Staying open amid the pandemic has been challenging for businesses, especially for newly established small businesses. Campbell’s Market Basket opened its doors for the first time on March 10, 2019, and a year later COVID-19 became a significant threat.
“It was a very interesting way to celebrate our one-year anniversary: having to deal with this,” said owner Ken Campbell. “That was unfortunate, but I do feel fortunate that we’ve been able to stay open and we can provide a service to people who really needed it.”
Providing food to a community is an essential service, and Campbell’s does this both as a restaurant and a grocery store. However, with dine-in eating restricted it pushed more people into the market for retail food.
“Instead of being like a lunch and dinner place we’re kind of like your local grocery store now,” said Kira Perry who has been working at Campbell’s throughout the pandemic.
“We’ve changed our really our whole business model to make it work to adapt to the situation,” Campbell said. “We’ve always had some grocery and fresh produce but now more than ever we’re bringing in a lot more of that market type of inventory … and that’s kind of how we’ve been able to grind our way through this whole pandemic.”
A lot of that new inventory has meant more choices for the customers including baking supplies, packaged meats and a wider variety of produce.
“We kind of have a lot more organic options I’d say especially when it comes to the fruit,” Perry said. “Whereas in the past and stuff usually we’d have one type of strawberry now we have two, or lots of different types of romaine—just kind of a variety. If someone is coming in looking for some specific tomato, we most likely will have it.”
Campbell said that most of his customers are affiliated with Michigan State University in some way either as students or faculty and in March when dorms closed, and the school went entirely online sales plummeted.
“The number of customers coming in was really just, you know, put to a standstill almost,” Campbell said. “That was rough. It was a tricky couple weeks.”
People have started returning to in-person shopping and life has started to cautiously return to normal Campbell said. But even for the customers in the store things aren’t exactly the same.
“I mean the biggest change is we used to have a full salad bar,” said Bonnie Bremer, an employee who left for the beginning of the stay-at-home order but has since returned. “We don’t do that, we kind of do made-to-order salads now, so that’s kind of the big difference.”
“I used to come like once a week once every two weeks,” said Sam Berman a senior at MSU. “I usually get wraps and sandwiches and soups.”
Berman said that she has stopped coming as frequently but when she does come it is still for prepared food and not produce.
There was, however, one person who was there for the produce.
“I wanna hold apple,” said Skyla Hartman to her mother Taylor Unrath.
Based on their popularity self-service soups and salads will most likely make a return when the pandemic is over, but some of the other changes may be here to stay.
“Yeah, I think we’ll keep a lot of these new additions around,” Campbell said. “You know we get a phone call we might get an online order and we’ll shop it out for you, we will walk it out to your car put it in your trunk completely contact free … I don’t think it’d be far-fetched to say that might be a really new style of shopping that’s here to stay. So, if we can continue to do that and be the best at it, you know, I think we’re all the better for it and I’m happy to do it.”
For small grocery stores, online ordering was an obstacle that had to be solved in real time. Big retailers Meijer and Kroger already offered this service. Campbell’s has since figured out how to sustain contact-free shopping and retain customers, but making that switch took some creativity.
“It started becoming a common thing amongst the bigger grocery stores … and I think we just kind of like learned from them a little bit,” Perry said. “We did our own spins on it too.”
Perry said because the market was a small business it was able to do little perks like free deliveries and complimentary coffee with a curbside pickup to hold on to and build their customer base.
“For a little bit there it was kind of struggling to get going, but eventually the word spread, and we started getting really busy,” Perry said. “We honestly had one of our like biggest sales days yet because of the curbside pickup and the delivery system.”
The initial kinks in the system have smoothed out.
“I think our system online is really great,” Bremer said. “No issues, everyone’s been pretty understanding about everything. We’ve been really lucky to like have that business and have them kind of trust us to [shop] for them.”
Campbell said that within the past week he has seen more people in his market and in downtown East Lansing due in part to some of the restrictions being lifted.
“It’s promising but at the same time we have to be really careful,” Campbell said. “We have to continue practicing all these new social distancing rules, we have to continue to you know wear masks and we have to continue to follow through with
uh some of these new rules and laws that are in place because if we don’t you know it could it could be worse the next time. We gotta be really careful.”
MSU is scheduled to return to in-person classes in the fall.
Campbell said he feels confident that the obstacles he has overcome in adjusting to this new normal have prepared him for what might happen if we do see another round of lockdowns. But Campbell’s Market Basket relies heavily on students and faculty from the university.
“It’d be a pretty ugly scenario if they didn’t come back,” Campbell said. “That’s kinda how I feel about the fall. We’re excited for it but at the same time we’ve gotta be really cautious.”