Nicole Fortin, a veterinarian, stands for a portrait at Back Cove Animal Hospital in Portland. The hospital is set up for telemedicine for animals and did its first two appointments Friday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The coronavirus has upended most business in the two weeks since it announced its presence in Maine. Travel bans and changing consumer behavior have disrupted the supply chains and gutted export markets. Government shutdowns led to the closure of nonessential businesses. People are retreating into their homes.

But most Maine businesses are not giving up. They are scared, but they are adapting to the new normal, however long it may last, by changing their policies and procedures – sometimes even their products – to continue serving their customers, paying their employees and staying afloat for as long as they can.

Some are going a step further to fill specific community needs created by the pandemic, hoping that a quick pivot could help them avoid layoffs, loan defaults or outright closure while also helping their neighbors, colleagues and state recover from the biggest economic disruption most business leaders have ever experienced.

FIXING FIDO, ONE FRAME AT A TIME

 

Shelby Briggs phoned Back Cove Animal Hospital this month when her young bulldog, Cleo, got sick. In the past, Briggs would have simply brought Cleo to the Portland office for an examination, but now she wasn’t sure. She has an immune-compromised person in her family and didn’t want to put them at unnecessary risk of coronavirus exposure.

“We talked it over,” said veterinarian Matthew Fortin, who runs Back Cove with his wife and fellow veterinarian, Nicole. “The dog needed an exam, but did it have to be here? We needed to get a look at the dog, but did it have to be in person? We figured we have all this technology, why not put it to good use?”

And with that, Back Cove Animal Hospital conducted its first online video exam, an idea the business had been mulling over even before the coronavirus pandemic prompted patients to begin canceling all but the most critical appointments. Over the course of one week, Back Cove had seen a 25 percent decline in new patients.

The hospital was already conducting most of its business online, using its website to book appointments, access patient records and buy medicine and supplies that Covetrus, a Portland-based animal-health technology and services company, would deliver to customers’ doors.

So the Fortins asked Briggs to pull back the dog’s lips so they could see the color of her gums. Pale white gums can mean anemia, blue suggests poor oxygen absorption and dark red can mean infection. They asked Briggs to actually feel them. Tacky gums can mean dehydration. Finally, they had her push on Cleo’s abdomen to see how she reacted.

This basic on-camera exam coupled with her past medical history at Back Cove prompted the Fortins to diagnose the dog with a simple case of presumptive gastroenteritis, likely caused by eating a new treat. She still had to bring the dog by for a quick shot, but Fortin delivered it in the parking lot in just two minutes, with Briggs standing six feet away.

 

“Animals can’t tell us what’s wrong,” Fortin said. “Vets have to hunt for their problem. But we can start that hunt online.”

BISSELL GOES MOBILE

Portland-based brewery Bissell Brothers closed its taproom to the public on March 16, deciding it wasn’t safe even before the state banned in-house dining and drinking, and converted its online merchandise sales platform to allow a customer to buy canned beer for curbside pickup or home delivery, said production manager Paul Upham.

The brewery is using the vans that once carried Bissell cans and kegs to restaurants, supermarkets and liquor stores to deliver directly to the homes of customers who are willing to buy at least four four-packs. It made its first home delivery run on March 16 in the Portland area.

To minimize contact, customers pay in advance online and show their age identification from a distance.

As word spreads, Bissell has expanded its delivery territory each day, Upham said. It now serves Westbrook, Falmouth and Scarborough, and has added once-a-week runs to York County, the Lewiston-Auburn area and Milo, where another Bissell team distributes to the Bangor and Waterville area.

 

It will consider adding more once-a-week runs to other regions if it receives enough orders to cover gas and staff costs.

All the extra work appears to be paying off, at least so far. Despite the cessation of hundreds of restaurant deliveries due to virus-related closures, Bissell thinks it has made enough profit from curbside and delivery sales to keep all its staff on the payroll, including those who had been working in the now-closed taproom, Upham said.

“Our tasting room staff have a tip-based income, so they are definitely hurting right now, but so far, no layoffs, no cuts in pay,” Upham said. “We don’t know how this will turn out, but we sold a lot of beer last week, and that was awesome.”

Luke Thomas of Friday, a company that builds software for remote communication; most of its customers are from outside of Maine. For 6 to 8 months, they are giving the remote software out to Maine companies for free. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

GIVING AWAY REMOTE-WORKING APPS

As the developer of remote working software, Luke Thomas of South Portland has seen his business triple over the past couple of weeks as companies from all over the world struggle to find easy ways to manage, connect and even comfort far-flung employees working at home in often less-than-ideal working conditions.

Babies crying. Children in need of help with remote schooling. Spotty internet connections. The upstairs neighbor’s loud television. Such distractions and anxieties make remote work challenging. Things will only get harder as the coronavirus spreads. Some workers will have to care for sick relatives or perhaps even get sick themselves.

 

Thomas created Friday – that is the name of the program, not just a day of the week – to prompt remote workers to stay connected in a meaningful way. Calls, email and video meetings can quickly overwhelm workers, he said. Friday prompts remote workers to share project updates with their boss, team or department.

“When you work at the same place, communication just happens – over lunch, in the hallway – but it’s not like that when you work remotely,” he said. “With Friday, we help the team focus communications so everybody knows what everybody else is working on. That promotes meaningful conversations, collaborations.”

Those conversations are desperately needed right now as Maine businesses scramble to adjust to operating with skeleton work-from-home staffs, Thomas said. That is why he has decided to give the software away to Maine companies to use at no cost for the rest of 2020. It’s his way of giving back, he said.

Thomas said Friday wouldn’t exist if not for $40,000 in seed grant money it received from Maine Technology Institute. About 95 percent of his business comes from out of state. Those accounts are large enough to allow Thomas to donate the Friday software to any Maine business that needs it to survive the pandemic.

“I’m not a doctor or nurse,” Thomas said. “I’m trying to help out my fellow neighbors in the best way I know how.”

COOKING UP SANITIZER

 

A week ago, Tim Harrington was told he would have to close his Kennebunk gym because the manager couldn’t find any hand sanitizer to replenish his dangerously low supply. It didn’t faze Harrington, a serial entrepreneur with connections to a score of York County businesses. The gym moved its classes outside and Harrington called his chemist.

“I thought to myself, wait, I own a distillery, I have a chemist on staff!” said Harrington. “He’d never made it before, but he did a little research on the World Health Organization website and four hours later, we had our first sample. … I mean, we can’t fix the coronavirus, but a hand sanitizer shortage, that we can help fix.”

Batson River has converted its Biddeford distilling operation into the production line for Use Me Hand Sanitizer. Its first commercial batch, which will be completed Friday, will head to Kennebunk-area police and fire departments. The rest is being sold to Bradbury Brothers Market in Kennebunkport and Hannaford Supermarkets.

Prices will range from $4 to $14, depending on the bottle size. Harrington is unapologetic about not giving the stuff away. He has had to lay off people from some of his businesses, such as the Kentucky Fried Chicken that is now drive-thru only, and some of his hotels. This sanitizer line will allow him to hire some of them back.

“This isn’t about profits,” Harrington said. “It’s about keeping people employed. They have bills. Now they’ll have jobs.”

While Use Me was created to solve a virus-related shortage, Batson River plans to stick with its production long after the pandemic subsides, Harrington said. He believes this health crisis will fundamentally change people’s habits about hand-washing and sanitizing. He is already looking for new warehouse space for the Use Me line.

 

3-MONTH LOAN DEFERRAL, NO QUESTIONS ASKED

Like most of Maine’s large public banks, Camden National Bank is taking steps to continue serving customers while still protecting them, and their staff, from the threat of COVID-19 infection. That means closing the bank lobbies to the public, employing stringent methods to handle cash safely and switching over to online or drive-thru services.

But for many customers, the most important pandemic-related service that Camden is offering is a three-month deferral of payment on any loans, including business loans and home mortgages, that were in good standing before the arrival of the virus in Maine. No late fees, no dings on a deferring customer’s credit report.

Camden Savings Bank customers at the drive-thru at the branch on Eastern Avenue in Augusta on Tuesday. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

“We want to hear from our customers before they get in over their heads,” said chief marketing officer Renee Smyth. “We have clients who work in almost every Maine industry, from hospitality to fishing, and we know this (pandemic) is going to hurt them. We can help. Will there be a financial impact on us? Yes. But we think it’s worth it.”

Camden is keeping the deferral process simple. No one has to prove they have lost a job or business from the pandemic. Sign a piece of paper that acknowledges that up to three months’ worth of payments due now will be moved to the end of the loan and that’s it. But make sure to do it before you miss a payment, not afterwards.

Customers can call a loan officer, most of whom are now working from home, to discuss a deferral, Smyth said. Business owners can talk with a bank officer about help applying for government-backed loans or aid that is being made available to help keep businesses afloat during the crisis, or reopen when the crisis is over.

 

“The phones are ringing,” Smyth said. “We want to talk to you.”

FROM WALLETS TO FACE SHIELDS

Flowfold was founded a decade ago by a Peaks Island teenager trying to solve a problem: backpacks that wouldn’t stand up to an islander’s daily bike-boat-walk commutes. Charley Friedman started using scraps of racing sailcloth tossed in a bin at the Yarmouth sail loft where he worked to make his first wallet. Bags and backpacks would soon follow.

News of the shortage of personal protective equipment prompted Friedman and his fellow owners to dive into that same problem-solving mode 10 years later. The company has suspended production of travel gear at its Gorham factory and is now making a line of face shields that protect health care workers during close contact with infected patients.

“We felt the effects of the virus in our community and wanted to be a part of the solution,” said co-founder Devin McNeill, who attended the University of Maine with Friedman and a third co-founder, James Morin. “Taking a look at our production capabilities, we found we could quickly pivot to manufacture face shields.”

They tweaked their operation for the situation, moving all sewing machines at least six feet apart and implementing new cleaning methods and schedules to keep the production line as sterile as possible. The first order of masks shipped to MaineHealth last week.

 

“It is times like these when coming together as a community to support one another reflects the very best of humanity,” said MaineHealth CEO Bill Caron. “Collaboration and innovation will help us navigate the challenges ahead as we address this unprecedented health care crisis together.”

THE GROCERY SIDE OF LOBSTER

With most of its namesake shacks closed by the pandemic, Luke’s Lobster had to come up with a new way to sell the 5 million pounds of lobster that it buys every year from Maine fishermen. The company had always planned to develop an online direct-to-consumer sales platform one day, but that day was supposed to be months and months away.

Luke’s Lobster general manager Allie Edmund puts out a sign along Commercial Street on Wednesday. The business is offering curbside lobster roll kits, with special complimentary extras such as mint hibiscus margarita mixes. erek Davis/Staff Photographer

The arrival of the coronavirus forced Luke’s to lean hard into the grocery side of its business, a lot earlier than planned.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has sped up our process and forced us to be nimble and adaptable, attributes that have always been key to our success,” said founder Luke Holden. “No one is immune to the global crisis, and we’re all in this together, taking it day by day, hour by hour.”

Lobstermen who fish out of small villages up and down the Maine coast depend on companies like Luke’s, which has its own lobster processing plant in Saco, to stay open and operational so there will be some place to sell their lobsters when the season gets underway in a few months, Holden said.

 

The e-commerce site will feature six products to start, ranging from seasoned lobster meat to lobster mac n’ cheese, and will grow to include other Maine products, including Gulf of Maine scallops, in the coming weeks, remaining open when the effects of the pandemic subside and Luke’s Lobster shacks begin to reopen.

The company is also offering curbside pickup of takeout meals and home delivery in many of its locations, but Luke’s is hoping the e-commerce launch will help keep staff employed, keep the national market strong for lobstermen, and keep revenue coming in to fund the company’s lobster roll donations to front-line hospital workers in hard-hit shack markets.


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