Confessions of A Small Business Surviving Covid-19

Confessions of A Small Business Surviving Covid-19

Still life with sanitizer. By Miranda Harter.


Just this February, Claire, and operations manager, Sam, were in Nuremberg, Germany shaking hands with some of the finest suppliers of food and spices at BioFach, the world’s leading trade fair for organic food. By March, Covid-19 had begun to make its presence known across the state of Massachusetts. Today, not only is shaking hands socially unacceptable, but nearly everything about our business—save the spices themselves—has undergone a massive transformation.

“I remember writing a message on our sidewalk sign that read ‘Fresh spices for strange times,’ thinking this would be over soon, like a snowstorm, and I'd erase it and write something else, like ‘New classes’” Claire recalled recently during a conversation about how the pandemic has changed life for our workforce. “But as everything unfolded the fears became real.”

As you can imagine, it was a challenging time for business owners, particularly those whose product depends on work that cannot be performed solely through a screen. Claire watched as her husband's business and so many others went remote overnight. “But how do you run an artisan food manufacturing business remotely?” The answer: “You can't.”


Claire at BioFach! In Nuremburg, Germany, blissfully unaware of the shutdowns to come.


Spices at a booth at BioFach


Frau Putos! Sam’s name badge at BioFach. Already they were discouraging hand shaking, but no one listened and that was the extent of the impact of Covid-19 at this conference.


As commerce came to a frightening halt and Governor Baker started drawing lines between essential and non-essential businesses, Curio staff were also forced to reckon with another uncomfortable question: “Are spices… essential?” (A particularly touchy question! Even before the pandemic, in an era of health fads and dietary supplements, spice merchants are constantly having to justify why our product—which while not appearing on the almighty food pyramid—is still an important part of the culinary experience.)

Fortunately, as a business involved in the production, manufacturing, and distribution of food, according to the commonwealth of Massachusetts, we learned that we are in fact “essential” and we’ve been able to remain operational for the duration of the pandemic. 

We’ve spent the last few months hustling to accommodate a public health crisis that is unprecedented in our lifetime and, if you’re in the area, you’ve likely noticed our storefront has been closed since March. Closing our shop to the public and transitioning overnight from having online sales make up 10% to 100% of sales has definitely been the most profound change our business has had to deal with. 


Boxes for days! Our once charming storefront is now a sea of boxes headed to a USPS truck and then to you. This is just a glimpse into what the transition from 10% of our sales being ecommerce online to 100% has looked like.


A screenshot from our first company ‘meeting’. We discussed Covid-19 and how we were going to handle it, along with a sanity check in. And spice-infused cocktails.

New gear. Miranda, who we brought to the team in June, packs gift sets donning PPE.


Losing the storefront came with a lot of baggage, recalled Sam. “We had to figure out how to scale that part of our business that was so small before and had to also recreate a customer experience that was such a Museum of the Senses for people,” she said. “Trying to take that experience online has been a big challenge we’re still figuring out.”

By closing the shop, we also lost an important outlet for communicating with our customers about what we’ve been going through. That’s part of why we started this blog. It’s no replacement for the conversations we were so fond of having with customers who came into the shop, be they regulars or surprise out-of-town visitors. Those relationships were what made our shop feel, as our front-of-house manager Maité described it, like the set of Cheers.

“I miss hearing about the projects that people were working on and what new flavors they were trying or asking questions that we didn't have the answers to,” she shared. “I really miss the handful of people that made this place feel like this neighborhood pub where you can pop in and [chat] with us.”

Our marketing marketing manager, Susan, who, being in a higher risk category, has shifted to working entirely from home since March, also misses the tranquil refuge our storefront once represented. “It's peaceful and it smells good and people are greeted and sometimes there’s a snack”—typically prepared by Susie herself—“and someone will give you a cookie. I can't tell you how many times it’s happened where somebody’s like, ‘I've just been having a really crap day and I just needed to stop by here and come in. I don't actually need to buy anything. I just need to stand here for a minute.’”

We still hear from our regulars, who have taken to dropping loving messages and pick-me-ups in the comments section of the Squarespace online order form, but it’s safe to say it’s really not the same. (Thank you, though, to those of you who have been leaving fun notes for us--our staff notices and appreciates them!)



Until we’re able to have those irreplaceable in-person experiences again—(we miss you, interactive ‘smell jars’!)—we hope this blog will be a space where we can fill some of that void; offering transparency into our business at this critical juncture, spotlights on our suppliers (whose labor and ingenuity make our work possible), important context on new products and initiatives, and overall, an opportunity to chime in on important things happening in our local community and the world. 

Another thought for this blog was to shed light into how one small business is faring during the pandemic, in the hopes of adding our voice to a larger economic conversation unfolding in our country, which tends to focus primarily on the wellbeing of large corporations. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, a small business in the retail category is a firm with fewer than 500 employees. By this standard, Curio is but a blip (though our output often belies our size!). We are eight people, only four of whom are full-time. 

Thousands of small businesses have gone bankrupt since the start of the pandemic, says one report from Bloomberg, yet “no one is tracking the carnage.” This is the story of one that is still very much chugging along, how we’ve adapted, and what’s (we hope) next. Our capacity has ebbed and flowed as we rebuilt our operations in the image of Covid-19 and developed new protocols to keep those working behind the scenes safe; but for the most part, we’re all staying healthy, the business has remained solvent and we consider ourselves incredibly lucky.


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