Coronavirus Chronicles: Pivoting during a pandemic — local businesses share lessons learned

Bryan and Kim Karrick participated in the Zoom presentation directly from the room containing the Scratch distilling equipment.

How do you keep moving your business or organization forward when the going gets tough?

Five local managers from a range of organizations came together Tuesday for a one-hour webinar sponsored by Edmonds College. The goal: To share how the coronavirus-related restrictions moved them to put on their thinking caps and try new things to boost resilience, relevance and value during these unprecedented times.

David Voetmann runs the Facility Makerspace at Edmonds College.

The session was hosted by David Voetmann, who heads up the college’s Facility Makerspace. In the Makerspace, ordinary people with extraordinary ideas gain access to an 11,000 square-foot sandbox for innovation with all the tools, training and community people need to turn thoughts into things. Voetmann believes that, while technology is great, we need to focus on solutions rather than tools.

Voetmann was joined by Kimberly Koenig, owner of Edmonds’ Rouge Boutique; Kim and Bryan Karrick, owners of Edmonds’ Scratch Distillery; Tucker Kaas, partner in Mukilteo’s Kaas Tailored; Kali and Kris Kelnero, owners of Edmonds’ Kelnero Bar; and Daniel Johnson, CEO of the new (and still under construction) Edmonds Waterfront Center.

Setting the tone for the session, Voetmann stressed how new challenges provide the opportunity to “pivot,” prompting you to make adjustments to deal with the new situation — but through it all remain true to your values.  He asked participants questions designed to bring out what drove them to pivot, what it looked like, and how it went.

“At Scratch, we initially put a lot of effort into our social room as a place for us to connect to customers and them to connect with each other,” said Bryan Karrick. “But the COVID shutdown changed all that when we were forced to close.”

Things looked pretty grim at first, until Kim Karrick came up with the idea to pivot from production of spirits like gin to another that was much in demand – hand sanitizer.  The couple found that it was an easy matter to adapt their distilling equipment to this new product. Their first customers were first responders, but as the weeks went by they were able to offer the product to regular customers as well.

“We put it on our website and the first 60 bottles were literally gone in minutes,” added Kim. “And the great thing is that these customers came back, and it led to increased gin sales.”

For Tucker Kaas, the COVID-19 crisis meant a sharpened focus on the company mantra of Kaizen, which involves adopting a mindset of continuous improvement.

“We’re trying to build people into problem solvers,” he said.  “We instituted regular Monday meetings of our leadership team. We all pulled together and by early March we had most of the pieces in place.” One result? The company pivoted from providing upholstery and design services to supplying personal protective equipment to Providence Hospital. “We’re here to shine our lights, and the COVID crisis, despite all its downsides, provided this opportunity,” Kaas said.

The Kelneros connected directly from their restaurant during the dinner hour.

Kali and Kris Kelnero, who opened downtown Edmonds’ Kelnero cocktail lounge in early 2019, had their awakening in March.

“We had to take a month off due to the shutdown,” said Kali. “It gave us time to think about how we’d adapt to this new reality. We pivoted to developing a new food menu featuring small- plate food items, introduced lower price points, and eventually went to online ordering.”

A hallmark at Kelnero is working with small farmers and local suppliers, and this led to building in a boutique grocery and liquor store featuring locally-sourced products.

“We’re still not seating indoors,” Kris explained. “We’ll get there eventually, but in the meantime we’ve doubled our outdoor seating capacity and adjusted our hours. And so far it’s encouraging – our on-premises sales this summer are higher than last year.”

One lesson illuminated by the COVID crisis is that businesses are not in this alone. Everyone is struggling. And this is leading to creative thinking about partnerships.

With cocktail lounge Kelnero and clothing boutique Rogue located across Main Street from each other, the two businesses began talking about ways to help one another. Kelnero is offering a discount on the restaurant bill for customers showing a receipt from Rogue, and — for diners who had not previously shopped there — a coupon for a merchandise discount.  The idea is gaining traction with other restaurants and merchants in downtown Edmonds, and could soon become more widespread.

Kimberly Koenig

For Kimberly Koenig, COVID prompted her to start a whole new business strategy by offering merchandise online.

“When COVID hit we didn’t have an online store, and we weren’t alone,” she said.

This led to a project involving Edmonds Localvore, a partnership of merchants who are pooling their talents and resources to beef up their online presence and look at other creative ways to weather – and thrive – during the COVID storm.

“In its first six weeks, Edmonds Localvore prompted $20,000 in sales spread out among our local vendors,” Koenig said. “For many it was the difference that allowed them to make rent. For me, it’s fun and energizing to be online — but it’s also a lot of work. I’m making my own local deliveries, but it sure makes me happy to be part of this community.”

While not a business, the Edmonds Waterfront Center — a multigenerational community center that is taking the place of the Edmonds Senior Center — had its own particular set of COVID-related challenges.

“We were going full tilt on construction,” said CEO Daniel Johnson. “Everything was on track to open in the fall, and then we had to shut down the whole operation. This meant extra expenses, and finding additional funding to cover them.”

Explaining that things moved slowly at first, Johnson went on to explain how staff remain agile and creative in finding different ways to continue their programs and serve their clientele.

“One thing we had to embrace quickly was technology,” he said. “Senior centers — and the senior population — are not really made for this. But again, our staff came up with some innovative solutions.”

Daniel Johnson

Johnson described one staff member who did lots of face-to-face counseling in pre-COVID time, but worked with the Center’s IT person to pivot to Zoom.

“Many of our older customers had a tough time making the transition,” he explained. “In several cases we actually sent a staff person to the customer’s home to meet them in the driveway and get them connected via Zoom. Our IT person was part-time before COVID, but is full time now and keeps hopping.”

Another senior center service that needed adjustments due to COVID was food deliveries.

“Many individuals who used to go to food banks are now getting their groceries and meals delivered,” Johnson said. “In response, we’ve recruited 50 volunteers to deliver meals to members who need it. It started with five days per week, but soon expanded to seven with help from (FeedMe Hospitality’s) Shubert Ho and other local providers.”

In conclusion, Voetmann asked participants whether some of these new strategies might persist in a post-COVID world, and all gave an enthusiastic yes.

Kali Kelnero summed up the sentiment of the group, saying, “Sometimes you get forced into changing, and it makes the business better.”

Voetmann advised the group to take it slow and “iterate in prototype.”

“Don’t plan too far out,” he advised. “There’s too many questions and uncertainties. Winter is coming, but we have to get through fall first.”

— By Larry Vogel

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the impact of coronavirus on the life, work and health of local residents. If you or someone you know has a story to tell, please email us at myedmondsnews@gmail.com

 

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