Big businesses are spending millions on tech for the new normal. Here’s how the little guys are getting by.
A case study in making do from small-business owners in Brooklyn.
In my corner of north Brooklyn, called Greenpoint, I've seen every way the pandemic can hit local businesses. My barber has boarded up his windows, and I'm not sure if he's going to open again. My favorite local Thai restaurant went out of business last week. The owner of my favorite bar doesn't want to reopen to risk his staff or customers and is currently relying on donations. A clothing shop shut its doors but moved its entire operation online.
The stores that have reopened their doors haven't really let anyone in, either. The Springs is a bar with a large outdoor space that's generally heaving whenever the weather is nice. Today it's empty, barring a small table with an umbrella propped up in front of the door. Like many bars and restaurants, it's offering takeaway products primarily though contactless payments systems.
But now more retailers and restaurants in my neighborhood are starting to open, and I wanted to learn how they're doing it. Large businesses may be able to invest in new technologies to help them adapt to a new normal. But for small businesses like the ones around me — operating at razor-thin margins, even at the best of times — it's mostly a matter of figuring out how to make do with the tools they've already got.
For some retailers, the pandemic has actually created new business opportunities, even while the front door remains closed. Threes Brewing, a local brewery based in Gowanus, has an outpost in Greenpoint that serves its beer and food. It's been closed since March, when the state mandated all nonessential businesses closed and gatherings prohibited. "The whole experience has been surreal for us," co-founder Josh Stylman said. "Two-thirds of our staff are front-of-house workers," he added, and they were out of jobs. He and his two co-founders started to think of ways they could keep these people working even with their facilities closed: They began offering takeaway beer from both their locations and wondered how they could take things further.
"We said, 'How can we possibly safely do delivery and pickups on our own, if people can order from the internet, no one has to touch anything, and no one comes inside the building except for our staff?'" Stylman said. Staff were interested in being delivery drivers and packing up orders, and within a few weeks, the company had launched a fully fledged online ordering system for its beers.
"The transition hasn't been without its bumps and bruises, and we're not designed to be a web company — there's skills that we don't possess internally that we're quickly either adapting or figuring out," Stylman said. He and his co-founders have a background in tech (Stylman worked at Ask.com when Google was still a new idea), and he said he called in favors from friends to get Threes' new venture off the ground.
Stylman and his team had to adapt the tech they're used to using as well. He said that the company had been relying on a POS system from Breadcrumb for their stores. It served their needs for an in-store retail operation, but not for ecommerce. But a Shopify account that they'd rarely used to sell merchandise turned out to be invaluable in their pivot to delivery. (Shopify has been a boon to small businesses across the country, shut off from their traditional sales operations.)
In about three days, the team spun up a rudimentary delivery service where customers in Brooklyn could order beer for the next day. I've used it a few times, and it's been refined each time as the company works out the kinks of a business it didn't even have at the start of the year. "In desperate times I think people understand and you get like a 'global pandemic waiver' on your product release," Stylman said. "It doesn't have to be perfect."
The success the brewery has found during the pandemic will likely shift the company's priorities forever, Stylman said, adding that it will continue to operate an ecommerce service ever after the dust settles on the pandemic. "The cat's out of the bag and we're not turning back," he said. But some logistical things will have to change: Like many businesses offering delivery or takeout, the actual floor space has become a staging area for orders being prepped. Paulie Gee's Slice Shop, a pizza shop near Threes, has stuffed up almost the entirety of its store with folded pizza boxes ready for takeout orders from Caviar or walk-ups.
Space aside, the pandemic has materially affected Threes' business: Deliveries have been so successful that the company launched a subscription service where repeat customers can save money on their orders if they sign up for new deliveries every few weeks. "We ultimately look at this new store as connective tissue for our businesses later, bridging analog and digital and continuing to build loyalty with customers," Stylman said.
"If you'd asked me two months ago, if we were doing kind of the scale we're at now and really not getting dinged on a lot of customer service things, I probably would have laughed in your face," Stylman said.
Just making do
Not every retailer has been able to make lemonade from lemons. Sama Street, a cocktail bar that opened in Greenpoint in 2019, had been closed for the majority of the stay-at-home period. When passing its closed shutters every time I ventured out, I worried it would be yet another business that hadn't been able to survive the pandemic. "Initially, it was depending on our cashflow situation," co-founder Rishi Rajpal told me. "We didn't have that much in the bank to afford putting everyone on payroll."
Rajpal and his co-founder also didn't want to partially open, because they knew that the employees they had to furlough would make more off unemployment than they would off of a couple of shifts per week. "We couldn't essentially have the heart to do that to them," Rajpal said. He added that some of his staff had families and young children, and he didn't want to risk exposing them to the virus by opening up.
But two weekends ago, Sama Street reopened, with Rajpal manning the makeshift service area at the bar's front door and his co-founder mixing the cocktails. Like many businesses, they've relied on modern word-of-mouth — Facebook, Instagram and an email list run on Mailchimp — to get the word out that they're back open. Like Threes, Sama Street also uses Breadcrumb's POS system, but for what Rajpal and team have planned for the near future, it's more than enough. Previously, payments were taken by staff back in the bar's service area, but for the new setup, Rajpal said Breadcrumb's system made it easy to accept contactless payments with the hardware they already had.
"It's beneficial for this time, and it's also extremely intuitive," Rajpal said. "We didn't have to call Breadcrumb to make it contactless — we just went to the settings ourselves through the app and we were ready to go."
Retail is also making do with what they can. The clothing shop Local Color, founded by Christine Lynch, closed up before the state lockdown order even went into effect. "It was one Sunday, and I'm like, 'I don't think I'm going to come back next week.'" Lynch put up a hand-drawn over sign on the metal shutters on her shop telling passers-by that the store was closed but that her website was open for business. "I just kind of put it out there, and in my social media and my mailing list that I was just like, 'I'm going online now — I'll see you on the other side.'"
Lynch had started an ecommerce operation a few years earlier but told me it was only ever about 5% of Local Color's revenue. "It was kind of like an afterthought, the store is really where I put my energy and made most of my sales," Lynch said. But she told me she looks at what other businesses on Franklin Street have had to scramble to set up since the pandemic hit, and she's thankful to have done it earlier. Lynch uses Shopify for both her POS system and ecommerce, which she says has been helpful, as it allows her to keep track of her inventory in one central place.
The response online has been "incredible," Lynch said, though revenue so far has not been at the same levels as she saw in store. The problem now is trying to figure out what products to source moving forward — we're moving into the summer months, but so many are also still stuck at home. Lynch said she initially had been hesitant to invest in more loungewear, as she didn't think the lockdown would last long enough for the product to even get to her. "Predicting the future is hard — and having the confidence of knowing what to buy is hard," Lynch said.
Lynch will be opening today for in-store pickup, but the other local businesses I spoke with were hesitant about reopening their stores, even at a reduced capacity. As Rajpal put it, "Reopening with 25% capacity, there's a 75% loss that we're going to take."
Rajpal is hopeful the state extends alcohol takeout laws for the next few years, as he said he sees the reality being that many people won't feel comfortable convening in a small bar anytime soon. But if they were to reopen, Rajpal said they would invest in temperature scanners and potentially a rudimentary contact-tracing system, such as writing down everyone who enters the bar's contact information. "But then also it's a double-edged sword, because it would hinder a customer's experience," Rajpal conceded.
For Sam Zietz, the CEO of Grubbrr, a company that builds self-service kiosks, safety is now going to be a factor that customers consider whenever they think about going out in the future, in the same way they might consider, cost, location and ambiance. "You're going to have to answer that question before you get somebody to even decide whether they're going to enter your establishment," Zietz said. "Technology is a large component of it, but also dramatic acts of cleanliness so that the consumer feels safe entering that establishment."
Grubbrr has started offering systems where customers can scan a QR code to see a restaurant's menu and order from their smartphone, meaning people don't have to all touch the same menus, or even potentially interact with staff nearly as much. Zietz said the technology has interested national chains, and that it could be implemented at small businesses as well. It would certainly be an upgrade over many restaurants in my area that are relying on phone numbers posted on their front door to take orders, or partnering up with delivery services like DoorDash, which take a sizable cut of their profits.
I mentioned the QR code idea to Rajpal, who thought it could be useful, but he suggested a lower-tech solution for when Sama Street opens back up: blackboards with all the menu items around the store. But as of now, neither Rajpal or Threes' Stylman are certain when they would open back up as they once were. As Stylman asked me: "How do people drink beer with a mask on?"