13 Apr 2020

Bonus Episode! Small Business Innovators

From Coronavirus Podcast, 8:00 am on 13 April 2020

In this bonus episode we ask how are small businesses innovating to help themselves and support one another during the Covid-19 Coronavirus lockdown. 

New Zealand currency

Photo: 123rf.com

Lashings Bakery owner Jackie Lee-Morrison put out the Pandemic Pack Cookbook - a collection of recipes from 14 Wellington eateries, in just three days. Paint Vine event business owner Denym Bird created a non-profit website, DeliverEat.co.nz, which lists Kiwi businesses still delivering uncooked food. Alistair Lang reinvented his fruit and vege wholesaler Capital Produce as a direct-to-door delivery service, and Dominic Kelly set up "Beerer Bonds" for his bar Hashigo Zake, a form of voucher that accrues interest in hopes of some hard-and-fast cash flow.

None of these strategies totally replace what businesses have lost, but they could be the difference between whether they can reopen once this crisis is over, or if they shut their doors for good.

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Pandemic Pack Cookbook author Jackie Lee-Morrison:

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Photo: The Pandemic Pack

Jackie Lee-Morrison owns Lashings Bakery in Wellington, and as news of the Covid-19 coronavirus spread she knew she would have to make some changes to keep the business running. 

"I'm immunocompromised so I knew that I was going to have to have a backup model and not continue to be front facing in the shop because I was putting myself my staff and my customers at risk," she says. 

"I also didn't want to get involved with existing delivery services because they just take such a huge percentage that it's not viable for small businesses, so I got in touch with some of our friends and floated this crazy idea at them about having a collaborative delivery service where the idea would be that we would run the deliveries ourselves and you would be able to order from all of us for one delivery."

They called the new service the "Pandemic Pack", a network of 14 local eateries all sharing the same DIY delivery service. 

"We came up with the idea on Thursday, got 14 businesses involved on the Friday, built the website from Friday to Sunday. On Monday, we were fine-tuning, tweaking, we're about to make everything live and soft launch on Tuesday." 

The pandemic pack had all the kinks worked out and thousands of followers on social media ready to become customers, but just one day before they were ready to launch, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the alert level 4 lockdown. With that announcement came the news that all delivery of cooked food was banned. 

"It completely killed us dead in the water," she says. 

One of Jackie's friends had an idea: why not get all those restaurant owners together and release a cookbook so people could try making their favourite restaurant meals at home.

"We can just we can just use the Pandemic Pack because we'd already built this massive social media following ... overwhelmingly the majority of them say 'yeah, that sounds like a great idea'. 

"Before I became a professional pastry chef, I used to be a food writer. I also seem to like to do things in three days, we made the cookbook in three days ... it was a huge labour of love ... the thing I feel most proud of is somebody on Reddit said 'it looks quite good, they must have spent a few weeks doing this'. I thought 'oh, God, if only you knew'."

They sold over 2500 copies less than two days after the launch. 

"Honestly, we have been completely blown away by the response, and it's funny as well because we're not just getting sales from Wellington, we're getting sales from all over the world. We've had sales from the US, from Canada, from Spain, from the Netherlands ... from the UK." 

The cookbook is only available for sale as an ebook online. The restaurants are asking people to pay whatever they can, with a suggested price of $10, and the proceeds split evenly between them. 

"We all still have rent to pay, we will have staff to pay. We've still got all these little incremental things that come in every single day and add up and the money ... it's not going to cover all of our costs, but it is a huge amount of help."

"When I did the first tally and looked to how many books we'd sold I really did want to cry because realised 'oh, I can finally pay those invoices' and then the other businesses who are waiting for people to pay them aren't going to be in trouble. 

"We can just do our part again and then wait this thing out and wait until we're allowed to operate."

The Pandemic Pack should be able to deliver from all those 14 restaurants once New Zealand moves to alert level 3 on Monday 27 April.

DeliverEat.co.nz non-profit website creator Denym Bird:

Stock image of boxes with Made in New Zealand stamped on the side.

Photo: 123rf

Denym Bird usually runs an events business employing 40 musicians across New Zealand. When the lockdown happened he was struck with an idea to help out other local businesses struggling to get their name out there. 

Suppliers of uncooked food are allowed to deliver under alert level 4. Many smaller food suppliers already had delivery services set up before the lockdown started, but their delivery services were spread over hundreds of websites and none had the budget for mass advertising. 

"The first weekend in lockdown I was waiting in line at the supermarket - a really long line - and I just got really fed up and thought 'this is ridiculous, there needs to be another way'," Bird says.

"I went online to try and find different merchants that were selling online and I couldn't really find anywhere where they were all together ... that sort of gave me a little brainwave to be like 'why don't I try to pull together a directory'. 

He scoured the internet with his friend Alex and put a list together of about 40 different businesses, on a website called delivereat.co.nz.

"Literally just a list - you know, sometimes simple is better - because people really just want to know who is and who isn't [open] and just go straight there.

The project is completely non-profit. 

"I didn't necessarily want to make money out of a disaster, and I also ... really kind of wanted to specifically do something to support small businesses in New Zealand.

"I run another business - an event business, paint vine - which was heavily affected by this because ... we've had to cancel all of our events .. so we're going to also be feeling that pain."

The popularity of the website exploded. From just 40 businesses registered, it grew to 637 in about a week. 

"In the past eight days over half a million Kiwis have come to the website, which has been pretty crazy. Facebook has already started to tag our thing as suspicious because people are sharing the URL so much ... we're sending about 20 clicks every minute out to Kiwi businesses.

"Two merchants have emailed me asking for me to take them off of the directory because they've seen ... so much business that they can't handle it.

"One of them was a beer subscription business called BeerHug, and he sent me his metrics the other day, said has traffic had ... quadrupled and he's already made $8000 worth of sales from the website just alone. 

"One of my favourite coffee companies, Goodness Gracious, they've also seen their traffic to the website quadruple as well, so it's really having like a meaningful impact for ... a lot of other businesses, which is just exactly what I wanted."

Denym says he has had to ask the merchants to supply MPI certificates to ensure they are complying with all the delivery rules. He says he hopes the website can continue after lockdown. 

"Even if this was just to remain a, you know, a legacy project that helped people out during lockdown then I'd still be very happy." 

Wholesale fruit and vegetable service Capital Produce's owner Alistair Lang

Assortment of  fresh fruits and vegetables

Photo: 123RF

Most businesses listed on delivereat already had online orders and delivery systems set up before the lockdown came into effect. But others have had to start completely from scratch. 

Capital Produce is a fruit and vegetable wholesaler based in Wellington, and had never done online orders or deliveries to the general public. Owner Alistair Lang says they've managed to reinvent themselves as a direct-to-your-door delivery service in a matter of days.

"We mainly wholesale to restaurants, boats, any events, corporate caterers ... [the lockdown,] it's taken out about 98% of our business. 

"We looked at it and we decided that you know, we can't let our staff go to waste, we don't want them to be unemployed because we don't know how long this would go on for. So in a way of doing that we came up with this new business plan and it seems to be working."

The service is based on what's seasonally available - with customers able to select any fruit and vegetables they either want consistently or do not want at all - and get a weekly delivery of largely locally grown produce. 

"You'll always get a broccoli, maybe, it all depends on price .. you know, the other day cauliflower went eight, nine dollars each for me to buy which is just ridiculous and so it'll never work when it's like that, it'll never appear in your veggie box unless you've certainly asked for it - and then you won't get many other vegetables."

Lang says it has kept staff working and happy, and they're even looking at employing some extra contract drivers.

"The money hasn't ... replaced the other side of the business. It's a lot more work, far more hands on. 

"It keeps everyone busy, people are happy, they're talking. They're not locked in their houses, which is another good thing."

The new restrictions have added to the challenges they face, but those are not insurmountable. 

"You know, it's been very challenging having the 2m space between all my employees and not allowing them to have their breaks together, and them having to wear gloves and masks all day. There's just some new new challenges for everybody. 

"We got audited this afternoon, you know, there's a lot of rules but a lot of it's ... common sense. The rules are there for a reason. As long as you stick to them, you'll be you should be fine. 

"I mean, there's not one rule that's gonna work for everybody, but they've done the best that they can at making it as easy as possible for people without being completely ridiculous. 

Lang thinks this new side of his business has the potential to keep growing even after lockdown ends. He thinks the seasonal aspect will appeal to people looking to reduce their carbon footprint. 

Hashigo Zake owner Dominic Kelly

Some businesses just have to weather the storm, particularly pubs and bars, which are likely to face tough restrictions even after they're allowed to reopen. These places are having to get creative to find sources of revenue. Some have set up crowdfunding pages, and others are offering vouchers through sites like cafe SOS. 

Dominic Kelly, from Wellington craft beer bar Hashigo Zake, has taken vouchers a step further with what he calls beerer bonds, a "cheap pun" on the traditional bearer bond.

"It's a voucher that we invite our customers to not redeem immediately and for as long as they wait to redeem it, we keep rewarding them with a monthly coupon in the fashion of a 'bond' and that coupon is another smaller voucher in its own right."

Basically, you can buy a $100 voucher, and for every month that you don't use that voucher, you get an extra $10 bonus voucher. Kelly says the advantage is they can sell vouchers in higher denominations.

"We've always offered vouchers and we signed up for the CafeSOS steam as well, but I'm a bit worried that vouchers will be a bit piecemeal, they wouldn't help us a lot with our cash flow. 

"Any cash right now and in the coming weeks if and when we get back in business is absolutely precious and so anyone who can invest in us as a customer right now deserves something better than just the value of their investment back. 

"So yeah, a kind of a voucher with interest struck me as something that is good for both us and our customers."

He says the response has been very encouraging.  

"I was a little bit moved to be honest when I saw some really good long standing loyal customers some of the first to sign up. Yeah, it was quite powerful, seeing people kind of rally like that." 


Writer / presenter: William Ray
The Coronavirus podcast presenter: Indira Stewart
Producers: Sonia Sly, Jesse Chiang
Executive producer: Tim Watkin 
Sound engineer: Adrian Holly

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