Editor’s Note: Rachel Wyman is managing partner of Montclair Bread Co. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Weeks before Covid-19 hit the East Coast, my insurance company advised that loss of my business, Montclair Bread Co., would not be covered unless my town mandated the bakery’s closure. They further advised, since the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, they would not be responsible for assistance. Armed with this knowledge, I acted fast to turn my bakery into an artisan bodega when New Jersey issued stay-at-home orders on March 21.
I started offering boxes of assorted fruits and veggies, mostly sourced from local farms, along with pantry staples like flour, sugar and yeast. I kept in touch with my customers through weekly emails and posts of new inventory on social media. As word got out, I started seeing new faces as well.
Orders are now placed online in advance. Customers are assigned time slots to spread out the crowds. The bakery patio, usually packed with tables and chairs, has turned into an elaborate pickup line with bags and boxes placed alphabetically by last name. We have an outdoor fridge full of milk and eggs and an outdoor freezer stocked with chicken, beef and raw cinnamon buns to bake at home. Each morning, chalk arrows, instructions and six-feet spacing are marked along the sidewalk.
Every loaf of bread, every doughnut and every croissant baked each day is already promised to a home. By 9 am, there is a carefully spaced line of people waiting to pick up their orders that wraps all the way around the block.
From the outside, Montclair Bread Co. is killing it in quarantine and making the most of a bad situation.
But behind the scenes, there’s a whole different story. On March 13, after restricting entry inside the bakery to staff only, I was forced to lay off our entire part-time crew, over 20 people, to minimize the risk and exposure to our full-time staff and our customers. I took coffee and made-to-order sandwiches off the menu, because the process of selling them required too much customer contact. These items typically account for half of our sales.
When I first opened my doors, I embraced the opportunity to diversify. What if the doughnut trend ends? No problem, sourdough is the next big ticket. When that ends? I can sell gallons of cold-brewed coffee drinks. If it wasn’t something edible, it was an experience – camp for kids, classes for adults, fun 5Ks.
But when the pandemic hit, catering orders for weddings, bar mitzvahs and graduations were canceled. The bakery’s running club was suspended until further notice, and with it all the post-run coffee and doughnut sales. The summer camp we host was canceled and refunded. Hands-on artisan baking classes were postponed, refunded and rescheduled. The 5- Mile Race to bRUNch, an event sold out to 1,000 runners, was deferred. St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Mother’s Day – all these events were revised and reduced to look like every other day in quarantine.
These revenue opportunities aren’t available under these conditions – 75% of my annual revenue potential has been decimated.
Why not just make more baked goods? With the reduction in staff, we are making the maximum our ovens (and our bodies) allow. I am baking from 3 am to 8 pm, six days a week.
I am breaking even, but breaking even won’t pay for the fridge to be replaced when the motor blows or when we need the oven repairman to fix a faulty heat sensor. I don’t have a true sense of how this will impact my business in the future because I don’t know what my business will look like next week. During the first few weeks of quarantine, bakery items sold out as quickly as they were posted online. But as consumers are becoming more comfortable going to stores and more restaurants are reopening, my sales are declining dramatically.
In this industry, one thing I can count on are the highs and lows, which is why I’ve created alternative sources of income to help keep my bank account consistent. Those alternative sources are gone now. These are real, quantifiable losses as a result of the mandated quarantine orders. But when reported to my insurance company, the race that never happened, the summer camp refunds, baking classes called off – all these loss of business claims have been denied. Pandemics are not covered under my policy. In eight years of business, I have never once filed a claim, yet my premiums continue to rise as my bakery grows. The one time I really need help to stay afloat and need to use the service I’ve been paying for all these years, it doesn’t exist.
Businesses should be able to depend on insurance for the safety and security it is meant to provide. Restrictions must be lifted or new policies must be put in place. Rather than offering first come, first serve grants to small businesses, we need a program to replace specific income associated with events and revenue streams in the same way unemployment benefits protect lost wages. It’s time to get creative if we want to keep Main Street, USA on the map.
Until then, the only thing I can plan for is tomorrow. I will keep waking up at 2 am and I will keep baking bread for as long as the community support endures.