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Posted by Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism

A&J King Artisan Bakers Finding “Silver Lining” and New Revenue Streams in Pandemic, Hopeful State’s New Campaign Can Help

Andy King came into 2020 thinking this was going to be the best year for the 14-year old business he and his wife Jackie run, A&J King Artisan Bakers: it already had solid wholesale accounts, a national account with Blue Bottle Coffee, and a production facility servicing its retail location along with other restaurants and eateries. This year, the company had plans to expand and was even creating menus for a potential seasonal beer and wine license.

A&J King Artisan Bakers’ formerly bustling retail location is now a pickup window for curbside orders

Then COVID-19 hit, bringing everything to a screeching halt. Life since then has been likened to a video game.

“I told some of younger gamer employees that when it came to our business, we started the game over,” said King. ”We just cranked up the difficulty setting.”

The difficulty setting has been set to a “10” since March when all operations were forced to shut down. And it’s not just the day-to-day decisions to contend with.

“One of the biggest issues I’ve found with this entire situation is that with so many public health decisions, the government left them up to small business owners, restauranters, chefs, general managers,” said King. “And that’s not exactly where public health decisions should be made. I believe that continues to be the case. Unfortunately, it’s kind of open at your own risk type of feeling.”

Pumpkin Spice Cream Pie with Coffee Whipped Cream, a Thanksgiving special this year at A&J King Artisan Bakers, uses local pumpkin from Brooksby Farm (Peabody MA)

The Salem business furloughed its 45 employees and shut down its two locations for seven weeks, spending that time figuring out what safety procedures to implement – and how to do it.

“We had to shut down and read CDC guidelines and local guidelines about procedures and processes for our employees to work in a safe environment,” said King. “Things like PPE, infrared thermometers, hand sanitizer stations, temperature checks – all sorts of stuff like that simply to operate.”

When A&J King Artisan Bakers opened back up on May 1st, both revenue streams – consumer retail and servicing restaurants and other eateries – were severely impacted. Today, while roughly two-thirds of employees are back, delivery and overnight shifts mean labor is the biggest cost – and concern.

Roasted Potato Bread, made with potatoes from Alprilla Farm (Essex, MA)

“Our payroll right now is running about 45 – 50% of our sales,” said King. “And obviously, that is untenable.”

A&J King Artisan Bakers broke even over the past couple of months, and while King is pleased, he knows it’s not enough.

“July, August and September, these are the times when we are supposed to be raking in cash so that we can afford to exist during the winter months, much like a lot of these businesses round here,” said King. “Breaking even in the summer is not a good sign. And no one knows what the winter and the fall is going to look like.”

Pastries on display at A&J King’s Boston Street retail location, still curbside only

A&J King Artisan Bakers has introduced curbside pickup, new meal kits and baked offerings, redesigned online ordering, removed the tables and limited the number of customers to its retail location, and installed plexiglass separating the customers from employees.

“We have a quick service pickup table where if you place your order ahead, you can just step right into the door, grab your order and step right out quickly,” said King. “It’s a completely different place than what we’re used to. We thrive on hustle and bustle and a cozy atmosphere where people are gathered together, sharing space. And that’s completely different now.

“It’s not ideal. I know people think businesses should just adjust and, and I know that’s what we have to do, but I think a lot of people got into this industry to serve people, to create that environment. It would be like saying, ‘OK, you’re a librarian and all of a sudden, you can’t work with books.’ So that’s what it’s like – figuring out ways that we can kick people out as quickly as possible for everyone’s health benefit. It’s not a satisfying way to operate.”

A baker at A&J King Artisan Bakers folds dough, masked

But the new operating model – along with decreased capacity, staff, and revenues – are part of the new normal that small businesses across the Commonwealth are facing. The challenges are among the many reasons Massachusetts recently began My Local MA, a campaign launched in response to the economic impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had.

“The My Local MA campaign reminds Massachusetts residents that where they shop, dine and travel matters,” said Keiko Matsudo Orrall, Executive Director, Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism. “Supporting My Local MA strengthens community pride and helps keep our economy running.   Spending locally keeps people employed and keeps Main Streets and small businesses thriving in our 351 cities and towns.   We want people to stay safe and put their money where their heart is – right here in Massachusetts.”

King practices what he preaches – sourcing locally – and hopes more people will keep local businesses in mind.

“I’m really supportive of the campaign – I think anything you can do to encourage people to buy local is fantastic,” said King. “It makes a bigger difference than people could possibly think. I think people realize intrinsically that if you buy locally, it helps a local business. And if that business is responsible as well – meaning it sources locally – that helps five local businesses. It cannot be stressed enough about the importance of purchasing locally when possible.”

With a future of unknowns, King and his wife Jackie only look ahead to the next month.

“We’re heading into Thanksgiving and I have no idea what that will look like,” said King. “No one is holding Thanksgiving celebrations – or no one should be. That’s one of our biggest sales days of the year. I have literally no idea what to expect in December, January, February.”

In the meantime, A&J King Artisan Bakers is introducing new meal kits and pastries and finds a silver lining in the ability to experiment.

“What’s interesting is that it’s given us a chance to be a little bit more creative,” said King. “We’re finding out the type of stuff we may want to take with us when things get back to normal. The pandemic knocked us a little bit out of our comfort zone in terms of what we’re going to offer, but when this is over, we’ll be a stronger, more diversified company. It’s a question of: how long will it take to get there?”

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