In this series, we learn from small businesses across the country how they are adapting in the world of COVID-19.
As an established fourth-generation, family-owned business, JW Lopes wholesales only premium produce and dairy sourced from the nation’s most respected growers. Staples Spotlight spoke with Elyssa Kotzen, who along with her husband Jeff, adapted their family wholesale business essentially overnight to introduce New England Country Mart, a direct-to-consumer grocery delivery service.
What was the first thing you did when you realized this situation was about to affect your business or daily life?
The honest truth is that after witnessing first-hand the effects of COVID-19 on my husband’s family business, and feeling the panic of the possibility of losing it all to COVID-19, I turned to him on our yoga mats during a mid-week class on March 10, and said, we have GOT to pivot to home delivery. We left that class, returned home and laid the groundwork for our new home delivery model right away, using existing J.W. Lopes’ wholesale logistics and tools to get this venture off the ground.
It was early March when we started to feel the effects of COVID-19 on not only our day-to-day lives but also our business and the food industry at large. But, it wasn’t until mid-March after the governor issued the closure of all Boston restaurants beginning March 17, that we saw a complete downturn in our primary customer base. Nearly 80% of our business came to a halt. That said, in anticipation of the governor’s order, we had already set in motion our new home delivery business, which breathed new life into our family owned and operated company – adapting our wholesale business to a direct-to-consumer business essentially overnight, and within 24 hours, our new home delivery business was born.
What are you doing now that you weren't doing before the pandemic?
Personally, I am working around the clock for my husband’s family business (which I have never done before), together with him, my sister-in-law and father-in-law and an incredible J.W. Lopes team to grow this home delivery service – this is truly a labor of love!
In all seriousness, we are now doing predominantly home deliveries, which currently accounts for about ~50% of our customer base at the moment. We have adapted our entire workflow and delivery logistics to accommodate home deliveries. Some days we are servicing up to ~ 220 home deliveries, in addition to 30-40 wholesale customers. Before home delivery, our drivers were making ~150 deliveries daily.
We have been met by so much enthusiasm and support for our home delivery service that we established a new arm of our company, the New England Country Mart, with a robust new website. We are so excited to share that this business will continue post- COVID-19.
We are now fully engaged in social media – Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn – as we have experienced first-hand the power of social media and word-of-mouth in just a few weeks of home deliveries. We have an incredibly supportive and patient customer base, who undoubtedly got us to where we are today. (IG: @jw_lopes and @newenglandcountrymart)
What challenges are you concerned about in the weeks ahead?
I think the biggest challenge for us now is meeting the demand for home deliveries in the midst of COVID-19, while scaling our business to meet the needs of the Greater Boston community.
As with all essential businesses right now, we are concerned about the possibility of one of our own contracting COVID-19. We have ramped up our already robust safety standards to protect our customers and staff.
How are you taking care of your customers and employees?
Upon the initial downturn of our business, we had to lay off about 15 employees, but within the first week of our home delivery business, we brought everyone back, and then some!
We have some of the best, most loyal, and hardworking employees, and we are ensuring that all employees feel supported in taking care of their health and the health of their families during this uncertain time. We follow strict protocols and procedures as instructed by the CDC and World Health Organization in preparation of our deliveries and in our warehouse.
All of our staff are masked and gloved when preparing orders.
What opportunities do you see coming out of this situation?
We were able to pivot our business to help fulfill a serious public health need in the context of COVID-19 and the “stay home” and “flatten the curve” movement – being able to help support our greater-Boston community in this way is an incredible opportunity and we continue to be so grateful for the enthusiasm and response to our service and for the support of local businesses.
The greatest opportunity is that we were able to develop a new arm of our business that helps us diversify our services, i.e. we have a wholesale business and a direct-to-consumer business, that can help in times of volatility for either service – when the market isn’t doing well, the weather is not great, etc. the restaurant industry suffers, while the home delivery may not, and vice versa.
We have been working together with other local businesses in the food industry, weathering this storm together through partnerships. We have partnered with other wholesalers who have been affected by COVID-19: Red’s Best, Savenor’s, Kinnealey Meats, OMG! Bakery, Rita’s Catering, Capri Westfield Farm, Lilly’s Fresh Pasta, Atomic Coffee, and Deano’s Pasta, to name a few, and also local restaurants, as we began offering Family Dinners through Farmstead Table, Newton and Cook, Needham. We were also fortunate to have a local marketing and PR agency, LAZ PR, reach out and offer to help us, along with a web designer we know from Chairlift.
Want to hear more about JW Lopes' transformation story? Check out Elyssa and Jeff Kotzen's interview with the Family Business Consulting Group podcast.