While the pandemic has wreaked havoc on businesses like dine-in restaurants and entertainment venues, it’s also been an opportunity for some area businesses, or parts of businesses, to prosper.
Not having to go to the office every day means fewer people picking up a coffee on their way to work or walking over to the nearby cafe for a break. Meeting up with friends for a cup of coffee isn’t as likely now either.
But caffeine addictions are hard to break.
Taylor Isakson, a coffee professional at Duluth Coffee Company, watches as a batch of Zenith City Espresso pours out of the roaster. (Jed Carlson / email@example.com)
«People aren’t going out for coffee as much so more people are brewing at home,» said Eric Faust, owner of Duluth Coffee Company.
Duluth Coffee Company’s downtown Duluth cafe has been closed since March, and its smaller cafe next to Hoop’s Brewing Company has been sold.
While business overall is down 30%, Faust said selling beans to home coffee makers has increased in grocery stores across the state — up 50% in the Twin Cities market. He did not have figures available for Duluth-area grocery stores.
«When the pandemic hit, we found everybody was buying coffee in the grocery stores, so that business just increased,» Faust said. «It’s just kept us kind of stable.»
Laura Hamblin, a coffee professional at Duluth Coffee Company, waits as she fills a bucket of Zenith City Espresso beans from the roaster before bringing them to be packaged. (Jed Carlson / firstname.lastname@example.org)
Russell Crawford, owner of Almanac Coffee, a roaster in Duluth Folk School in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, said he’s managed to grow his business by 10%-15% during the pandemic, even when the folk school’s Dovetail Cafe and Marketplace has been closed for much of the past year.
He’s done it by shifting focus from wholesale to bulk coffee sales and embracing the fact that more people would be drinking coffee from home.
«There definitely was this wave of unknown that kind of hit us,» Crawford said. «What I was able to do, and kind of what has made up for a lot of that, is just this pivot that occurred to a lot of people buying coffee from home.»
Russell Crawford stands in front of a coffee roaster in 2017. (Jimmy Lovrien / File / Eastern Observer)
Now, he’s eyeing the addition of his first part-time employee in the spring to help.
«I am looking forward to more growth this year,» Crawford said.
About this time in 2020, grocery stores could hardly keep up with demand when it became clear COVID-19 would hit the area. Good luck finding toilet paper, soap and other cleaning products in the early days of the pandemic.
Steve Schadewald, general manager of Mount Royal Foods, in Duluth, said customers are buying more per trip overall since the COVID-19 pandemic started. (Clint Austin / 2018 file / News Tribune)
Though the panic shopping wound down, grocery stores have continued to see an increase in sales.
«Since all the restaurants have been closed down, there’s really nowhere to go other than your grocery store,» said Steve Schadewald, general manager of Mount Royal Foods in Duluth.
Schadewald said sales have been up over the last year, though it’s been with fewer customers buying more.
What’s happening at Mount Royal reflects a national trend. In 2020, 65% of shoppers reported cooking more at home and 48% of shoppers reported spending more money per shopping trip, according to a survey conducted by sales and marketing services provider Acosta.
Will this keep up? Acosta found: «Post-COVID-19, 75% of consumers plan to stick with at least some of their new habits.
With restrictions on indoor gatherings, people went outside more, and bought new gear to take with them.
In the spring, bicycle shops throughout Duluth saw huge demand for new bikes. It wiped out their inventory and replenishing stock has been difficult. But such an increase in sales was a nice surprise when so much was unknown.
Ann Dahl tries on a pair of downhill ski boots with the help of Ski Hut employee Anders Brown recently. Ski Hut saw an increase in demand for both downhill and cross-country skis this season, with the demand for downhill coming earlier since many ski hills make snow. (Steve Kuchera / email@example.com)
Then came winter. And for stores like Ski Hut, which sell both bikes and skis, it was deja vu. Cross-country skis flew out of the store and restocking has been difficult.
«New skiers are way up this year. We’ve seen more people coming in and buying new skis or skis for the first in 30 years,» said Ansel Schimpff, who works in sales at Ski Hut. «Way more than we’ve ever seen before. It’s been pretty wild.»
Ski Hut employee Jake Boyce shows a cross-country ski pole to customers in the store recently. (Steve Kuchera / firstname.lastname@example.org)
It’s happening with fishing gear at Marine General on London Road in Duluth, too.
Demand and sales have been up during the pandemic, but, coupled with issues along the supply chain, inventory has been hard to come by, owner Russ Francisco said.
The biggest rush came after the $600 stimulus checks were approved in December.
«It was like somebody turned the accelerator on … good inventory levels and stuff all over the country disappeared in literally 24 hours,» Francisco said. «We went from having plenty of inventory to none. It was crazy.»
He wants to make sure the store is ready if the next stimulus bill is passed.
«Now the big worry is, if we get a $1,400 kick, what are we going to have for people to buy?» Francisco said. «We’re trying hard to get inventory and make sure we have enough stuff.»
Sales have been up at Marine General in Duluth since the COVID-19 pandemic started, but keeping inventory stocked has been a challenge. (Steve Kuchera / 2020 file / News Tribune)
If you’ve used the pandemic to finally get around to some home improvement projects, you’re not alone.
By July, 76% of homeowners had «carried out at least one home improvement project since the start of the COVID pandemic,» a survey conducted by Porch.com found.
Mike DeSanto, who owns and runs Lakeside Lumber with his wife, said this summer saw demand soar.
«It was really rampant there for a while,» DeSanto said. «We were almost too busy. We couldn’t handle it with the two of us.»
DeSanto said sales have since slowed down, partly because it’s a slow time of the year and partly because he doesn’t want to charge customers $8.65 for an 8-foot two-by-four. That’s more than twice the average price of two-by-fours in 2019, according to Madison’s Lumber Reporter.
«Holy mackerel,» DeSanto said. «That’s price gouging.»
Eric Faust, owner of Duluth Coffee Company, pours coffee beans into the roaster. (Jed Carlson / email@example.com)
Ski Hut employee Jake Boyce talks about what Nordic skis the shop has with customer Jane Sims. Ski Hut has seen an increase in sales during the pandemic as people have flocked to buy bikes, Nordic and alpine skis. (Steve Kuchera / firstname.lastname@example.org)
Employee Matt Lee pulls out a cross-country ski boot for a customer at Ski Hut. (Steve Kuchera / email@example.com)
Cross-country skis stand against a wall at Ski Hut. (Steve Kuchera / firstname.lastname@example.org)