“Let me check my crystal ball….” Such was the response of French Broad Chocolate’s Jael Rattigan when, in late March, we asked what the future might look like for her business. “But seriously, we can think about long-term recovery, but there is so much uncertainty that right now, we are just putting one foot in front of the other and making the best decisions we can with the information we have.”
It’s a sentiment that was reflected by nearly all of our Going the Distance contributors when we first spoke last month—a sense that they were walking toward a stumbling, heart-gripping unknown. But as the weeks passed and our profilees adapted to a new, if temporary, normal, patterns and a sense of silver-lined acceptance emerged. Some of them have realized that their adaptations are applicable improvements to their business’ base models; others are finding hope in the idea that the experience could shift our economic model for the better; and all of them expressed gratitude for the unfaltering support of our community.
Many of these entrepreneurs have found value in their COVID-19 efforts that could be replicated outside of the pandemic, like Asheville Yoga Center: “We are now able to remain connected to students from around the world who desire to train with us, and we anticipate maintaining some level of virtual integration into the future,” says general manager Melissa Driver of the studio’s shift to online classes and workshops. “Our clients who can’t make it to the physical location of the studio have been sharing with us their appreciation to be able to connect once again with the teachers they love so much at AYC!”
“Everything is shifting online, and honestly I imagine this will change the way we market and purchase forever.”
It’s a concept that’s true for many of the businesses we’ve profiled: Though these adaptations were designed to get them through the pandemic, they’ll likely last beyond these strange times. From a broad perspective, most of these adaptations reflected a shift to a more digital interface which, as Cultivated Cocktails’ Leah Howard points out, has always been the way of the future: “Our thoughts are more online and curbside orders will become normal, as people shift into the safety of homes and shelter,” she says. “Everything is shifting online, and honestly I imagine this will change the way we market and purchase forever.”
Even beyond the broad implications, on a micro scale these pivots will impact and maybe even expand these businesses after COVID. The McGaugheys are considering retaining the grocer side of the business when Vivian’s kitchen warms back up. “It has been cool to see how many people are willing to purchase our homemade items in the form of the grocer,” says Shannon McGaughey. “It would be nice to have that continue alongside dinner service when this all blows over.”
East Fork Pottery’s Co-Founder and CMO Connie Matisse predicts that pre-orders, which the company launched for the first time last month in order to build their nest egg in the face of the pandemic, could become a key element of their production model moving forward: “We’ve worked out a system to allow for pre-orders. We will absolutely be using this in the future. I’m currently chewing on the possibility of only making pots that have already been sold for the remainder of the year, as a cost-saving method,” she says.
Mark Capon of Harvest Records attests to the value they found in moving their inventory online and expects it will be an ongoing effort once the store reopens. He also recognized early on that the crisis could provide the kind of eye-opening revelations we might need to create a more stable economic model in the future. “I keep hoping that there are some huge lessons we’ll all learn from this. I hope to see system paradigm shifts for the betterment of humanity,” he said back in March. “Nothing has ever affected everyone on earth at the same time like this, so we’re bound to come out on the other side of it with knowledge; we’ve just got to do the right things with that knowledge.”
“Nothing has ever affected everyone on earth at the same time like this, so we’re bound to come out on the other side of it with knowledge; we’ve just got to do the right things with that knowledge.”
For these small businesses owners, many of these adaptations weren’t necessarily novel—Driver mentioned they’d been meaning to make classes available online for years, and Matisse had long considered the potential of a pre-order model—but these were the kinds of projects that needed an impetus to actually spur them forward; there’s no impetus quite like a pandemic. Once they’d worked double-time to get these new projects up and running, why let them fall to the wayside once the pandemic passes?
Copus, who is planning to carry her grocery business forward, says it well: “Because of COVID, we had no choice but to expand into groceries; I really and truly believe that. So now that we’ve done the work to set up distribution accounts, create new inventory systems, build and document processes, and change our insurance policy, why not keep the business? So much of what we’ve done has been the boring stuff of building a business—why not do the fun stuff now? The branding, the new digs, the rollout, all those things are fun.”
While the pandemic has certainly proved challenging for the teams behind these businesses, it’s also, in many cases, bolstered them. “Our team has banded together like never before,” says Leah of Cultivated Cocktails. “They deserve the biggest shoutout here and to be rewarded once this is all over. They are working faster and harder and more innovatively than ever before, and we believe this momentum will continue to flow into our spirits production and marketing when this is all over.” If these teams can weather a pandemic, entrepreneurs propose, they’ll be stronger for it.
And the same concept applies to the communities—our communities—that are buoying these businesses. With customers, with their mentors, and with each other, these businesses are working together to make it through this pandemic, and they’re sure they’ll be better for it. “Asheville is a special place. The way our customers have rallied around us and similar small businesses, and the ways that we’ve been able to troubleshoot and communicate ideas with our fellow business owners—everyone truly is in this together here,” says Harvest Records’ Capon. “It’s been overwhelmingly positive and we’re grateful to be here.”
There are challenges, of course—Charlie Hodge points out that some small businesses with out-of-town landlords are facing eviction, and McGaughey notes that people are frankly nervous about interacting with small businesses—but overall the picture being painted in Western North Carolina is one of collaborative optimism.
Emily Copus of Carolina Flowers points to other mentors in the industry as being integral to launching her grocery business. “This grocery endeavour wouldn’t be possible without enormous help. John Fleer and his staff at Rhubarb have helped us immeasurably with advice, storage space, access to products and more. He’s an amazing friend, and he always has been,” she says, adding that Laura Telford of Trout Lily Market and Round Earth Roasters, Jessica Whaley of Whaley Farmstead, and Erin Lowndes at Plain with Sprinkles have also helped shape her new concept.
And when it comes to customers, most entrepreneurs value the opportunity to connect with them on a deeper level: “The positive change to see though, is that now that people have more time on their hands, everyone wants to chat more and share their stories,” says McGaughey. “It’s been nice to get to know regulars on a deeper level, I’d like to keep that rolling once this all clears up.”
When things return to normal, whenever that may be, these businesses will move forward with new skills and products and stronger connections with their staff and customers.
Every week we’ll bring you updates on what they’re doing to adapt, week-by-week data shifts, and insight into their impact on our community.