Back to Business

A new program aims to help small businesses recover

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Sep 21, 2021
Heard on:
Small businesses have been required to pivot during the pandemic in order to survive. The BackTo.Biz program helps small business owners do just that. LeoPatrizi via Getty Images
Back to Business

A new program aims to help small businesses recover

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Sep 21, 2021
Heard on:
Small businesses have been required to pivot during the pandemic in order to survive. The BackTo.Biz program helps small business owners do just that. LeoPatrizi via Getty Images

Contact-free delivery, restaurant menus accessible through QR codes, more online sales and maybe even a more customer-friendly website — the pandemic has changed a lot, but it’s had a huge impact on how businesses are run.

For Efrem Fesaha, CEO and founder of Boon Boona Coffee, pivoting business to fit the pandemic reality meant adapting his website to better support and encourage online sales.

When the pandemic first hit, Fesaha placed a table at the doors of his café. He thought maybe they could open the doors of the café, collect orders at the table, make drinks inside and run orders back to customers. “And honestly, that worked to an extent, but we had lost over 60% of our revenue,” he said. Something needed to change.

Behind the scenes, traffic on their website was increasing. “So, we said, ‘OK, maybe this is an opportunity here,’” Fesaha explained. “And maybe it translates into revenue.”

Now, Fesaha and his business are highlighted as just one “success story” in the new BackTo.Biz program, funded by former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and the Emes Project, an organization created by Schultz and his wife.

The free online program offers classes and resources to help small businesses recover and rebuild from the pandemic. “Think of it as like a Nancy Drew or like a Hardy Boys series on Choose-Your-Own-Adventure on what you need in your business at this point in time,” said Jasmine Star, CEO and founder of Social Curator and an instructor in the program.

Marketplace Morning Report host “David Brancaccio” spoke with Fesaha and Star about the program and changing how business is done in a pandemic. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Pivoting in a pandemic

David Brancaccio: Efrem, I want to start with you. Hate to bring you back to that time, but the pandemic lockdowns hit in 2020. And you need to do one of the big words of the pandemic, you need to “pivot.” Great, let’s all pivot, that’ll solve whatever problems are, but how do you know how to pivot?

Efrem Fesaha: Well I think, especially for small businesses, pivoting is really something that only if you have the means to, can you really pivot. It’s really a luxury honestly, sometimes. Yeah, you know, you have to be agile, you know, quick on your feet and you know, be able to make tough decisions. But really, also there is a capital component to it; sometimes there is. And that, once again, is sometimes not accessible, especially in the time of crisis. And so it’s very difficult to do but you know, trying to figure out how to make it happen, is definitely the most important for the survival of your business.

Efrem Fesaha of Boon Boona Coffee. (Photo by Jeriel Calamaya) 

Brancaccio: Just to explain, Efrem, what’s the core of your business before the pandemic hits? How is it that you’re trying to make money before?

Fesaha: Yeah, we would source, import and distribute green coffee, which is the raw coffee bean. And then in January 2019, we opened up our roastery in Renton. And a year later, we were hit by COVID. But we had a café, which we opened up to our community; we would have pop-ups, poetry night. We would do all sorts of things. We’d have the library come in and read books to kids and sing songs, and it was like the most adorable thing. And so it would just be a packed house. A café, but with a community component, a community center component to it.

Brancaccio: Jasmine Star help us out here, right. So, when you hear the profile of Boon Boona, before [the] pandemic, had you been in touch with Efrem, what might you have told him to do to approach the sudden needs of [the] pandemic in an organized way?

Jasmine Star: I wouldn’t give him any advice other than the advice that he had given himself. Every entrepreneur who survived and worked through and thrived during the pandemic was on the back of innovating and taking the little you have — and sometimes it felt like nothing — and making something from it. It was those people who remained undaunted and looked around and found gaps in a pre-existing market that they decided, in small ways, to stick themselves in. So, who would have thought that Efrem had ever imagined that he would have librarians reading to children in the Seattle area? And yet, on the back of that, it’s now opened pathways, community and different ways for his business to grow post-pandemic. And I think that is what every strong small business owner did during that time.

Back to grassroots work

Brancaccio: That’s so interesting. So you didn’t say, raise a bunch of capital and hire a bunch of web designers. That’s not what would have said to do. You would have said, first of all, leverage what you have, don’t give up and use what you know about your own business to move forward.

Star: Absolutely, if I had said, “Raise a bunch of capital and hire web designers,” I think we would have been behind the eight ball. Nobody was giving capital during that time. Essentially, all investments had frozen. And so we have to take what we have, which a lot of people felt was nothing. And yet, we go back to just the grassroots work of what it means to be an entrepreneur. It is to make a vision that only you can see into a reality. And that’s precisely what we relied on for success during that time.

For Boon Boona, an opportunity presents itself online

Brancaccio: So, Efrem, so I fully understand, when the pandemic hits, what do you do?

Fesaha: Well, honestly, it was really just trying to figure out what are the rules to operate your business? And so what can I do? What’s the new regulations? And so, OK, I can’t really have guests inside, but OK, how about I put a table at the door of the café, open up the doors? People can see me visibly outside. And we could just take orders at the door, go run, make drinks and come back. And honestly, that worked to an extent, but we had lost over 60% of our revenue. And we had to think about different ways. And what we noticed was that traffic was hitting our website. More people were coming to our website and looking at our products. Now, it wasn’t the nicest website at that time. And so we said, “OK, maybe this is an opportunity here. Maybe there’s a chance for us to work on the look and feel of our website, provide more information about the coffees that we have on our site. And maybe it translates into revenue.” And, you know, to Jasmine’s point, I didn’t have the means for it. But I had a great and willing, loving cousin, who did have the technical skills, who was willing to, you know, redo my website. And we started to see transactions happening on it.

Brancaccio: Yeah, and then the cousin makes the website and it looks good. And people want African-sourced coffee, which is what you specialize in. But then you have to fulfill in [the] pandemic, how did you work that out?

Fesaha: You know, we were trying to create incentives to get people onto the site, but then you’re right, you know, in the back end was how do we fulfill? So, the coffee supply that we had, we had kind of said, “Let’s put a hold on making commitments for further out because we don’t know what to expect from traffic.” So, we had to start figuring out what’s our usage going to be. So looking at kind of increasing our inventory for what it is that we’re seeing with our web performance. Additionally, then, you know, the shipping costs, which were also things that we wanted to reduce the cost for the customer, but at the same time, not feel that heavy burden. And especially as costs for shipping were increasing, it was something that we had to really kind of say, “Okay, is it worth giving 50% off on shipping to gain on the margin of the product?” And it was all of these exercises that we had to do real quick to try making sure that this — that we weren’t gonna lose money trying to foster this new path of revenue channel.

A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure type of program

Jasmine Star, an instructor in the BackTo.Biz program. (Photo by JD De La Torre)

Brancaccio: Now, Jasmine, it’s too bad he couldn’t take a crash course, right? But that’s the work that you help do with this BackTo.Biz program.

Star: Absolutely. And I’m honored to be one of a litany of amazing instructors giving back to business owners to ensure that they’re thriving and succeeding. And one thing that Efrem had noted, is I believe that he is a perfect case study in displaying what had happened in the small business world is that the strides that had happened in one year due to the pandemic, people were forecasting it was going to take 10 years, it was going to take a decade to make that type of progress in e-commerce. And Efrem, on the back of learning and quickly innovating and pivoting, he now has a revenue stream that can scale once everything does go back to pre-pandemic levels of coffee consumption and customers coming into the door. And so what we do see now is that he has innovated, he has learned with a very sharp learning curve. And he had to do that mostly on his own, with many thanks to his amazing cousin. Now, with the BackTo.Biz, there are so many different options for small businesses to go in and learn what they want to learn. So think of it as like a Nancy Drew or like a Hardy Boys series on Choose-Your-Own-Adventure on what you need in your business at this point in time.

But supply chain challenges persist

Brancaccio: And Efrem, before we go, you still getting the beans from Africa? The supplies are okay, during this time of pandemic distortions of supply chains?

Fesaha: Supply chain — yeah, I mean, we’re gonna continue to source only from Africa. I mean, the coffees there are incredible. But there are still challenges, logistically. You know, there was definitely a supply and demand, there was a shortage and a surplus in certain places for containers. The movement of those containers and ship vessels and then arriving at ports and lack of personnel at ports, so those impacts are still real. And then there was also truly, even during COVID, in which business was business as usual, but then all of a sudden, it came to a screeching halt. And those producers back in Kenya, in Ethiopia and such, were left with their crops in their hands, which also produced a lot of challenges as well for them. They are, you know, in the supply chain, the most impacted because it’s their crop, really. We’re fortunate enough to receive their crop but, you know, it really impacted them once things came to a halt. But things are starting to improve now and hopefully, they just continue to move in a better way as time continues on.

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