Operating in a lockdown — a pandemic pivot

How could anyone suggest the supply of coffee (and bagels) isn’t an essential service? Especially during a level 4 lockdown! I’m joking of course, or at least I’m half-joking. As many of my Goodness Gracious customers know, I made the decision very early in New Zealand’s recent Covid-19 lockdown to retail our coffee (whole beans or ground) online, along with packs of our bagels — offering, first, delivery by courier, and then digital vouchers.

Now I want to share how, and why, I made that decision.

On day one of the lockdown, I’d chatted with our coffee roaster about the likely effects of the government’s response to Covid-19 on the economy and especially our businesses. We both felt reasonably well-placed to endure the hit, but nothing was certain, including survival.

Under the emergency regulations, the roaster — a friend for, coincidentally, 19 years — was clearly allowed to continue operating, as a supplier also to supermarkets. But the sudden halt in demand from now-closed businesses like Goodness Gracious meant he had surplus green beans sitting in storage.

Some of my best ideas come in the middle of the night, and, after mulling over the situation for the rest of the day, it was very early the next morning that I had an epiphany (well, a brainwave anyway): my roaster could continue to supply me, and I could continue to supply my usual customers. But not in the usual way. Café customers had previously been able to pre-order our regular fare online; now I would set up online direct-to-consumer retail of both beans and bagged bagels.

I knew it was a great idea, but I confess my next idea wasn’t. That was the decision to ring the roaster immediately to share the good news. He was less than enthusiastic. “Fuck off, Greg, it’s 1.30am!”

But he did phone me back the next morning, and, after setting new parameters allowing me to contact him only between the hours of 8am and 8pm, he readily agreed to my proposal. As did my bagel suppliers, who — also as suppliers to supermarkets — were similarly already able to continue operating.

And so, working alongside my product suppliers and my IT partners, I put my plans into effect — gradually. Previously, I’d always believed in taking something to market (or opening a café) only when it was fully formed, one hundred percent ready. In this case, such a cautious approach was impossible. We launched the service as soon as we could — rough and (almost) ready — and then we worked strenuously to improve it bit-by-bit, day-by-day. And, in the end, I was very happy with what we’d managed to pull off.

But the same couldn’t be said for everyone. Soon we were taking heat from some competitors and the occasional member of the public. They felt we were operating outside the government’s level 4 guidance, which generally allowed only those who were supplying supermarkets also to provide their product online.

I concede I was operating in a grey area. I wasn’t supplying supermarkets — my contracted suppliers were. But, unlike some other businesses who also went online, I wasn’t continuing to operate from my usual (café) premises. I wasn’t delivering direct to consumers; I used couriers. And I was definitely offering a service, to those unable or reluctant to leave their bubbles.

I felt then, and I still feel, that those who’d understood my business previously and how I was operating it now would back my decision. MBIE (the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) did, but it took three weeks and a lot of hassling to get it in writing!

It’s no surprise that people’s judgement of what is and isn’t essential can vary greatly. The great alcohol debate has perhaps been the most divisive. And the advice given in the daily news conferences was often confusing and sometimes contradicted the advice from MBIE.

Today, I stand by my decision to go online. My customers will recall I’d previously made the decision to close our cafés early, in the interests of public health. I hope they’ll trust me now when I say we’d have abandoned our online service if we’d suspected our use of couriers was affecting the delivery of essential health supplies.

I am happy that the overwhelming response to our decision to go online was positive, but I don’t deny the decision was debatable. Much of the guidance given, and many of the decisions made, had been neither black nor white.

I recall an answer given by Josh Bayliss, CEO of the Virgin Group (and an old boy of my old high school), when he was asked what defined the success of businesses that managed to overcome obstacles. “The ability to operate in the grey,” he replied — so long as you were guided by your moral and ethical compass.

During the level 4 lockdown, Goodness Gracious operated in the grey. But I feel at ease with our pivot in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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