There are around 31.7 million small businesses in the United States. How many do you engage with on a weekly basis. How many have left a lasting impression on your life?
My personal short list includes NoDa Company Store. Tucked into the NoDa neighborhood in Charlotte, this bar is one of the many around the United States that was deeply affected when the COVID-19 pandemic began. It became a small grocer almost overnight supplying fresh produce to the community. But it is not just this creative thinking and resilience I admire. Owners Scott Lindsley and Joey Hewell continued to market their novel approach to customer service and fueled social initiatives that personify the values of their company. Here, in Scott’s own words, is how they have rolled with the punches and created their own hero, Quarantina, to fight back against the stay-at-home humdrums.
Keep a finger on the pulse of your customers
It all started when a regular customer casually mused on Facebook that we should become the neighborhood grocer. The bell rang. Reworking our store would allow us to fill a void in our neighborhood while replacing a major part of what would otherwise be lost sales. Paying attention to this simple statement allowed us to change our purpose to fit the changing needs of our customers. The next hour or two was filled with non-stop conversation about what we could get from our normal suppliers, what connections we still had from once running the NoDa Farmers Market, and what access we had to food supply warehouses.
But how were we supposed to know what people want, what they will buy, what we have access to at a reasonable price? That’s not even mentioning reasonable sizes; we use restaurant supply spots, so a lot of what they carry involves impractical bulk sizes. We learned how fast some things go bad, what to look for in terms of shelf life of a product, and how often something is in or out of stock at our suppliers. We were constantly talking to and observing the shopping habits of our customers. We honed in on what people buy and what makes sense to sell. Now have hundreds of items, but it’s been a shifting target, too. It’s fascinating, actually, watching what people buy from one week to the next, but it means we need to be continuously engaged with our customers.
Start with what you know and then learn more
Online sales was something we knew made sense for curbside and delivery, but we had limited experience with it. We had dabbled in online sales of t-shirts last year, so Joey dove in and worked all day and most of the night creating the necessary platform to place and fill orders. The next morning we made the announcement and the orders started rolling in. We filled orders, did some troubleshooting, and then filled some more. We spent the day fixing each new problem as it came up, and when we closed, Joey worked all night again. From that point forward we had little fixes daily, but nothing dramatic. Joey also works on and tweaks the system, the set up, and the “shopping experience” daily.
Embrace what makes you novel
We’ve been doing videos, both pre-recorded and live, on social media for a few years. But it was Joey that took it to the next level with the “live commercial” idea; however I dubbed the characters. A lot of what we do is ad-libbed, and so the first time he heard “Quarantina” was while we were filming the first episode. We really do all of them for fun, and if that ever stops, so will we. Forcing social media looks and feels forced. Things are changing so much, and a lot of people want some distraction and especially some fun — an excuse to be goofy and not think about what’s going on. We have embraced that wholeheartedly! We get to have a little fun in the morning, Joey gets to drink a beer, and we try to make each other laugh (and our viewers too). There usually ends up being a good amount of feedback. We also get to watch, real time, how the various social media things we’ve done work… or don’t.
Stay true to your company’s values
Supporting our community is a huge part of who we are. We’ve done free lunches on Sundays since we opened. It started with a few dozen burgers, but grew to 200 plates. Again, we do it because we love it. We love seeing everyone, and we love cooking — a lot. Our customers, neighbors and friends love it too, and it’s a huge social event. For now, obviously, all of that is off the table, but we really miss it, so we thought Mothers’ Day weekend might be a great time to rework that idea. Instead of being set up to stay and dine with friends, we did it up front so people could walk by, say hello, and grab lunch — take-away only. It was really fulfilling, seeing so many people (masks and all) who we haven’t seen in weeks.
We’ve also worked to support Safe Alliance, a domestic violence shelter. For the last five or six years, we’ve participated in Walk-A-Mile, and we’ve also cooked dinners for the families being housed at various times. Since Walk-A-Mile was cancelled this year, we wanted to still find a way to raise awareness and support. We decided to (virtually) host our neighbor and outstanding musician, Dane Page. Between getting his amazing music out there, creating an opportunity for our community to come together while apart, and also supporting Safe Alliance, it was a success all round!
I think the main thing we’ve learned, at least for now, is keep our eyes on everything and shift when needed. We’ve also learned how to keep having fun, even amidst all the crazy. That part was really difficult the first week or two. Our business was built with us having fun and trying to create an environment where our customers and friends had fun as well. Now we still want to do what we can. Since we can’t do it in person, we will do what we can through social media. These are tough times, so each of us need to do what we can to lighten the load.
As a customer of NoDA Company Store, I know I will think of their resilience and loyalty to their community during this turbulent time.
So, here’s my question for you, dear reader: years later, when people think of COVID-19, will you or your business come to mind? Will you be reactive to the circumstances or a proactive agent who comes to the aid of others? The situation we’re living in may be beyond our control, but the choice is yours on how you respond to it.
Jacquelyn Adams is a career development enthusiast and an award-winning CEO. She lives in a world of constant exploration, whether it’s summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, delving into more effective employee training strategies… or discovering how she’d do in a chocolate eating contest (answer: last place). Find more of her Lessons on Leadership articles here or connect with her on LinkedIn here.
Scott Lindley — co-owner, marketing coordinator, sangria slinger and grocer at the NoDa Company Store — is passionate about supporting his hometown of Charlotte. He grew up just a few miles from the NoDa neighborhood and has since used his love of food and people to feed stomachs and hearts. He is also an avid gardener and a pup dad to rescue pit bulls Tiki and Wicky.