How downtown Farmington's small businesses are making the best of a stay-at-home world

If the intoxicating scent of fresh-baked bread permeated Farmington’s air on Sunday, April 26th, it’s probably because 330 quarantined locals bought $5 baking kits and tuned in to Sunflour Bakehaus’ nearly five hour, free, live-streamed bread-making class.


“It seemed like almost everybody we knew was baking bread with us at the same time, which was really cool,” said Sunflour co-owner Becky Burns, whose husband, Jeff Pavlik, led the workshop in their home’s kitchen. “ … At first, we thought we were going to sell maybe 50 kits, but then it got to a point where making more kits seemed to be the only thing we were doing.”


Sunflour’s hugely popular bread-baking class is just one example of several downtown Farmington businesses’ attempts to serve, and stay connected with, their quarantined customer base via online tools like YouTube, Facebook Live, and Zoom.


Sidecar Slider Bar was among the first in town to make this pivot, having launched a daily “virtual happy hour” – often with a cocktail-making demonstration – on March 17, just one day after Michigan’s governor ordered the statewide closure of restaurants’ dining rooms.


Virtual Happy Hour at Sidecar.“Our standard happy hour has always been from three to six every day, so on the 17th, as it got closer to three, a friend of ours said, ‘It’s St. Patrick’s Day. You guys should go live,’” said co-owner Angela Pelc. “So we talked about it for a minute, thinking maybe we do a toast or make a drink. And then after we did it once, we just decided to keep doing it. There’s a lot of interaction, and it’s fun for us. … I think we’ve only missed one day so far.”


Though the Facebook Live broadcasts sometimes feature Sidecar bartenders, they most often feature co-owner Scott Pelc at the restaurant (he’s usually on-site, cooking for carryout orders); Angela Pelc at home; or occasionally, 11-year-old son Bradley Pelc – a familiar face at the restaurant – offering the likes of a Boston Cooler demo.


“It’s really been a family thing,” said Angela Pelc. “ … It’s a chance to talk about what we’re doing, how we’re doing. They’re usually only about five or ten minutes, though sometimes we’ll go long, depending on the interaction we’re getting, with some of our regulars chiming in.”


Though the Pelcs certainly hope that virtual happy hour viewers will order a carryout dinner from Sidecar now and then, the short daily broadcasts serve a far broader function.


“We just want to stay in front of people, and stay top of mind,” said Angela Pelc. “It’s so hard to know these days who’s open and who’s not. … We’re fighting to stay alive here. This is hopefully a small effort for a big impact.”


Another Farmington business quick to adapt to the new normal was Bodhi Yoga, which started using Zoom to stream free classes immediately. (Those able and willing to pay for Bodhi’s virtual classes may do so via the studio’s website.)


“As teachers, I think we all took a collective breath as we started to live stream from our living rooms,” said owner Alana Abdal. “ … I believe we all had some fear and awkwardness about teaching a class without using our hands to adjust students, or being able to make adjustments based on our students’ energy.”


But Bodhi instructors have been making it work anyway, and community members are responding.


“People need to move,” said Abdal. “They need to do something at home and get their minds off of (the Coronavirus pandemic). It’s a chance for them to not to think about what they’re always thinking about. It’s a chance to be normal.”


The Cheese Lady has also been offering customers a slice of normalcy, thanks to Zoomed wine and cheese pairing parties. (Registered attendees take advantage of the Cheese Lady’s “curd-side pickup” in advance of the event.) Though the store has, in the past, hosted similar events once a month within its space, co-owner Kendra Mantey had to make some adjustments in order to move them online and keep the cost within the same price range.Bodhi Yoga virtual yoga on Zoom.


“We have to limit the number of people in the class in the shop to 15, due to table space,” said Mantey, who noted that she caps Zoom parties at 30. “We’ve usually done 4-5 wines and a slice of cheese or two with each wine for $40 per person. And in the shop, I can only serve 4-5 ounces of wine total because we only have a tasting license. So with the virtual class, people get to drink more in the comfort of their home, although it is only two types (of wine) rather than four or five. I still think it works out pretty well.”


The Cheese Lady’s first virtual pairing party, on April 17, provided participants with one bottle of white wine; one bottle of red; and four cheese samples (two for each wine). After one of Mantey’s wine distributors, Jim Paron provided background info on the wines, several participants happily waved to and greeted each other.


It was a virtual small town on-screen, as one might expect in Farmington.


“I know of some wine and cheese classes that allow up to 100 people, but then it’s impossible to see everyone,” said Mantey. “They don’t all fit on one screen, and you don’t get a chance to interact. … I like seeing everyone and being able to talk with them. I know other people at the event felt the same way.”


A scheduled repeat of the first party sold out 24 hours after Mantey posted info about it on Facebook, but “we are planning on doing a new pairing event each month and repeating it twice per month,” said Mantey. “ … If they remain popular, we may do more!”


Clearly, individual businesses have tried to adapt quickly to offer whatever services they can online – even Painting with a Twist began offering takeaway kits with a canvas, paints, brushes, and a link to an instructional video – but changes have been happening in Farmington at the macro level, too.


Case in point: Farmington’s twice-a-year Ladies Night Out event recently morphed into Ladies Night In.


During a four hour span on Thursday, April 23, Downtown Farmington’s Facebook page played host to several local businesses’ demonstration videos, live streams, special offers, and raffles; plus, according to DDA Executive Director Kate Knight, the event was a significant success, clocking 580 unique active Facebook users.


“If we had 300 on the street for a typical Ladies Night Out on a sunny April evening, we’d be thrilled,” Knight said. “ … We weren’t sure what to expect, but it was phenomenal. We do know we had a captive audience – people at home with not as many choices as they usually have when they’re going out. But there was something, too, about finding a way to keep that traditional mark on the calendar.”


Necessity is often cited as “the mother of invention,” so in a way, it makes perfect sense that our current national health crisis is forcing businesses – particularly at the local level – to be nimble and creative. They now have no choice but to maximize the internet’s potential for connection with their customers, and the impact of all this will undoubtedly outlive the state’s stay-at-home order.


Currently, though, most local businesses are scrambling to survive while their customers shelter in place, so Farmington’s DDA has planned an additional virtual shopping event for May 7th: Ladies Night In, Mother’s Day Edition.


“The (first Ladies Night In) event seemed to have brought joy to the people who participated, so that’s a big yay,” said Knight. “But even if sales had been meager, it’s just so important to keep downtown in the forefront of people’s brains, and keep that virtual connection strong.”

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