DOVER — Small businesses have faced big-time problems throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
And for many, it was no longer just about trying to get by. It was a matter of survival.
Local small-business owners Rous and Angie Robles of My Sister’s Fault bakery in Milford, Mike Rasmussen of Painted Stave Distilling in Smyrna and George Dobbins of CrossFit Dover shared some of their stories of adapting and surviving during the pandemic at last week’s Central Delaware Economic Summit.
The Robles sisters had a particularly difficult challenge, as they were diving headfirst into their business at the height of the pandemic and had just quit their full-time jobs.
“My sister and I were all prepared to jump in and start our own business and that’s why it’s called, ‘My Sister’s Fault,’” Rous Robles said.
Angie Robles said it took a lot of faith and perseverance to get the bakery up and running full-time.
“It was a moment in my life that I had to say, ‘OK, it’s time to step back and see how this is, where we’re going to put our effort into everything that is in our hands to ensure that we will continue to be successful,’” she said, “But the challenges, it was always like, ‘How are we going to overcome this?’ Then, you end up realizing, ‘OK, everything is not in my power.’”
The sisters said they had to quickly adapt to stay afloat.
It wasn’t long until the small space they were operating in was too cramped to accommodate successful social distancing.
So they decided to take their bakery online.
“One of the things that people love about the bakery is walking in and seeing the bakery case, seeing all these cakes and getting to choose what they want,” Angie said. “Then we move over to online. To make it work, we were posting pictures and saying, ‘You know, you can get this cake online,’ so we can continue to be attractive for the customers.”
The Robleses thought the web orders would come trickling in and that they would write them all down, but they were very wrong.
“We didn’t realize that, online, you can receive 70 orders at once,” said Angie. “So we were not prepared, but the beauty about the challenges and the things that are happening is that you always find a way.
“Now, we have a line of cooks, waiting at 7 in the morning when the orders are coming through. … We have a line of tickets. We have all the girls right now, a lot of different customers were walking in, and we have lines of cars down the street, blocking all the entrances. So it was definitely a challenge.
“Things just added to the whole thing for us to continue to be successful, and for ourselves to grow in the middle of (a pandemic) wasn’t my job. It wasn’t my sister’s. It was both of us, and it was excellent.”
Finding ways to keep the doors open
Mr. Rasmussen watched almost helplessly, as his largest revenue stream at Painted Stave Distilling disappeared when the business wasn’t allowed to have patrons inside the building at the onset of the pandemic.
To survive and remain viable, Mr. Rasmussen pivoted and made some quick changes: He turned to producing hand sanitizer, which, like toilet paper, was at a premium in spring 2020.
“We were presented with an opportunity, which was the demand for hand sanitizer in the market, and small distilleries are uniquely positioned to be able to sort of jump in and do that,” he said. “So (we) went from an immediate sort of panic (to) how do we reach customers who have no (place to go) anymore? How do we actually create an entirely new product and roll that out in an effective way?
“Necessity is the mother of invention, right? We figured out in a matter of a week or so how you would go about doing that because the idea of shutting down and getting rid of our staff was really something we didn’t want to have to face.”
Eventually, Painted Stave began offering virtual experiences that its customers could pick up and take home, which allowed it to stay engaged with loyal customers.
“It was a challenge, and different technologies were involved, so it was a different way of thinking, but it ended up very successful,” Mr. Rasmussen said.
Difficult times for working out
The combination of wearing masks, social distancing and sanitizing was a particularly difficult one for gyms throughout the pandemic.
Mr. Dobbins, owner of CrossFit Dover, knew he would have to adapt quickly to survive.
“This started with the shutdown, so quickly, myself and my staff subdivided our current membership base because, within our community, there’s very much that close-knit interaction,” Mr. Dobbins said. “So just by subdividing our membership base amongst our coaching team, we were able to provide some of those personal contacts on a daily basis.
“During that time, we also rented out our equipment. Therefore, we were able to transition to exercise and, yes, that business model really shifted a lot during that time because you had to have people there in order to make money.”
He added, “But you really were able to use technology and capitalize on some of those things and then start to change your mind-set about how people were going to engage with the services that you provide.”
While gyms have returned to having members in-house, there are still some things learned during the shutdown that CrossFit will continue to do.
“We now have an at-home exercise track, which our members can essentially follow in the convenience of their own house,” said Mr. Dobbins. “That is something that we have kept during this time, especially as we transition back into the gym.
“We’ve also created some time and some space for our members to clean down all their equipment, for the staff to come in and to follow the workstations. We continue to keep a reduced class (size), but we can provide that same level of hygiene and cleanliness.”
CrossFit also continues to offer at-home training for those hesitant to return. Individuals can work out at home and send their results to their coaches, who can then analyze results and make suggestions about what members should incorporate into their workouts.
Returning to ‘normal’
Getting customers to return to a bakery, a gym or a distillery post-pandemic is a challenge in itself, as many remain concerned about the spread of COVID-19.
But local establishments are finding ways to entice them back.
“Obviously, you have to build confidence in what you’re going to have at the distillery, and you want to invite people back,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “You’ve incorporated some things that you can do, so they’re not always contained inside the building.
“Bars and restaurants are the folks who had to figure out very quickly how to provide to-go service for people, and that meant online ordering and curbside pickup and things, and there is an actual physical technology investment that we needed to make to be able to provide that type of service. Hand sanitizer bought us time, while we invested in those things.”
The Painted Stave at first had customers return to its outdoor patio, before welcoming them back inside the facility.
“It’s technology that we’re going to continue to implement, processes and procedures amongst our staff that we’re going to continue to implement because, ultimately, we feel it improves the customer experience,” said Mr. Rasmussen.
My Sister’s Fault went to a full-time operation right in the middle of the pandemic, and the Robles sisters were forced not only to overcome new challenges, but learn how to survive.
“We invested in technology, we hired employees and embraced changing the layout of the bakery because now, we have removed all of our tables,” Rous said. “Eventually, when people are allowed in, it will be laid out in a way that you can just walk in, and you have grab-and-go tables.
“We came up with a lot of strategies to make sure this thing can go, especially for the customers to feel safe, because a lot of customers will not feel comfortable in that (small) space.”
The sisters, having learned their business lessons in a difficult environment, are planning to move their bakery to a larger location in Milford.
Meanwhile, CrossFit continues to find ways to interact with its customers.
“The culture of our community is very engaging and interactive,” Mr. Dobbins said. “So when we noticed that we’re going into the shutdown period, it was an opportunity that allowed us to pretty much divide and conquer.”
CrossFit engaged with its core base throughout the pandemic with different games and activities and offered up creative prizes for the winners — such as a roll of toilet paper when it seemed more valuable than gold in March 2020.
“We’re a gym, so physical health is something that we value,” Mr. Dobbins said. “During that time, we found that even mental health was more important. It was a stressful time for everybody.”