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How Small World Seafood Went Digital to Thrive During the Pandemic

Venture Forward   June 2021

Last March, when restaurants were ordered to shut their physical doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Robert Amar, owner of Small World Seafood, a fish wholesaler in Philadelphia, suddenly had a truck full of seafood on his hands. He reached out to friends and neighbors asking if anyone wanted to buy some scallops, mussels and salmon. Ten people were interested, and Robert arranged to have them pick it up on his street corner.

One of the buyers was his friend Andy Farrell, who happened to be walking by with his dog and bought a bag of mussels on the spot. He was convinced Robert was onto something. Surely there were lots of other people interested in buying fresh seafood directly from a supplier — especially now that they couldn’t go out to restaurants to eat anymore. Having recently lost his job as operations director for a restaurant chain, Andy had time on his hands and wanted to see if he could help Robert get more customers.

Drumming up interest proved easy.

They floated the new business idea past friends and word of mouth quickly spread. In April, Robert started his digital marketing strategy by creating an email newsletter to announce what seafood would be available that week, and people would mark their choices in a basic online form.

The effort gains momentum

Even as many businesses shut down because of the pandemic, the number of online micro-businesses like Robert’s grew, according to data from Venture Forward. So did traffic and the number of orders placed on websites, with 60% saying their digital presence helped to get going or expand their operations. And communities with more micro-businesses per 100 people recover more strongly from economic recessions, Venture Forward found.

Indeed, each new everyday entrepreneur like Robert adds two new jobs in a community on top of their own, the data shows, as they do things like rent trucks and build websites.

For Robert, business kept growing. Ten orders turned into 30 the following week, then to 80, and pretty soon, hundreds.

By June, they upgraded to a larger truck, added multiple new stops to their route, and rented a sorting facility to help better manage the growing volume of orders.

“It was happening very quickly,” says Robert. “We really were just trying to help neighbors and friends temporarily.”

Today Small World Seafood sells to between 800 and 1,000 customers a week across Philadelphia who pick up their orders at one of six locations.

The newsletter now goes out to a list of 5,000 subscribers with weekly updates on what’s available, along with recipes and a link for ordering.

Customers place their orders on Wednesdays or Thursdays, depending on their location, and pick them up the following day. Every week Small World Seafood offers 15 to 18 fresh seafood items including 10 staples like shrimp, crab meat and salmon, in addition to a handful of special items available in limited quantities.

“There’s a built-in urgency to the list and each week’s offerings,” says Andy.

The newsletter and website not only serve to reach and educate customers but also have helped to create a sense of community.

 

Stuck at home because of the pandemic, many have embraced the opportunity to buy and prepare more elaborate dishes themselves, and tap Andy and Robert as something of a sounding board.

“Everybody’s community has gotten closer through this,” Robert says. “We wanted to be closer and more connected with customers.”

As restaurants begin to reopen, some among Small World Seafood’s loyal fan base are starting to worry about the future of a service they’ve come to rely on and love.

“People keep asking: Are you going to keep doing this when restaurants open back up?” Andy says. “We say, ‘If you keep showing up, we will keep showing up.’”

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Restaurants Can Tap $29 Billion Covid-19
Aid Program Beginning in May 2021

The Wall Street Journal

The Small Business Administration’s grant program for the food-service industry was created by Congress as part of a pandemic-aid package

The Small Business Administration will begin accepting applications May 3 for a $29 billion grant program aimed at boosting the restaurant industry, according to the agency.

The program, officially known as the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, is the first federal pandemic aid exclusively for restaurants, bars and other food-service businesses. It was authorized by Congress as part of its $1.9 trillion coronavirus-aid package that became law last month, and will be a key source of aid to an industry that has been hard hit by the pandemic.

Restaurants and bars reported sales of $659 billion last year, down by nearly a quarter from 2019, according to the National Restaurant Association. More than 110,000 bars and restaurants closed at least temporarily, according to the trade group’s estimates.

Restaurant owners lobbied Congress for months for dedicated funding for the industry, arguing that restrictions imposed on in-person dining to curb the virus’s spread harmed their ability to do business.

Grant recipients are eligible to receive funding equivalent to their pandemic-related revenue loss, up to $10 million per business, according to the SBA website. A single physical location can receive no more than $5 million.

Interested businesses can begin registering for the grant application portal on Friday, April 30, and applications will open at noon EST on the following Monday, according to the SBA. The agency earlier this month said it was testing the portal to address any technical issues ahead of the initiative’s public launch.

That announcement followed the rocky rollout of a $16 billion grant program for the live-events industry. The SBA was forced to close applications for the live-venue program shortly after launching on April 8 due to technical glitches. Following efforts to address the issues and additional testing of the application portal, the agency reopened that program on Monday.

The restaurant grants will add to several pandemic-aid programs the SBA is overseeing. The largest of those programs is the popular Paycheck Protection Program, which has approved 5.1 million forgivable loans worth roughly $248.5 billion to small businesses in 2021, according to SBA data as of April 25.

Beyond restaurants and bars, the SBA is allowing food trucks, caterers, cafes and some distilleries, breweries and inns to apply for the grants. Business owners can have up to 20 locations, and franchisees for major chains may apply. Public companies aren’t eligible, nor are live-music venues that have applied for funding through the SBA’s program targeting those establishments.

Justin Anthony, co-owner of two bars in Denver, said he had been repeatedly hitting refresh on the SBA’s grants portal to make sure he didn’t miss out on its opening.

“We have compiled every piece of potential documentation that they could require so we have it at the ready,” said Mr. Anthony, who tapped his personal savings to stay afloat during the pandemic. His business partner refinanced her home as sales at their bars fell by more than 60% last year.

Mr. Anthony said he hopes to tap the federal funds to keep going until more customers are fully vaccinated and demand improves.

The grant funds may be used for expenses such as payroll costs, business supplies and construction of outdoor seating.

Restaurant sales have improved from steep declines during the winter, when many states imposed fresh restrictions to try to curb the virus’s spread. Still, food businesses have continued to suffer. Nearly 14,200 restaurants closed for good this year through March, according to market-research firm Datassential.

Patrick Kelley, associate administrator of the SBA’s Office of Capital Access, said during a recent training with restaurant owners that funding for the grants will likely run out in its first phase without all eligible applicants receiving money. Mr. Kelley said the agency was working to ensure business owners got their grants as quickly as possible without it being distributed irresponsibly.

“The guiding principle is that the most amount of relief goes to as many businesses in as short amount of time,” Mr. Kelley said.

If funding is exhausted, Congress would need to allocate additional money for the program to continue.

The SBA has said it would process and fund certain priority groups through the first 21 days of the grant program. Those groups include businesses that are majority owned by women, veterans or people who are socially and economically disadvantaged. Following the priority period, the agency will fund other applications on a first-come, first-served basis.

The SBA earlier announced a new type of partnership to allow businesses to use their point-of-sale service providers to fill applications for the grant program. The collaborating providers are Clover, NCR Corp., Square and Toast.

SBA Administrator Isabel Guzman in a statement said the partnerships are an effort “to meet small businesses where they are, instead of waiting for them to come to us.”