4 ways to expand in COVID-19—from people who did it

Gabbi Rose, owner of the historic Sugarloaf Cafe nestled in the desert outside of Palm Springs, California, had dreams of a busy, bustling, good ol’ fashioned American diner for drivers on the Palms to Pines Highway to stop and grab a plate of barbecue. 

Problem was, there weren’t a lot of people passing through the middle of nowhere on the Palms to Pines Highway—until COVID-19. 

“COVID did something incredible for this restaurant.” Gabbi said. “Trying to get people to drive 20 minutes up the highway was a chore, and we were barely breaking even. But as soon as COVID hit everyone wanted to be in the middle of nowhere.” 

sugarloaf cafe

Success stories like Gabbi’s are a rarity in the world of coping with COVID as a restaurateur. She saw an opportunity and went after it with a bit of ingenuity and a few clever tricks to make the most of what could have been a devastating occurrence. 

But what kind of clever tricks are necessary to expand during the coronavirus pandemic? Can other industries do the same? Let’s take a look at what you can learn from Gabbi and entrepreneurs from 3 other industries who have made lemonade out of a pandemic. 

1. Create a COVID-friendly space

As soon as the pandemic hit, Gabbi went into full health and safety mode, making up her own strict—yet creative—regulations for her restaurant and staff. 

“Right before we closed down the state I was on top of it,” she said. “I formulated my own rules for my staff. I reconstructed the inside of the restaurant with partitions to keep my kitchen safe, I don’t allow employees to bring keys inside, I even installed a shower for employees to use before and after their shifts.” 

sugarloaf cafe sanitation

But not only did she make the Sugarloaf Cafe as germ-free as possible, she took full advantage of the 17 acres that the restaurant sits on to create a destination for weary quarantiners looking to get out of the house in a safe, socially distant, way. 

“I took all of the tables from inside and just moved them into the landscape,” Gabbi said, adding that the inside of the restaurant is no longer open to the public. “So we have picnic tables that are 400 feet from one another.”

Gabbi added that getting “pushed outside” changed the Sugarloaf Cafe forever. Even after regulations are lifted and social distancing is over, their concept will not only continue to be an outdoor experience, but will also improve and evolve with endless opportunities. 

sugarloaf cafe outdoors

For example, they recently turned the extra space into campgrounds for customers to stay the night and “wake up to biscuits and gravy.” They also are planning on delivering food to customers in those far-out tables via ATV, talk about an experience! 

You may not have 17 acres to play with—but you don’t need it. Make the most out of the outdoor area you do have. Take out the extra, unnecessary items in the space you’re using already to create an open, socially distant concept. 

Use that giant wall behind your building for drive-in movies (or even drive-in concerts). If you create an activity the community can use to escape our crazy, confined world, they will both appreciate and remember your creativity. 

sugarloaf cafe private road

2. Capitalize on a new need 

Kitsbow Cycling Apparel has been in business for the past 8 years, but things look a lot different now than they did a few months ago for one great reason: CEO David Billstrom found a way to use what he had to create a product the world desperately needed. 

“We were so fragile at the time,” David said. “We had just moved our business across the country, the last thing we wanted to do is let go the people we just hired. So, we had a board meeting on Tuesday, March 21, decided to wait a week, and on Thursday, decided to start making face shields. On Saturday, we hit our production stride. By Saturday night we had ordered 625,000 units.” 

From there, business skyrocketed, thanks in part to the fact that David had connections to the public safety community which gave him insight into just how large the demand was. 

“By Sunday, we were at 40,000 orders—I’ve never seen that happen,” he said. “People aren’t even asking what it costs. By that following Tuesday when we were supposed to have the board meeting to talk about layoffs, I called another meeting and said, ‘I think we’re just going to do this 100% and turn off the apparel line.’” 

Not only did David quickly fulfill a demand, but he relied on his connections with the community to learn exactly what that the demand was and how much was needed. 

You don’t have to necessarily make masks. There are plenty of other essential goods you can pivot to, it depends on what your community needs. Listen to your existing customers, the news, and your neighbors to find a way to use what you have to meet their needs. 

3. Get the word out

Once Gabbi realized the magnitude of the oasis she had created, she worked hard—and is still working just as diligently—to let everyone know about it. She reached out to the press and keeps an active Instagram account to lure travelers in. 

“What I’ve noticed is that the press is starved for a feel good story right now,” she said. “It’s a pretty easy story to pitch. And the power of the local press is insane. Every small business should be reaching out to their local channels and papers. We did one two-and-a-half-minute piece in the local evening news, and our business quadrupled within a week.” 

sugarloaf interview

Whatever you’ve changed about your business, get the buzz going! Attract new Instagram followers with an active account. Continue to engage your existing customers. Let them know about the exciting changes you implemented through social media posts and emails. This way you can stay top of mind for them even if they aren’t seeing you in person. 

Then, jazz your story up a bit and the reporters will gladly share it to your community on an even wider scale. 

4. Find new sales channels or service models

Think about what you’ve done to stay afloat and build on it to grow even further and take your business to the next level. 

In March, Decks and Spas in Redmond, Washington had to close during the initial COVID shut-down. So how did a hot tub company carry on with their store closed? According to co-owner Dan Barghelame, a little creativity went a long way. 

“We started selling and shipping spa chemicals—something we had never done before. We even offered it as a subscription service,” Dan said. “It helped sustain us while we had to keep our doors shut for several weeks. But we also gained an entirely new revenue model that has driven additional growth for us since then.”

If you haven’t set up an e-commerce site for your new channels or models, do it. Launching your business on the internet will open up a much wider opportunity base (think national!). Here’s a great guide to help you get started

Set up e-commerce (link to starting e-comm guide — businesses moving online) > much larger customer base you can serve

And don’t forget: Pay attention to your team

No matter how solid of an expansion strategy you have, your team’s execution will determine if it works. Because of this, you need to focus on two things: having the right amount of employees, and ensuring those employees are just as dedicated as you are. 

sugarloaf staff

Gabbi said it’s very important to her that her crew works together to keep each other safe and healthy. 

“My crew is the reason why we’re in business. If I lose my crew, we have nothing,” Gabbi said. “I keep a small staff, we connect every week. We’re all homebodies, parents, we go to work, we come home. We go to the grocery store, we come home. None of us are going to speakeasies in the middle of the night.” 

sugarloaf cafe owner

Pellicano’s Marketplace, an Italian supermarket in New York, is one business that has seen success during COVID-19 for obvious reasons: It’s a grocery store, which is an essential business. Still, owner Chris Pellicano echoed the fact that the staff plays a big part in handling an influx of customers. 

“We do everything differently, it’s why we stand out. And that requires a lot of training,” Chris said. He added that he currently has 52 employees, all of whom can jump from different departments and jobs to another thanks to hands-on, dedicated training. 

Still, 52 isn’t enough for the amount of business they are receiving. Especially because they just recently moved into a new building twice the size of what they were originally using. He said it can be challenging to get the word out that he needs employees. 

“We have a great staff, but I need more. To get to the point we’re at was not easy. I could probably hire 10 more people tomorrow—and that’s not an exaggeration.” 

Clearly, your team matters. If you need to hire more people, take the time to find quality candidates who can be trained well. Make sure they have everyone’s health in mind when it comes to their off-duty activities. 

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