Sonoma County businesses discover creative ways to survive during pandemic
Regina Rolland was going the extra mile.
Actually, by driving a shipment of s'mores bars, chocolate-dipped Oreos and sea salt caramels 35 miles from her Kenwood store to a customer in Vallejo, she was going 15 miles beyond her usual delivery area.
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. When you've had to switch your business overnight from 99% walk-in customers to 100% online orders, when you're fighting for your livelihood, you're willing to drive out of your way.
“Traffic wasn't bad at all,” said Rolland, the relentlessly optimistic owner of Wine Truffle Boutique chocolate and gelato bar, inside VJB Vineyard and Cellars. “I cruised down and cruised back.”
While Sonoma County continues to do an admirable job of flattening the coronavirus curve, slowing the rate of new infections, the learning curve for business owners adapting to this historically harsh economic climate remains dauntingly steep.
Rolland was doing more than just driving down Highway 12 with that cargo of artisan- quality desserts. She was surviving. That's the grim mode in which many businesses find themselves as the county's stay-at-home order remains in effect, and unemployment claims spike to levels unseen since the Great Depression.
From the Windsor manufacturer of motorcycle luggage pivoting to making masks for $8 a pop, to the Santa Rosa ex-cabinet maker who used his carpentry skills to build to-go windows for his chain of ice cream shops, to the 25-year-old clothing boutique owner in Cotati who raised her profile by starting a podcast to help young entrepreneurs deal with crisis, this is what survival mode looks like.
Across the county, businesses are adapting and innovating, just to keep the lights on. While turning a profit may be out of the question, for now, they're scrambling to slow the rate at which they're hemorrhaging money.
“Entrepreneurs and small business owners have always been a scrappy bunch,” said Seth Wood, owner of Sebastopol's Woodfour Brewing Co., whose scaled-back operations include pickup and home delivery of its craft beers and food from the restaurant.
That revenue stream, while greatly reduced, is enough to cover his payroll. “It doesn't really stop the bleeding,” he said. “But at least the blood's not getting on the carpet.”
All about networking
For Rolland, it has meant quickly overhauling her online sales operations, switching her website from Wordpress to Weebly, whose “shopping cart” options worked better for her, and steeping herself in the particulars of Google Analytics. While that may sound dry to you, Rolland devoured it like a new episode of “Ozark”: those analytics tell her how customers found her website - whether they were responding to a text or email blast or clicking through from her Facebook page.
She learned Google Analytics from a marketing expert on a Zoom call hosted by a group of women's business owners to which she belongs. In this awful business climate, Rolland is leaning on those human connections, as much as she is on analytics or her spiffy new website.
“It's all about networking,” she said, “and the partnerships you've created along the way.”
After rolling out the new website, she marketed the store's “Pet Bunny” Easter baskets - hollow bunnies filled with homemade marshmallow, housed “in a little gable box.” She made 60, quickly sold out of them, and had to make more.
Rolland expects the shop's Mother's Day baskets, overflowing with rose truffles, lavender caramels and other of the shop's crowd-pleasing items, to be no less popular.
“A couple weeks ago,” she said, “I was feeling much more stressed than I am today. I feel like I can probably do this.”
You see a mask. They see a lifeboat.
For 35 years, Kathy and Richard Battles have run RKA Motorcycle Luggage - “the Gucci of soft luggage” he said - in their small Windsor shop. If you need some saddlebags for your Triumph or Harley-Davidson, you'll find them in the Windsor store.
The Battles also travel to motorcycle rallies and shows, where they set up a booth and make a big chunk of their annual sales. This year, those events all have been canceled or postponed.
The loss of those sales “is a significant blow to us,” she said. Without them, the couple isn't sure how they'll stay in business.
“This may be the new model,” she said, pointing to her face, partially covered on a sunny morning by a reusable cotton-blend mask, designed to meet specifications they found on health care provider Kaiser Permanente's website, featuring a slot for an additional filter, and cloth ties for more comfort.
Realizing the widespread demand for non-N95, public-use face coverings, the Battles retooled their plant, and got busy making them. They ordered three giant rolls of material, a 7½-ounce blend of polyster and cotton. The only colors available were gold and red. We'll take 'em, they said. In a part of the state populated by numerous 49ers fans, that has not proven to be a detriment to sales.