Necessity is the mother of invention. Pandemic, we’ve learned, is the mother of adaptation.
Asheville’s businesses are no strangers to plight or economic famine; after all, the last depression clung to our economy for decades longer than our metropolitan neighbors, a silver-lined circumstance that preserved our architecture and bred a spirit of pluck in our entrepreneurs that persists today.
Perhaps that’s why so many of our businesses across a host of different industries pivoted with swift agility when COVID-19 shifted from a cruise ship predicament into a national emergency in mid-March. In the first two weeks of the pandemic, local ventures closed their doors, first as a precaution, then as a mandate, but their “Open” signs flickered on. Inside, entrepreneurs pulled on thick rubber gloves, maintained social distance, and continued business as unusual.
“Adaptation” for local businesses in the time of COVID takes many forms, from expansion of existing models to rapid overhauls. For Carolina Flowers, a Marshall-based flower farm and retailer (the new storefront opened on the admittedly inauspicious March 21), success has been found in identifying the existing revenue stream most suited to quarantine. “I have always prided myself on our diversified business model, but this crisis is going to test the efficacy of that model,” founder Emily Copus says, pointing out that three of her revenue streams are currently stagnant: weddings are being postponed; farmers markets are closed; and restaurants that usually place weekly orders aren’t doing table service.
“Subscriptions and deliveries are the bright spot of our business,” she explains. “I’m glad some of the business infrastructure we need to make home deliveries is already in place. Since this crisis began, we have sold more orders for delivery via our website than any previous web business combined. It’s staggering.”
Since this crisis began, we have sold more orders for delivery via our website than any previous web business combined.
As the demand for flower delivery grows, Copus is expanding her offerings. “People need more than just flowers right now. Some of our customers are struggling to get groceries while in isolation, and we realized we can use our delivery and logistics skills to come to their aid,” Copus says of her decision to launch grocery delivery this week. “You’ll be able to order specific items online and have them delivered to your home, just like Amazon, but on a tiny, local scale—with kinder, more accessible customer service.”
Although the restaurant industry has been the focus of a slew of foreboding headlines throughout the crisis, it’s also proven to be an industry particularly adaptable to the constraints of the pandemic. Like Carolina Flowers, many local eateries have expanded their delivery capabilities and orbits in addition to curbside pick-up stations. Chai Pani, downtown Asheville’s award-winning chaat house, and sister restaurant Buxton Hall Barbecue quickly adapted to to-go. “We figured out the safest system possible for the take-out business so that customers could order and pay online and pick up their food without any physical contact with our staff or other customers,” says Hospitality Director & Co-Founder Molly Irani, adding that their pick-up model has been streamlined to be as safe—and sensible—as possible. “We moved the pick-up area outside to make this easier on everyone and safer so no one has to even touch the front door handle. We also changed our menus to be more carry-out friendly and we only offer dishes that travel well. We’ve increased options that make feeding a family easy such as rice and curry for four at Chai Pani and BBQ by the pint at Buxton Hall. The chefs have also put on some dishes made specially for these times because they are comfort food that we all need right now.”
Like the Iranis’ ventures, the River Arts District’s Vivian has shifted to take-out and delivery options, but they’ve also expanded their offerings to include a more diverse selection of make-at-home options. “We have also opened up something we are calling JoJo’s Meat & Grocer,” says Shannon McGaughey, owner and general manager. With the chaotic and potentially unsafe state of grocery stores these days, the Vivian team wanted to offer customers an alternative. “We wanted a way to get quality ingredients to people out there holed up at home, so hence the grocery! Chef makes all sorts of charcuterie-style items in house, so we are offering those to-go by the pound or in a set package. We’ve got stuff like housemade sausage, country ham, cured salmon, and more! We’re also offering dinner kits like our Vivian T-bone Dinner. We plan on having our pot pies and soup available too—anything that you can freeze and keep stocked up on!”
We’re also offering dinner kits like our Vivian T-bone Dinner. We plan on having our pot pies and soup available too—anything that you can freeze and keep stocked up on!”
For other businesses, like West Asheville’s Harvest Records, the idea of pick-up and delivery was a bit more foreign but still implementable. The brick-and-mortar record store has a business model that, like the wares it sells, is vested in the nostalgically traditional—walk-in customers. “We had to adapt quickly to the simple fact that our customers can no longer walk in and browse through our collection, so we’ve got to do it for them,” says co-owner Mark Capon. That meant a rapid shift to digital, sharing the store’s catalogue of new merch online and redoubling their already vibrant social media presence.
“And once orders started coming in, we’ve had to get creative on how to actually get the product in people’s hands—creating a sanitary and safe curbside pickup, plus we’ve been delivering records to homes all over Asheville!” It’s been a welcome reprieve from isolation, Capon adds: “It’s actually been really fun, taking me back to my days delivering pizza.”
For the craft beer techies at CraftPeak, making pick-up and delivery feasible for their brewery clients via new e-commerce portals has led to unprecedented business. “We are currently scrambling to get online stores launched to sell beer with local delivery and pickup options for all of our breweries. We are trying to do everything we can to help get some revenue flowing in for these local businesses as their taprooms remain closed,” says John Kelley, co-founder and CEO. “For breweries that do not have packaged beers to sell, we are going to be launching some online stores where people can buy gift cards that can be redeemed at a later date,” Kelley explains of the concept he’s dubbed “Beer Bonds:” “The idea is that we will be able to generate cash now for these businesses, but they would not have to pay back those short term liabilities immediately. My concern is that if we just sell gift cards, as soon as breweries open up, people will come in to spend those cards, and that will put additional burden on those businesses, so we are looking at mechanisms to make sure we can wait for the businesses to recover, getting back on their feet before the Beer Bonds can be used.” Kelley is also working to unite the nationwide craft beer industry through a relief effort in the form of a replicable beer recipe, the proceeds from which would be channeled directly into the local industry and hospitality industry.
The coronavirus has also provided fortuitous opportunities for experimentation and undertaking deferred prospects. Asheville Yoga Center, for example, has long envisioned an online catalogue of classes, and the shuttering of the studio was the impetus they needed to transition online. “We closed our doors Sunday [March 15] at 2 p.m., and we reopened within three days virtually with online classes,” says Melissa Driver, the studio’s general manager. AYC’s schedule of live-streaming classes started small, but they plan to have 50% of their usual 100 weekly classes available online soon and are working to transition workshops to digital platforms, too.
“We’re in a very fortunate position where we have people coming to visit us, for our trainings in particular, from all over the world, so our email list is quite expansive,” Driver says. Once they included an announcement in their newsletter, people began joining the classes from around the world, including from lockdown in Spain and Italy. “It’s something that we definitely will continue into the future.”
For Insta-popular pottery manufacturer East Fork Pottery, the pandemic also provided the company with the catalyst to try something new: a seasonal pre-order. While they were among the first to close both their factory and fulfillment center, the brand’s recognizable forms are now available for pre-order (their first ever) in the Spring/Summer colors of Malibu and Tequila Sunrise.
East Fork also made the decision to turn a quick, sizeable profit through online sales of a large collection of their seconds originally intended for a West Coast “tour.” “We’d teamed up with Counter Culture coffee and we were going to be doing pop-ups in all their locations on the West Coast… the programing was so freaking fun,” Connie Matisse, CMO and co-founder, says wistfully. They cancelled printmaking classes at a farm in Portland and a bar-hopping, drink-making contest, instead auctioning off the seconds bound for those events online. “We kind of immediately knew that those things were going to not be possible, so we started thinking, “Okay, well, how can you make this into an opportunity that actually saves us a lot of money and still able to able to launch this collection?’” Though customers won’t receive their pre-orders or seconds sale pots until after the epidemic, the shift was a profitable turn for the company.
East Fork also made the decision to turn a quick, sizeable profit through online sales of a large collection of their seconds originally intended for a West Coast “tour.”
A few local businesses have adapted their model to not just withstand COVID, but to actually combat it. “It seemed the obvious answer to how we could help during this time, with sanitizer being mostly alcohol,” explains Leah Howard, brand manager at Cultivated Cocktails, of the company’s decision to begin producing sanitizing products in their distillery. They dilute alcohol to a 70% solution, which ensures its effectiveness against the virus. “Making sanitizer is by far easier than production of a craft spirit, so with the knowledge and willingness from our team, we have the ability to help combat this virus.”
While they continue to sell their spirits through a cocktail subscription program, online orders and curbside pickup, demand is truly booming for the company’s most pivot-bred product. “We never realized just how far this need would grow with the pandemic. We are now producing thousands of gallons of sanitizer to cope with the lack of supply available in the community,” Howard adds. “It’s neither profitable or fun, compared to spirits, but we will continue to do it as long as we can. We would do it again and again, especially for the place we have called home our entire lives.”
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.