Adapting a brick-and-mortar business model during these challenging times can be intimidating. We opened Bonberi Mart, a plant-based grab-and-go store, in July of 2020. While restaurants and cafes were shuttering by the dozens, we doubled down on our mission to feed our community healthy, convenient, delicious food. In many ways, we could be considered crazy to open a food concept during a pandemic. And though certainly daunting and not without its challenges, I continue to believe it was the right decision as we are continuing to grow our brand and gain a following with new customers and old.
How can small business owners adapt brick-and-mortar to an ever-changing landscape?
Here are some tips below on how to navigate a constantly changing consumer environment to help remain relevant and essential as a small business.
1. Adapt to the circumstances
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that being nimble and able to pivot while still serving your customer is the most important thing. Being rigid in your business strategy and mission serves no one. You have to adapt.
The new shop we opened in July was a fourth of the size of our initial pop-up and located off a main street. When we moved our shop from our pop-up location on Bleecker Street in the West Village to a more off-the-beaten path street in the same neighborhood with less foot traffic, I was slightly worried the customers wouldn’t follow. But I also strongly believed that we were a destination shop. I maintained the “if you build it, they will come” mentality. Moving into a smaller, off-the-beaten-path location helped us save costs on big expenses. This was a huge relief to the business.
With all the COVID restrictions, we were lucky that our concept was grab-and-go. But when we opened mid-pandemic, many customers did not feel comfortable venturing outside. So we launched delivery, a service we had not previously offered. Our customers can call or message us on social media to find out what the daily specials are. We deliver them personally, via an Uber or car service, within or sometimes even beyond the city limits.
It doesn’t make sense for us to use a third-party delivery service because of the percentage of sales they require. We like the idea of being old-school where you can call or DM your order. Not only is it affordable for us, but it provides a connection with the customer that we otherwise wouldn’t have. The customers are no longer anonymous. Adapting in this way lends itself to our strong value of community.
When you adapt to the circumstances and meet the needs of your customers, it strengthens that relationship and bond.
2. Cut the fluff
What is the fluff in your business? It’s very interesting how the city and state deemed certain businesses essential and others non-essential. Working off those principles, I think it’s helpful to use that and apply it to your own business. What is essential and what is non-essential? For us, we knew that customers really wanted our salads and snacks more so than our beauty, home, or lifestyle retail. We streamlined our buy of beauty and lifestyle goods knowing that customers were more interested in meeting their daily health needs. We focused on expanding those offerings.
Moving into a smaller space where we could house our kitchen was also extremely important to us. It cut our costs in half. We also took the time to cost out each item that we produced in the kitchen. This was a project I had continued to put off since business had been so busy. Knowing the bottom line and our “penny profit” helped us navigate which items should remain on the menu and which could be cut.
Streamline your costs and processes. Embrace the essentials in your business model and cut the fluff.
3. Listen to your gut
Listening to your gut applies now and always. During this time there is a lot of noise, opinions, and shoulda-coulda-wouldas–so many that you could get lost. To cut through the clamor, it’s important to listen to your gut. While the city was shutting down around us, I still felt strongly about the need to open Bonberi Mart. I firmly believed that healthy, approachable, convenient food was something that not only the city but the people of the city, needed and wanted. Although we had a slow start in the summer, I was confident people would return after Labor Day. I also felt confident in the service we were and are providing.
That said, sometimes your gut tells you that you don’t have all the answers and you need to ask for help. I’m a big proponent of asking for help. There is an older perception of competition and not asking for help that I find a bit archaic. I’ve leaned on our neighboring retailers, cafe owners, and baristas for advice, comparing notes for the business. The process has been extremely.helpful and I have enjoyed the camaraderie most of all. Some of the most fulfilling conversations have come from speaking with other founders. Female founders, in particular, have been generous with their experience and information. Now more than ever we share the common goal of bringing this city back to life.
You know your business better than anyone else. Listening to your gut and to those who want to help your business can put you on a path to success.
4. Lose the perfectionism
This was the best piece of advice I’ve gotten from a friend because the fear of perfectionism can be paralyzing and actually prevent you from testing something or going to market. The only way to find out if something works is to try it.
Being a small business with bills, we can’t afford to beta test. A lot of our work is putting out new dishes to gain immediate customer feedback and opening while not firing on all cylinders. In the early days of the pandemic, we would only accept customers on the street or by offering curbside pick-up. We began by slowly allowing one customer at a time in the shop. Now we are up to two customers in the shop. This process slowed sales, but it allowed us to open safely. Realizing how understanding customers were was very reassuring. It hasn’t been perfect but it has worked for us.
Your business may not look perfect right now. But you can still survive and thrive in this season.
5. Build a community–virtual and IRL
Building an online and real-life community is essential. Much of our sales are driven by social media. It’s an incredible tool in showing customers new products, featuring our daily menu, and engaging in feedback. Reposting customers’ lunch pics allows customers to feel like they are part of the Bonberi family. It also inspires others to join in on the fun. We recently launched a new hot sauce based on one of the more popular recipes I have on my blog, bonberi.com. It sold out immediately. I attribute this to the community we’ve built on social media.
A large percentage of our sales come from word-of-mouth versus influencers. As a small business, we don’t spend money on advertising, sponsored posts, or even influencer marketing. I feel it is much more organic and authentic if a person with a dedicated following, posts naturally rather than being paid. Although I’ve worked in editorial and publicity in the past, I believe if a product or service is truly great, it can stand alone. Word-of-mouth is the best publicity you can have.
That being said, we are pivoting to do community-based marketing, such as listing ourselves on Yelp and Google. We are also cross-promoting with other shops in the neighborhood, whether it means carrying their products or doing a co-branded giveaway. Since we consider ourselves a cult brand, we don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into being seen as just for one type of customer. The last thing I want to be considered is “cool.” We’re for everyone. Our brand values include being approachable, friendly, and open to all. So it’s important for us to be accessible to everyone whether they know the brand or not.
Building virtual and IRL communities can give your business the boost that it needs to grow–even in the most challenging circumstances.
With some grit and creativity, it is possible to pivot and grow your business even in these uncertain times. Explore new ways to meet your customers’ needs. Cut out the non-essentials and streamline your focus. Hone in on those gut feelings about your business and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ditch your perfectionism as you try new strategies. Lean into your online and real-life community. You can adapt your business in this ever-changing landscape and find a way to thrive.
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