Joe Fournier of A&C Grocery makes an Italian sandwich. His transition from selling groceries to more sandwiches was a good fit for the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

A year ago, the Rosemont Markets scattered throughout Portland and its suburbs were reopening, and the staff was trying to figure out how to set up online ordering, curbside pickup and home delivery for people wary of shopping during a global pandemic. It was the beginning, says John Naylor, co-founder of the business, of “a real wild ride.”

But today, Naylor can look back on the past year and breathe a sigh of relief. Not only did his markets survive the coronavirus, they thrived. The last three fiscal quarters, he said, have been the markets’ best three quarters ever.

“This time last year, if you asked me, I would be, like, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to be in business next month,'” he said.

The past year has been devastating to many small businesses in Maine, and restaurants have been among the hardest hit. But some other food-related businesses have actually done well, either because of their pandemic-friendly business models or because they were able to provide people stuck at home with what they needed, from fresh seafood to meals delivered right to their doors.

Business owners emphasized that they realize they are, to a great extent, the beneficiaries of luck, timing and circumstance, and have great empathy for restaurants and other businesses that are still hurting.

Norah Martone packages an order for curbside pickup at Rosemont Market and Bakery on the West End in March 2020. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

SAFE SHOPPING

At the beginning of the pandemic, Mainers who were worried about crowds and long lines flocked to small, local grocers to stock their pantries.

“People were panic buying,” Naylor recalled. “It started to get almost too much for the staff, and then you could see the staff start to get nervous about the pandemic themselves and keeping them safe. That became our No. 1 priority.”

The stores set up sanitizing stations, organized traffic flow, established a mask requirement, and put up Plexiglas barriers between customers and staff. Rosemont created a website for online ordering, and started offering curbside pickup and home delivery. The stores had closed from late March through early May, but with those changes in place, when they reopened “business really started to get better, quite a bit better,” Naylor said.

The company has a system that tracks customers and how much they’re buying.

“Our customer visits went down but our basket sizes went up,” Naylor said. “That meant our customers were coming in, they were just buying more when they were coming in. They wanted to shop less, and they also thought we were safe.”

Beer and wine sales were especially high. People were not going to restaurants, so Rosemont saw a boost in sales of prepared foods and in the average price of a bottle of wine. “We go to a restaurant, and we’ll spend $25-$30 on a bottle of wine,” Naylor said. “(Customers) come in to us and they can get a bottle for $13 or $14 and they’re, like, ‘Oh, I’ll just take two.’ I think there was a lot of that.”

Timing also helped. The year before COVID-19 hit, Rosemont had opened a centralized facility on Stevens Avenue in Portland, increasing its baking capacity and space for storage and refrigeration, and making it easier to expand production of prepared foods.

But there were other factors at work boosting the bottom line. Naylor said many of his customers who typically move south for the winter stayed put last year. At the same time, more people moved to Maine, further expanding his customer base. Normally, Naylor said, business slows by 20 to 30 percent from January through March. This year, for the first time, that didn’t happen.

“The first quarter this year was the first time we haven’t lost money in that quarter,” he said. “We actually made a little money. It’s the first time I’ve gotten to late February and March and not gotten a little nervous, nail biting.”

Looking back, the Portland Food Co-op on Congress Street saw “consistently good sales throughout the pandemic,” said general manager John Crane. But in the beginning, the pendulum swung wildly.

The second and third week of March 2020, Crane said, “were probably our two busiest weeks ever. One day we had to close the store early because we were literally running out of food on our shelves, and we were running out of grocery bags. We were running out of everything.”

The came the COVID-19 rules, including strict customer caps. From April through June, long lines of customers stretched out the door, waiting their turn to shop. “Our sales were very down at that time,” Crane said. “We couldn’t get enough people through the doors in a day to even come close to the sales that we were used to doing.”

After those caps were relaxed, sales increased again. Like Rosemont, the co-op found it was welcoming fewer customers, but they were buying more, “and that has continued right to this day.”

“Our average cart size quadrupled early in the pandemic, and it’s still double what it used to be,” Crane said. “It actually helped us get through the extreme caps.”

The small size and independent nature of the store enabled the staff to adapt quickly, and that also helped attract new customers. Crane said the co-op was one of the first local stores to create a dedicated shopping hour in the morning for the elderly and immunocompromised. Online shopping and curbside pickup for the co-op’s member-owners began in July. And the farmers who sell their produce to the store helped keep the shelves filled all year long.

“We had more food more consistently, I think, than a lot of other businesses,” Crane said. “When we couldn’t find, say greens or tomatoes, our local farmers really came through. There were very few disruptions in the local food supply chain.”

The payoff? The co-op saw a 6 percent increase in sales in 2020 over the year before. And it signed up 570 new member-owners in 2020, about 100 more than in a typical year. And that was without any of the usual membership drives or special promotions.

Joe Fournier of A&C Grocery said the pandemic wasn’t as challenging for his business as the roadwork that’s gone on in front of it for the past few years. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

SANDWICH SWITCH

Joe Fournier, owner of A&C Grocery in Portland, says his sales went up about 35 percent in 2020 over 2019 – but he has more than the pandemic to thank for it.

Joe’s name might as well be Job, because his struggles the past four years can only be described as biblical. Three years’ worth of roadwork in front of his grocery and sandwich shop on Washington Avenue – dump trucks blocking the streets, a big hole at his front entrance – had left his business teetering on the edge. Then came the pandemic.

About six months before the pandemic, Fournier stopped selling groceries to focus on sandwiches. He set up a shorter menu, never more than seven sandwiches at a time, to dramatically reduce overhead costs. It was the perfect move. The pandemic arrived, and people wanted takeout. Fournier was ready: He set up a takeout window and a drive-through.

“There were very few other businesses open with respect to restaurants, and so I was really, really busy,” Fournier said. “Starting in April, it was just bonkers how busy I was.”

The CARES Act paid his small business loan for six months, but he didn’t qualify for any other government money because he couldn’t show a 20 percent loss from 2019. In the beginning of the pandemic, he was reluctant to tell people that everything was fine because so many other businesses were in deep trouble. He even hired a full-time staffer to help get him through the summer.

Although Fournier is still digging himself out of the giant hole the roadwork put him in (the pandemic shutdown, he says, “is minor league compared to three years of roadwork”), this is the first year he felt confident getting through the winter and didn’t have to borrow money.

“The irony is not lost on me that when this happened, a lot of bars and restaurants pivoted to provisions and grocery, and I was still making food,” Fournier said. “While everyone else was turning into a grocery store, I was making the full leap into being a restaurant.”

Fournier’s landlord has not renewed his lease, and he is now searching Portland for a new place to do business.

AT YOUR DOOR

When restaurants shut down last year, they needed a way to get their food to customers, so they started signing up with local delivery services. Mike Bolduc, owner of 2DineIn, said in an email that his company added 40 to 50 restaurants to its roster last year, although not all are expected to remain partners.

“A handful of the restaurants we added on last year were very upfront with us, telling us they did not see themselves doing delivery with us after the pandemic,” Bolduc said, “but we knew this was a great way we could help our community.”

Bolduc purchased food from the restaurants to donate to frontline workers, and bought gift cards to give to customers and employees.

During the stay-at-home order, 2DineIn saw a quick jump in business, Bolduc said. It leveled off for most of rest of the year but remained consistent, he said. During those first two months, Bolduc hired three to seven people a week, including 25-35 out-of-work restaurant employees. As outdoor seating opened up, those new drivers transitioned back to their restaurant jobs, he said.

Thomas Brems of CarHop makes a beer delivery in mid-May. Although the business started by delivering alcohol, it got a significant boost by adding takeout from restaurants. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

CarHop, a food and alcohol delivery service that launched in December 2019, experienced a big boost in alcohol deliveries in March and April 2020 that lasted through the summer, according to owner Thomas Brems.

“Alcohol delivery is still an important part of what we do, but about June we started working with restaurants, starting with Boda,” he said. “And restaurant delivery has really blown up.”

Restaurant sales, he said, started overtaking alcohol sales sometime in October, Brems said. “Now, restaurant delivery is probably two times the size of the alcohol deliveries,” he said.

The restaurants that have been most successful, he said, have been popular places that previously didn’t offer delivery, simplified their menus, and adapted well to takeout and delivery so their food would travel well. Popular orders have included sushi from Mr. Tuna, The Green Elephant’s vegetarian fare and the inventive lobster rolls from The Highroller Lobster Co.

Joshua Edgcombe and his partners in SoPo Seafood, Matt Brown and Lucas Myers, didn’t expect to be doing home deliveries of haddock, lobster, oysters, scallops and other seafood when the pandemic started. In February 2020, they were trying to slowly build a wholesale seafood business, one client at a time, and had no intention of getting into retail.

When the pandemic arrived and their whole business plan was put on hold, they talked about doing nothing, just waiting until the coronavirus showed its hand. But then they decided to try local delivery. The timing was right. Everyone was talking about how important it was to support Maine fishermen and the Maine seafood industry, and the hashtag #eatmaineseafood was everywhere. So they set up a rudimentary online ordering system and launched a direct-to-consumer business, picking up fish, cutting it and delivering it all in one day. Their new business model, Edgcombe said, was “just unusual.” But it worked.

“We’re still doing home delivery, and people are still going for it,” he said. “People still love it. I just don’t think that business model would have ever come about if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”

Edgcombe said the deliveries will continue through the summer, and if consumer demand remains post-pandemic, they will be a permanent part of their business. So far, SoPo Seafood has done so well that Edgcombe and his partners are opening a retail market in South Portland in late June or early July – a step that never would have happened had they not taken a gamble on the delivery service.

“It’s been such a whirlwind year,” Edgcombe said. “Things have happened that we never thought were possible.”


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