| 4 min | by Doug Marrin |
The changes many local businesses have had to deal with during this COVID crisis are not only unprecedented, they are indescribable. Forced shutdown and reopening two months later with stringent government guidelines and a public cautious to return, has been unimaginably difficult.
Chris Jones, the owner of Dexter Creamery, has adapted quickly to the changing situation. I sat down with Chris and he walked me through the experience and its impact on him. Like most businesses, the Creamery’s February rolled into March and Chris was making spring and summer plans. But all of that suddenly changed.
“When it was clear that the schools were going to be closing, that was a big pivotal change,” recalls Chris. “We knew that our anticipated plans for spring and summer weren’t going to happen.”
Chris closed the shop down to assess the situation and plan how to adapt. The Creamery’s main attraction is self-serve soft-serve ice cream which the customer then tops themselves from the topping bar with a myriad of choices. With a new virus on the loose, Chris knew the Creamery was in a vulnerable spot being that it was a self-serve product with direct contact from the public. Before there were any orders to do so, Chris and his staff proactively shut down the shop’s self-serve function.
The challenge became how to adapt a self-serve business into a socially-safe full-service enterprise. Even before the shutdown order came, Chris put the Creamery through several iterations of how this might be accomplished.
Then the order came shutting down all but essential businesses. Chris adapted again.
Chris shut down for one day making calls to local suppliers for basic staples – eggs, meat, milk, etc. In response to concerns about the transmission of the virus in public places such as grocery stores, Dexter Creamery provided the public with a safe way to get the basics. Customers could order online, schedule a pick-up time, and their order would be waiting for them at the curb. In the space of a day, the Creamery adapted from a non-essential to an essential business.
“Being a downtown business, I feel a responsibility to be a strong community member,” Chris explains. “Switching to groceries was not a financial decision at all. All we really wanted was to be a resource for the community.”
People appreciated the idea and it caught on. Within three weeks Dexter Creamery was overwhelmed with grocery orders.
“I was afraid we were going to run out of food for people,” Chris says. “It was just crazy.”
Now with things opening back up, the groceries are gone but the challenges continue and the Creamery continues to evolve with the changes.
“I’m always trying to think ahead because that’s just how I operate,” says Chris. “But these past three months have had so many changes that it’s impossible to think ahead. Instead, I’ve had to be ready to react. I hope we don’t have major changes next week, but I’m mentally prepared if they do come.”
One of the biggest struggles for the shop has been in the physical layout. The staff did a lot of running from the service side of the counter back through the kitchen into the dining area and then out to the curb. Chris finally relented to tearing out the Creamery’s coveted 8-seat table used by groups and families in order to greatly shorten the path to the door.
And that’s the overarching challenge repeated among business owners, especially food service – safety measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have greatly increased the labor effort to run the operations within guidelines. Meanwhile, sales are down significantly due to restricted capacity as well as a general hesitancy by the public to go out and have close contact in public.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing businesses is that we, the public, has learned what we can live without. Psychologists say it takes approximately 21 days of conscious and consistent effort to create a new habit. Non-essential businesses were shut down for 76 days from March 24 to June 8. Even those that remained open did so at a fraction of their usual capacity. In many ways, restaurants, bars, and cafes are experiencing the same challenge as an initial opening – trying to change the public’s dining habits and convince them to come in. It’s tough, and bills need to be paid.
Chris reflects on the shutdown and the impact it had by suddenly thrusting people into new habits beyond where they got their food.
“Everybody had a tremendous amount of fear that was in their daily lives that we’re not used to. Families had to adapt. Many had to suddenly learn how to teach their kids while working from home. I think a lot of families have grown through this in their relationships because of the time they’ve had to spend together. Unfortunately, I’ve also heard of families where this has had a negative effect. Hopefully they can work through that.”
Chris would never ask for a crisis such as we’ve experienced, and are still experiencing, to happen, but when it is thrust upon him, he approaches the change as a way forward.
“I think a lot of us have had a lot of personal growth through this,” he says.
All of this positivity doesn’t mean immunity from the wear and tear of the stress. The struggle is real.
“I’m really struggling with just how divided we are on how to address COVID-19,” Chris says. “Everybody has different ideas and levels of comfort and it’s stressful when they try to impose it on one another.”
“We had a couple in here to Dexter Creamery the other day and really tear into one of our employees about having to wear a mask in here,” he continues. “The employee was very nice and told them we have free masks at the door that they are welcome to use. She also pointed out they could order from the station outside and wouldn’t have to wear a mask. The couple went to do that and then got mad again because the hand sanitizer was empty.”
“Sometimes it seems as though people feel they have a license to complain, a license to express their negativity to others right now and it’s frustrating for a business that’s trying to do everything they can to follow the new rules,” he adds.
Chris has had to make a major shift in his own thinking and approach to doing business. His comfort level is to plan six months ahead and then methodically follow through. With directives changing almost daily, he has had to shift into a reactionary style and accept a certain sense of powerlessness.
“I have to simply be ready for anything and not react as though it is a personal attack when it comes,” he says. “Somehow, someway, we are all going to get through this to one end or the other, and whatever that looks like be prepared to go forward from there.”