GRAND RAPIDS — Last year was “the best year ever” at Local Epicurean LLC, a maker of handmade pasta, sauces and specialty food products.
Although the company has had some success with online sales and an outpouring of support from customers in the wake of the crisis caused by COVID-19, this year’s sales outlook is not nearly as bright.
“Everything went south pretty quick and the stay-at-home order really changed our paradigm entirely,” said Steve Bowyer, one of the partners in the company. “People, rightly so, are taking the virus very seriously and it’s the only way we’re going to get this behind us.”
In response to the dangers of the global pandemic, Local Epicurean canceled its pasta-making classes and closed its retail space in mid-March, despite the store’s designation as an essential business by the state of Michigan.
“As difficult as the decision was to make, it really was a no-brainer,” Bowyer said. “We decided that we would close the storefront operation down temporarily because we felt it was probably safer for our customers and the general public to maybe make just one stop at a Sam’s Club or at a Meijer or D&W versus five stops in small specialty food stores. I really felt that we just had the responsibility to do that and, in retrospect, I’m very glad we did.”
People concerned about the survival of Local Epicurean’s small storefront in the Eastown neighborhood of Grand Rapids instantly began reaching out to the staff, according to Bowyer.
“There was an immediate response from our guests really just wondering what we were doing, how we were going to handle it, and if it was OK to stop in,” Bowyer said.
The company pivoted the bulk of its business to e-commerce, where it began listing more products along with new multi-item “pantry boxes” and ready-to-bake meals. Unprompted by an official call-to-action or any direct marketing from Local Epicurean, many customers directed financial support to the business in other ways, too.
“What’s really encouraging to us is the number of people that are buying gift cards, the number of people that are buying future cooking classes, and I bet a third of our online orders are gifts from someone to someone else,” Bowyer said.
Last week, the Local Epicurean storefront reopened for weekend business with limited hours.
“I think with the proper precautions, now that everyone is wearing gloves and masks and distancing, I feel better for everyone’s safety,” Bowyer said, adding that the business will slowly transition back into routine operations over the next couple of months. “I’m sure that once we fully reopen, we’ll get back to business as usual. It’s going to take a while and I think merchants need to understand that.”
Still, Bowyer is apprehensive about the state of the economy and the long-term effects that rampant unemployment might have on consumer confidence. Local Epicurean is “certainly not an everyday food store” and as household incomes drop, customers might be less likely to seek out the company’s “foodie” products, he said.
“What is the disposable income going to look like after this? With so many unemployed people, it’s certainly on the top of our mind,” he said. “I think that we’re going to need to be open for a while to understand that and make adjustments where we can and where it’s necessary.”
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