking them about?

Jay Sanders: Yeah, anything from like a website redesign to just general information to make them aware of what’s going on at the Co-op. We have so many different programs, co-ops do. But a lot of the times we have so many different programs, that members may not be aware of all the different programs that are available to them. And so this really helps just identify those programs, and which programs that the members might want to partake in.

Andy Johns: And you all have been doing this for a little while. But has there been anything in particular that you felt like really surprised you from the answers? Maybe, you thought that people thought a certain way, but when you get in the forum, you hear something very different? And whether that’s shaped the way you guys do something or not? What are some things that were a little bit of a surprise to hear that you got from the forum?

Jay Sanders: Yeah, every year Andy, this forum starts out and in members, they kind of question the forum, the first quarter. They question what we’re doing as a co-op. They look at it and they say, “Well, you’re just doing this for publicity.” And by the time the forum is over, every single member of that Co-op Community Forum, their mind has been changed. And they’re praising the Co-op, and they’re talking about, “Well, we didn’t know you had a scholarship program.” Or, “We didn’t know that you come in to our homes, and you do energy assessment.” And so, they’re excited by the time the forum is over. And it’s just such a remarkable way for a member to view a co-op at the end of the day, and we’re excited about the future, and The Co-op Community Forum.

Andy Johns: Definitely! So we’ll wrap up. I don’t want to stay on too long here. But let’s say there is an idea whether it’s somebody who’s not doing a forum, or some kind of listening group like that, or they’re not doing a food truck, we talked about a little bit earlier, but say they’ve got an idea, or they’ve got away, somebody in that communicator role, whether they’re up high in the company or farther down the ladder. What advice would you have for them? Or what tips if they’ve got something a little unconventional or different for their organization to roll out there? What advice would you give them?

Jay Sanders: Yeah, I would just say, again, bring it up to your manager, bring it up to your CEO. Don’t let fear stand in the way. I mean, in order to be successful, sometimes you have to be a little uncomfortable and you have to get outside that comfort zone. So just take that leap. And know that if you do it the right way, it’s going to be successful.

Andy Johns: I like it. Good advice, good advice and good encouragement for other folks that may be in the shoes where you were a few years ago. So that’s excellent. He is Jay Sanders. He is the community relations manager for Middle Tennessee Electric. Jay, thanks for joining me.

Jay Sanders: Absolutely. Thank you, Andy.

Andy Johns: And as always, I’m your host, Andy Johns until we talk again, keep telling your story.

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.