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Small businesses scramble to get online as coronavirus spreads

Bonnie Morales knew this day would come, but she didn’t expect it to come so soon.

Morales is the owner of Kachka, a Russian restaurant in Portland, Oregon, and before this week, Kachka didn’t have an option for online ordering, or curbside delivery.

This week, it does.

In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a massive wave of local mandates have outright banned gatherings of more than 25 people and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery only, resulting in the shuttering of hundreds of businesses and layoffs for thousands of workers. All the while, some small businesses across the country, like Kachka, are racing to get online, without any prior infrastructure, to catch any customer dollars they can during this crisis.

“We knew it was ultimately going to happen a week ago,” said Morales. “But it actually going from the back of my mind to ‘Oh crap, we have to do this right now!’ happened pretty quickly.”

Getting online

For a restaurant like Kachka, having a place on the internet where customers could pre-order food and merchandise was not a priority before coronavirus. Kachka is a local staple known nationally for serving comfort food from dumplings to borscht. Prior to Portland’s mandate, the restaurant and deli only took to-go orders if you were in the building. That all changed Sunday.

“By Sunday, it became clear we had to close our dining room, an internal decision was made by Monday where we laid off 48 of our staff,” said Morales, “That day we had to turn our website into an online store.”

The backend of Kachka’s website was built that night and went live the next morning, on Tuesday. And even though the time from restaurant closure to website launch was short, Morales still feels she’s lost out on customers who came to the site looking for delivery options before the site was available.

“I feel like you have one chance, and then you will get lost in the fray,” she said. “We are flying by the seat of our pants.”

Books with Pictures owner Katie Pryde is in a similar position. Although her Portland comic book store is still open, operating within limited hours and according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, this week she decided to use Google Forms as a way to let her customers feel like they could still get the same personal shopping attention as they normally would if they were in the store. Once a customer fills out the Google Form and sends payment via Shopify, Pryde curates comic book packages and hands them off curbside or drops them off on porches.

“I just had a long text chat with an 11-year-old to find what magical creature they wanted to read about,” said Pryde. “But it’s hard for me philosophically, because you can’t replace being here with an online experience.”

Consumer fatigue

Sara Villari, owner of Philadelphia-based gift boutique Occasionette, share’s Pryde’s sentiment. One thing Villari enjoys about her small business is that it is an in-person experience, and going online was something she “actively resisted for years.”

“It’s been a scramble to get online and figure out how to get revenue,” said Villari, who has an e-commerce background and used to work for Etsy. “When your business is based on browsing and impulse buying, it is hard for that to translate to online shopping.”

Like Morales, Villari made the call to close her two brick-and-mortar shops on Sunday night. Occasionette’s webshop launched two days later, and to Villari’s surprise, it proved profitable. But other things still concern her.

Matthew Horwood/Getty images

“I am worried about social media fatigue, people are seeing the same messages from small businesses,” she said. “It’s just losing its impact when every small business is posting the same thing. We are all vying for gift card dollars.”

Go on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and chances are your feed will be filled with friends, families, and companies asking consumers to purchase gift cards and merchandise while storefronts are closed due to the global pandemic.

“We have to be shouting from the rooftops, to be silent doesn’t do any good,” said Katelyn Williams, owner of Portland-based Kate’s Ice Cream. “What’s the point, if not?”

Williams doesn’t have a brick and mortar location — she sells her treats at farmers markets, pop-up shops, and grocers — and doesn’t have a way for customers to order ice cream online yet. So, her less-than-year-old business relies on social media to blast out messages on where her ice cream pints can be found, and what farmers markets she’s at that week.

But some farmers markets have been shut down for the foreseeable future, and social distancing could last well into the summer, meaning her prospects are bleak.

“The spring and summer is where we make the majority of revenue for the entire year, meaning I have to reevaluate everything that’s going on,” Williams said.

For now, she’s relying heavily on her partnerships with grocers and her interactions with customers online to keep her revenue stream stable.

An uncertain future 

There’s one thing Kachka owner Morales doesn’t want to rely on: Delivery apps.

“We are not doing GrubHub or Caviar,” she said, “The general public needs to realize, all of these guys take 20, 25% right off the top. That’s more than restaurants make in profit, it’s offensive.”

Without third-party assistance, Morales plans to tap into her loyal customer base to keep online ordering and delivery going as long as it makes sense.

“The numbers right now are not reassuring, and that’s the risk, because we are not known for takeout and delivery,” said Morales. “It’s too early to tell, with only two days of data, but right now it is barely enough with the current sales.”

Adam Bouvet, owner of American restaurant The Mill in Murrieta, California, said with the outpouring of support from regulars on Facebook, The Mill has seen relatively the same numbers as it normally would if its dining room were still open. But he still questions whether it will last.

“Fortunately for us, our community has been supportive,” he said. “But as more people are starting to get laid off, though, I think our community will still try to support us, but at some point, it will get tough to just support themselves.”

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Meira Gebel
Meira Gebel is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She writes about tech, social media, and internet culture for Digital…
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