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A small-town bakery rises to the challenges of COVID-19


 Martha Zacharias standing in her bakery in front of wedding cakes

COVID-19 has devastated many businesses over the last six months, including a bakery in Aylmer, Ontario - Grandma’s Oven. Martha Zacharias, a Meridian Credit Union customer and business owner, established this bakery in 2008 with her mother, Anna Hiebert, who has since retired. The pandemic effectively wiped out both Grandma’s Oven’s weekend event business and the busy in-store foot traffic they’d enjoyed for years. “We were doing 12 to 15 weddings a weekend,” says Martha. “With COVID, that’s gone.”

Grandma’s Oven has continued to survive, however, even thrive. Martha has managed to serve her customers and keep her business going. Here are five of her tips to give you some inspiration and help your own small business survive the pandemic.

Make tough decisions immediately

When COVID-19 first began impacting Ontario businesses in the spring of 2020, reduced customer demand and business restrictions had Martha scrambling to save her business. “At first I thought ‘what are we going to do?’”, she remembers. Well, what she did was roll up her sleeves and get to work. “It really got us to focus in and look at our business differently,” she says.

Martha brainstormed, made a plan, and also made some tough decisions. “We downsized. The loss of foot traffic was huge. People were just staying at home. So we shut our doors, even though we didn’t need to.”

Take your products to your customers

Shutting the doors of the bakery and seeing her weekend wedding bookings replaced with just three or four significantly smaller events meant that Martha had to get creative to replace lost income. Since customers could no longer visit the bakery, she decided to take her baked goods to them.

“We offered free delivery to customers within a 45-minute drive of us,” she says. “As long as they ordered before noon, we could deliver their order the next day.” Martha states that simply offering free delivery right away was critical to the bakery’s survival. “That kept our doors open for 10 weeks,” she says.

Offer online ordering

Martha also focused on selling through online channels. “We had just implemented our website e-commerce store in February,” she recalls. “It was a blessing in disguise. We happened to just be ready and we were able to say ‘Hey - order online.'” And when supermarket stores started experiencing supply issues, they were well-positioned to gain new customers. “Grocery stores weren’t stocking bread, so people were ordering bread from us online.”

Martha recommends thinking about whether your existing customers - and new customers - find you online through your website or on social media. Can they order your goods and services online, or at least book a virtual appointment? If not, now might be the time to explore your online sales options.

Consider radio ads and social media

As a business dependent almost exclusively on local customers, Martha made a point to stay visible to her local markets. Using her website, Instagram, Facebook, and local radio ads, Grandma’s Oven not only stayed on the radar of existing customers but attracted new customers who were eager to support local businesses.

Martha says radio advertisements worked “because a lot of other businesses were pulling their radio ads.” However, the main business driver for the bakery was Instagram and Facebook. This is also where she found ideas for new products. “A lot of getting inspiration is by following people on Instagram ,” she says.

Create COVID-Friendly products and services

By following bakers from other areas, even other countries, Martha was inspired to create cookie decoration kits to deliver for Easter and Mother’s Day. She got the idea from seeing “decorate your own cake” kits on Instagram. These kits offered families who were sheltering in place a fun, hands-on, group activity for all ages.

Martha recommends thinking carefully about new services or products you could introduce - even temporarily - to capitalize on the rapid and drastic lifestyle and workplace changes resulting from the pandemic. Even if you don’t continue them post-pandemic, the revenue your new product or service generates could be just what your business needs to stay afloat now. And as Martha says, “take it one day at a time.”

She also emphasizes the importance of staying in touch with your local economy. “Find ways to connect with your local area,“ she advises. “People want to support small businesses. Find ways to connect with your local townspeople.”

As Martha and Grandma’s Oven prove, making tough decisions quickly, finding innovative solutions to key challenges, and offering creative products and services for local markets are all important steps to keeping small businesses afloat through the days of the pandemic.

Learn more about small business success

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