PALMETTO -- When Sharon Barhorst moved to Palmetto in 1997 from Dayton, Ohio, there wasn't a welcome basket at the door to celebrate the new neighbor.
That neighborly tradition faded away in many communities long ago but now, in conjunction with an Atlanta-based company, Barhorst is hoping to give a 21st century face to the gift basket.
Barhorst is a new franchise owner of WelcomeMat Services -- a company that links small businesses to new residents through special offers and free services. She thinks Manatee County, with its rampant growth and friendly residents, is the perfect place to start the franchise.
"I know when I first came here everyone welcomed us and you didn't' feel like an outsider," Barhorst said. "I can give that same kind of friendly welcome to people."
The company has businesses, typically restaurants, salons, car washes, dentist offices and attractions, pay a fee to provide coupons. Barhorst vets them all. In exchange, the businesses get detailed demographic data for the people who used the coupons as a direct mail marketing campaign to show return on investment.
"Where it used to be someone knocking on your door and bringing a basket full of goodies, we give you gifts," said Brian Mattingly, chief executive officer and founder of WelcomeMat Services.
Barhorst is one of 20 franchise units expected to open this year, representing 40 percent growth, he said.
Barhorst wished she had something like that for a salon when she moved to Palmetto 17 years ago.
"I went through the trial and error method," she said. "I had a disaster. My hair is real thick and hard to cut. I went through a lot of different hair salons."
It wasn't until she received a gift card from a friend that she found the salon she would be loyal to -- it's that concept WelcomeMat builds upon.
"I'm going to pick quality businesses that I know have been in this community for a long time," Barhorst said.
The welcome packet includes instructions to download a smartphone application that has loyalty programs for participating business, kind of like a digital punch card. Each WelcomeMat community has its own Facebook page for neighbors to get to know one another and with updates from local businesses.
WelcomeMat takes away the necessity for new hardware for businesses and attractions that participate in the program. After the business gets six coupons, they place the slips in a business reply envelope provided by WelcomeMat and the company scans barcodes on the bottom of the coupon to retrieve data, Mattingly said.
The business receives information about who redeemed the coupon, their address and likely income and age based on the Census data for their neighborhood, Mattingly said. The business then can use that information for their own advertising campaign.
One pizzeria in Atlanta saw that 40-year-old men were coming in to his restaurant and decided to buy a large sign and advertise on the sidelines of a pee-wee football league.
"He knew that 40-year-olds making a hundred grand probably had kids who played football and the last thing dad wanted to do after the game was make a sandwich," Mattingly said.
Barhorst will start sending mailers from WelcomeMat in Lakewood Ranch, Palmetto and downtown Bradenton. Seasonal residents could give the system a special challenge. The company does its best to filter those out, Mattingly said. The company has had experience with that issue in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, he said.
While small businesses are a focus of WelcomeMat, large attractions like the World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta have participated, Mattingly said. Mall businesses have been a success for WelcomeMat and Barhorst is considering contacting some of the retailers in The Mall at University Town Center, too.
Barhorst both knows the faces of the community and the numbers behind them as a board member of the Bradenton Kiwanis Club and member of Leadership Manatee and her four years as information technology director at the Manatee County Property Appraiser. She credits the Kiwanis for being part of the community.
"Bradenton Kiwanis has done so much in our community. That's how I met everyone was through the club," she said. "People took me under their wing and helped me learn the businesses and help me learn about businesses opportunities."
While at the property appraiser, she gained real estate database knowledge. She knows that 2,000 homes are coming on the tax rolls this year and more are projected next year. Also, she knows how to request public information and to get the database information she needs to provide addresses and other residential data from utility bills and other records to make the business grow.
Before that, Barhorst worked for Tyler Technologies for 30 years doing project management and helping staff transition to use new software and hardware and will use her soft touch to guide businesses through the program.
"She's the epitome of a great business owner who's local and plugged into our community," Mattingly said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.