Small Business Strategies to Survive the Pandemic
By Mark Hayes
Here in the U.S. 99 percent of all businesses are small businesses, and those are the businesses that felt the biggest impact during the pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis. A record setting, 3.2 Million Americans filed for unemployment benefits last March, a frightening statistic that continues to reverberate even as there appears to be an economic resurgence. But for Black and Brown business owners it’s going to be a much longer road to recovery, and many may never recover. A study conducted at the Federal Reserve recently found that around 200,000 more U.S. establishments permanently closed as a result of the pandemic than in a typical year.
We wanted to find local businesses that have withstood the pandemic and find out the secret to the success of not just surviving but thriving during the pandemic. In the coming weeks we’ll preview businesses that have withstood the storm and bring you more insight into what kept local small businesses successful. In our first installment, we traveled to Canton, GA, just outside the city of Atlanta to talk with the husband and wife team of Harry & Leticia Hutchins, the owners of a coffee roastery and distribution company called Alma Coffee. Their coffee comes fresh from their family owned farm in Honduras.
They were kind enough to share their strategies with us, to help provide motivation and hope for others who might find themselves facing the same struggles. Literally this pair of bean counters couldn’t have been better prepared to take on the challenge of the pandemic. They were both accountants for well known Big 4 CPA firms prior to diving into entrepreneurship, and are also incredibly business savvy beyond their years. Neither has hit their 30th birthday yet.
Growing Amidst a Global Pandemic
When March 2020 rolled around, the reality of what a modern global pandemic might look like for a small business started to sink in. With only one year under their belt, the only thing they were certain of was that the future was unexpected. So, how did their small startup coffee roastery grow from roasting one day a week to 6 days a week and grow from 3 to 10 employees all amidst the COVID-19 pandemic? The answer isn’t simple—at the end of the day, Harry & Leticia chose to be nimble and focus on the things they could control.
“The beginning of the pandemic was messy for us,” says Leticia. “It started with Harry and I in New York City for a Coffee Fest, but it quickly turned into us getting the dreaded news that our coffee shop located in a co-working space was shutting down the next day.” They had 3 employees working there and over $20,000 worth of equipment on site. Without keys to the facility or control over the matter, Harry & Leticia had no choice but to accept the decision and attempt to find new roles for their team members. Prior to the pandemic, however, Harry was a one man show at the roastery: he roasted, packaged, and did everything in between all by himself. Suddenly faced with the reality of a pandemic, Harry points out, “the entire team was helping at our roastery Monday – Friday, and, as the owners, we were scrambling to find anything and everything for our team to do in order to keep them on payroll.”
The First Pivot: E-Commerce
“One day to panic… that’s what we gave ourselves: only one day to feel bad for ourselves, complain about the pandemic, and cry over the possibility of losing our dream business” Leticia said sternly. After that day of self loathing the Hutchins’ started taking action! With a national shutdown looming, they began by focusing on e-commerce and decided to revamp their online site from top to bottom. Not only was the new and improved website easier to navigate, Leticia says this move was key in their jump start, “it also shared our story in a much more beautiful, concise, and visual way.” She added, “we dove into online marketing and ran Facebook, Instagram, and Google ads. Slowly but surely we began to see more and more traffic coming to our site.”
The Second Pivot: Partnerships
Next step was reaching a wider audience. “Our website was great, but we started exploring online and physical partnerships to get the word out about Alma Coffee.” Alma then partnered with an online coffee subscription service, for instance, and was blown away by how quickly they reached a personal milestone of shipping coffee to all 50 states! “This particular coffee subscription service already had our ideal customer as their own customer, so the partnership allowed us to get our farm-to-cup roasts out to coffee drinkers all across the country” cheerfully Leticia stated. On the other side of forming partnerships, Leticia explains “we expanded our local wholesale partnerships and started establishing our brand within our local community.” She also adds, “Cherokee County was beginning to see our coffee in all of their favorite local shops, and this led to lots of walk-ins to our roastery to learn more about our coffee and story!”
The Third Pivot: Press Exposure
Wanting to share their farm to cup story with the world as well as our local community, they began pitching the story of Alma Coffee to anyone who would listen. Leticia says, “before we knew it, we were featured live in the local news, podcasts, online articles, and then national news! The exposure was truly priceless.”
Today: Continuing the Momentum
“The road to where we are today has not been easy, but truly believing in our legacy, our business, and ultimately ourselves has led us to never give up and continue growing even when it felt like we were running around in circles” Leticia says looking back on their journey. And she adds, “We by no means have all the answers for how to start a successful business, however, based on my own personal experiences as a small business owner amidst the 2020 pandemic, I would revert to the age old saying “never take no for an answer.” And finally Leticia reminds us all, “If you want something to work out badly enough, do whatever it takes to make it happen: learn that new skill, conquer a fear, put in the hours — it WILL pay off.”