How the pandemic threw these businesses the curveball of a lifetime
Old Dublin Bakery, Lester’s Farm Market say they’re busier than before — but pulling in same amount of cash
It was March 21 — the first Saturday after COVID-19 had shut down the province's schools. The province had already told residents to stay inside, and some businesses to shut their doors.
Kevin Massey, the owner of the Old Dublin Bakery, had set up his food truck, named Cinny, on King's Bridge Road in St. John's.
When he opened the hatch that morning, he couldn't believe his eyes.
"There must have been 60 or 70 people there," Massey said.
"I actually had to close down again and just ask people to [physically] distance themselves."
Massey said there was an uneasiness in the crowd — he could feel that the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic were wearing on them.
"I suffered through that day," he said. "And then after that, I said, 'I can't do it like this anymore.'"
A sudden and unexpected spike in orders
Massey said he didn't have any control over the situation — the distance between his customers — and he was worried about keeping everyone safe.
So he decided to try doing contactless deliveries instead.
Massey said he was shocked to see a sharp spike in orders.
"I went from about a dozen emails a week to, like, 1,500," he said.
"It's like a perfect storm — people are home, people are on the computers, they're seeing all my posts [on social media]."
Despite the demand, Massey said he's working longer hours and not getting any further ahead. The effort of getting food to hungry customers is time-consuming.
"Sales-wise, I'm not doing much better than I was previously," he said.
"When I'm doing deliveries, I'm working 15-, 16-hour days, and I'm trying to balance everything."
The changes that he made to his business have brought on this stress — but they have also allowed him to keep working, and ensures that he and his customers stay safe.
Massey had a couple of part-time employees, who would help with baking, cleaning, and sales in the truck. But he said he had to reduce staff down to just himself, because he can't afford to get sick.
"Doing deliveries, I mean, I could be doing five times the business of what I'm physically doing now — but I physically just can't manage," he said.
"I'm delivering to 40-50 people a day … so I have to make sure to stay healthy."
Massey said he's also learning to cope with the stress of running his own business, while dealing with the challenges of the pandemic on a personal front.
"To be honest, I had a bit of a breakdown [last] weekend," he said.
"I was high-strung and I was tense.… I had just done 65 deliveries that day, and while on delivery, people [would] message me constantly, like, 'Where are you? What time are you coming?'"
Massey said he buckled under the pressure.
"I'm trying to run a business, while the kids aren't in school. It's hard to juggle," he said. "I've got a lot going on, the same as everybody else. And at the same time … I just want to be able to make a living."
Massey has now decided on a schedule that's more manageable for him: he will do deliveries three times, every two weeks.
"It's [been] challenging, for sure, but for the most part, I think it's going really well," he said.
"The plan is just to try to get through this, like everybody else, and then looking forward to the future."
Massey said once the pandemic is over, he's hoping to get his own shop. If the demand is still there, he hopes to continue with the deliveries.
New way of doing things
Like the Old Dublin Bakery, Lester's Farm Market also had to figure out how to adapt to the new normal.
But market manager Susan Lester said they're used to change.
"Being a farm … we have a lot of things always thrown at us that are out of our control — the weather being a huge factor," she said.
"[This] virus has definitely put a new twist and turn into our plans for the year, but unfortunately there's nothing really that you can do other than learn how to adapt.… So it's just a new way of having to think and having to change what we're doing."
Instead of having shoppers browse the store, Lester said they started taking orders through the market's Facebook page, and customers then go in to pick them up.
They're also taking drop-in customers, who give their shopping list. Staff pick up the items for them.
"Instead of everyone walking, having full range of our entire market, they just come into an area," Lester said.
"We have about five to six people that we allow in at a time, and then we have barriers up for our staff, little Plexiglas barriers, and then we have a one-way traffic flow to help cut down the amount of crossing over."
Lester said the market is busier on the back-end of things, but not in terms of sales.
"It does require us to use more staff.… Our labour versus what we're taking in, that ratio was a little bit different than it would be this time of the year," she said.
"We checked our records from last year [and] we're getting the same number of customers come in, our transactions per day."
Keeping its regular schedule
The market will be open on Saturday, but will then close for a few weeks — as it does every year.
"We need to start planting now for things that we'll need five to six months down the road. So we can't really hold off," said Lester.
"Some of the staff that weren't comfortable being with customers [due to the pandemic] now will be able to go into our greenhouses and do our planting."
Lester said they'll also take this time to look at what they can do to streamline the shopping process for when they reopen on May 6.
"[We'll] try to look at our current structure and then figure out what we can do best for our customers and our staff," she said.