The pandemic threw a major curveball at Crust – the baking company. But now, the popular small business has a revised business model and wisdom to boot.

FENTON, Mich.—Labor shortages, knots in the supply chain, and the latest economic trends might go over the head of most people, but they land squarely in hefty portions on Sean Coulter’s plate. 

As the chef for Crust, a brick-walled, cozy Fenton baking company and restaurant adored by locals, Coulter has seen staffing fluctuate and had to get creative with how he serves meals to the community.

“It’s kind of like a puzzle, but you don’t know what the pieces will be,” said Coulter, who’s also studying business at Mott Community College. “You just have to fit them in to make them work.”

That’s part of being a small business and a restaurant, he says, especially during the pandemic. Aside from them all starting at 6 a.m., every day is different.

A year and a half after it began, the pandemic is raging ahead at full force, with every single county in Michigan identified as a hotspot for COVID transmission.

The economic tremors remain tangible.

Several months ago, NPR reported that droves of restaurant workers are leaving the service industry at record pace. Coulter has seen that unfold at Crust, with the turnover rate in recent months noticeably exceeding its pre-pandemic rates.

When employees come to him with their two-week notice, Coulter says they often explain how priorities have changed for them. 

“They really had time to reflect on what they want to do,” Coulter said. “For me, I’m happy for them to do that.”

But many small businesses that have made it this far have found a groove, Jennifer Rook, vice president of communications and marketing for the Michigan Retailers Association, says. Crust is one, as takeout and online ordering have revolutionized the bakery’s business model.

Forced to turn to e-commerce for the first time, many local Michigan shops have opened up new revenue streams that will suit them well going forward. 

“It took us a little bit to get under our feet, but it took off,” Coulter said. “It did really well for us doing carryout dinners, because it built a customer base I don’t feel like we had before.”

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The Highs and Lows

Coulter still remembers the start of the pandemic well. When it hit for him was when Crust had to cut down from 150 employees to 12, a dramatic 90% cut of its pre-pandemic numbers.

The remaining team went into scramble mode, salvaging food and inventory that was calculated for a full-service restaurant. The owners took shifts on the cook lines, trying to replace the skillsets of people who had been on staff for years. Coulter had to tailor lunch and dinner menus to comfort food, which the kitchen was best suited to cook up in volume with its limited numbers.

A turning point for small businesses landed in the form of stimulus checks. People with an extra stimulus indeed splurged on small businesses, Rook said, and that helped to keep local stores in operation.

“People were using those checks to spend and to stock up and to buy things, knowing that they didn’t know when they were going to have this extra money again, so that definitely helped a lot of small business owners unanimously,” Rook said.

Though Crust has now scaled back up, the impact of those first few months wore on small businesses across the country.

As of June, before the peak of the devastating Delta variant, Michigan small businesses were down to half of their total pre-pandemic revenue, a study from Opportunity Insights found

Many have closed their doors. Others have scaled back operations. Employees have chosen new career paths.

More help is on the way for small businesses. Michigan’s budget for the next fiscal year sets aside funds for small businesses, and creates a track where the state hopes to be in the top 10 nationally for revenue and job growth. Its hope is that these jobs will help support well-paying jobs and a growing middle class.

Rook said small businesses can look out for loan programs to capture these funds. Whether at the state, local or federal level, those funds exist, but often they’re short on applications.

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Changing Habits and New Friends

Spending more time at home, people’s purchasing habits shifted during the pandemic—sometimes predictably and sometimes not so. While home improvement and exercise equipment fall into the expected camp, the surge in shoe purchases that Michigan retailers saw left some scratching their heads.

Front of store employees also noticed that customers have become more chatty, eager to express their positive or negative feelings. While some ornery customers have expressed their displeasure at changes, others have taken the time to get to know front-line workers who are in person and helping customers.

During the pandemic, Coulter said he’s had that click with several of his regulars.

“I’m not exaggerating. We had people who ate there every single day,” Coulter said.

On the corner of River and W. Caroline Streets, beneath the changing fall colors, Coulter coordinates a kitchen much different than what he knew when he signed on four years ago. 

But despite the many new faces in the kitchen, new regulars wait for their takeout order. Pumpkin pie is on the menu, and it’s come just in time.

“They helped us be there for the community, and they came,” Coulter said. “They got good food, good quality, good portions, and they realized this is a good place to go.”

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Oct. 1-3 is Michigan’s Buy Nearby week. The Michigan Retailers Association encourages residents to get a little holiday shopping done early and support local businesses.

“Please, during this holiday season or when they’re out shopping, turn around and go to the local stores,” Rook said.