There is no playbook for a pandemic

In January of 2020 a global pandemic was the farthest thing from my mind as I signed a lease to open our flagship store in downtown Saratoga Springs. Sure, I had heard rumblings around the holidays of a virus in China with the potential to turn into a global pandemic, but did any of us really know what that meant? Nope. I for one was preoccupied with product line ups, paint colors, floor plans, permitting responsibilities…

Right up until Friday, March 13th. Remember that week? Started with clocks shifting forward, then a full moon on Wednesday, it ended with Friday the 13th, and then the world ran out of toilet paper? Yeah, that was a doozy of a week. And frankly, for us, the 8 weeks that followed were pretty rough too.

There is no playbook on how to open a store in a pandemic, or for that matter how to save a small business though one either. The first thing we did was to put a temporary pause on production while we tried to figure out what was going on. Then we did what everyone did – bought a bunch of random stuff at the grocery store, worried about panic induced food shortages, and had a month-long cocktail hour in our PJs while consuming massive amounts of potato chips. Wait, you didn’t do that? Oh well, we all had our coping mechanisms.

It’s still a blur, but sometime in April we got our act back together. At first there were just A LOT of webinars, conference calls and applications for small business relief programs to fill out. I blew through what should have been the grand opening week for our store immersed in a whirlwind of paperwork and Zoom calls. Then online sales began to pick up, farmers’ markets began to reopen, and we realized Easter was still coming. So, Hank and I pulled up our bootstraps, put on our masks and got busy.

While New York had officially entered a period of shut down, we began to reboot. As a food based business we were deemed essential early on in the shutdown (and let’s face it chocolate is about as essential as to-go cocktails in the pandemic), but we didn’t jump at the first opportunity to call back our production and packaging staff out of an abundance of caution, and because frankly, our future still seemed uncertain. Then something really encouraging started to happen – our online sales started to take off. Like the kind of “take-off” we’d never seen before in online sales. You guys swooped into action and lifted us up off the floor (quite literally), and saved our Easter, our spring, and frankly, our business. I cannot overstate the hope you gave us throughout the months of April and May. To everyone who called, emailed and offered us your words of support, a simple thank you will never fully convey how much your outreach meant to us during this time!

As online orders picked up, we decided to make it even easier to send friends and family chocolate – in April we launched our SENDLOVE campaign made up of Quarantine Care Packs, a build your own bar trio shipped anywhere in the US for $25 (we included a 15% discount in the price to send some love to all of our customers too). These little boxes of love seemed to really catch on. In a time that was pretty discouraging, it was so good to be a part of doing something to brighten everyone’s day and help people connect.

By June things were looking as weird as ever, but we had so much more hope. With the aid of a small Paycheck Protection Plan loan we were able to rehire our staff and cautiously restart our bar, bark and cocoa production operation. Since there is no such thing as remote chocolate making, we did our best to do it safely – we talked among our team about safety at work and precautions we were taking in our day-to-day lives, then we masked up, spread out our work stations, staggered our shifts, relentlessly sanitized every surface and contact point that we could, and we got back to work.

As we returned to work what was still unclear is whether we would NEED the level of production we had been doing before, because while retail sales bounced back, our wholesale sales were still all over the place. Some shops we sold in closed, some shuttered temporarily, some had mobs of shoppers lined up out the doors and down the block – but how this translated to sales for us remained to be seen. What was noticeably clear is that our fellow small business owners were reluctant to bulk up on anything. Further, through spring and early summer some of my worst fears for Saratoga began to play out – the summer Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC) season was cancelled. Then the track was officially closed for spectators. Weddings and events were getting called off left and right. With this, my hopes for the store opening began to dwindle.

As summer arrived and the weather improved, something really great started to happen – Saratoga streets started to fill up. Each week Broadway had more and more masked people, spacing themselves out, strolling down the sidewalks – people willing to try to get out and shop safely, and shop locally. Then the tourists started to show up too – most of them were relatively local (mostly NY, NJ and MA). Everyone was choosing to stay close to home, but still wanted and needed to get out – and again we got another boost of hope. By the end of June, we decided to finish building and permitting our retail space and targeted sometime in July for our new opening date.

Our big opening day came and went on July 31st without much fanfare (by design). People who know me, know I love to plan a big party – for any reason at all – so planning a grand opening and trying NOT to draw a crowd was a new experience. We invited my parents and two friends. Our daughter helped us cut the ribbon and I sent out a press release a week later. We did get some lovely press which was wonderful (insert links here). And the traffic has steadily increased each week. It has been fun to meet so many of our customers who have been delighted and surprised to find us. My favorite greeting is “Wow! I never knew you had a retail store! I have been buying your chocolate for years!” To which I reply – “Surprise! Thank you so much! It means more than you know to hear that, and we are so appreciative for your support! We just opened. [Insert bewildered customer look here] Yup, in a pandemic.”

For those of you that are local, or in town for a visit, come say hi! Our new shop is located on the Lower Level of at the Saratoga Marketplace on Broadway. My hope for the store is that we make it through this year, iron out any kinks, and by next July 31st we can have a big 1-year anniversary party! Stay tuned!

Reflecting on these past six months is tough, but I’m so grateful that I get to do it – I know others have not been as fortunate. So now what? Well, who knows, but we’ve learned how to plan for anything (pandemics included!). To that end we’re building capacity for handling higher volumes of online ordering, adding options to order online for in-store/contactless pick up, scaling up our holiday gift basket options, and trying to plan ahead and innovate for new ways to capture holiday sales as many of our holiday shopping events and festivals are shutting down for the year (feel free to pass along suggestions!). We also relaunched our SENDLOVE campaign now that the hot weather shipping months are behind us, and friends and family visits may be back on temporary hold as we wait to see what fall and winter bring in terms of germ circulation.

In summary my hope for the coming year is that we continue to stabilize our operations as we prepare for future growth – more products, more locations, MORE CHOCOLATE! We are remaining realistic, humble but most of all optimistic for the future! Be well, stay healthy.

Love and Chocolate, Alli