In a virtual event via Zoom on Thursday, April 22, the Outdoor Art Club celebrated some of those creative metamorphoses led by “pragmatic and visionary Mill Valley business owners who pivoted quickly to serve their customers and support their neighbors in a time of crisis.”
The event spotlighted EO Products’ co-founder Susan Griffin Black, who saw her already-growing commerce business explode behind demand for the company’s hand sanitizer and hand soap product lines. It also features Mill Valley Market partner Ryan Canepa, whose landmark grocery store nimbly leaned into online grocery ordering, as well as Peter Schumacher, co-owner of Bungalow 44, Playa and Buckeye Roadhouse, all of which rode the bizarre rollercoaster of COVID-19 restrictions as coronavirus metrics ebbed and flowed over the past 13 months.
It’s safe to say that each of the three business leaders have had very different experiences navigating the pandemic.
Griffin Black was on her way to the Natural Products Expo when she got a call from her sister Karen Goldberg, owner of Tamalpie, telling her that she has to come home as the COVID-19 crisis was ratcheting up. “It was sort of surreal” Goldberg said. “I raced back got home on a Friday night and when I woke on Saturday, I walked around the corner to our (EO Products) store (on Throckmorton Ave.) “and there was a line around the block as if the Grateful Dead was playing at the Sweetwater Music Hall. I just saw how afraid and panicked people were. The experience really got to me. I started handing out sanitizer to people and went to Mill Valley Market and gave it to the cashiers.”
Griffin-Black said she realized “that our distribution was not set up locally. When you looked at how (products) got from us to them, it was such an inefficient way. We just started donating and taking charge of distribution in a way that helped as many people as possible, and then we devoted all of our resources to producing hand soap and hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes for the next 10-11 months.”
While EO faced an overwhelming demand for its products, Schumacher had an even more harrowing problem: how to run restaurants that weren’t allowed to be open for business – at all at times, and only in part at other times – all while managing the fear pulsating through their staff, the chaos of the supply chain and much more.
“We just took it day by day for a while,” Schumacher said. “We didn’t know what was next. It was really emotionally hard to stay on top of things, and hard to be a leader and stay positive and make people confident that we will get through this. It was such a rollercoaster for everyone last year.”
That said, with the benefit of hindsight, “The community was just unbelievable. Maybe a lot of small towns have this support, but Mill Valley and Marin is such a special place. People started realizing that they don’t want to lose restaurants – they’re part of the community. People were buying gift cards and handing them out of friends. It was really quite incredible. I couldn’t think of a better place to have restaurants than right here.”
The PPP loan programs helped a ton, he said. “We still lost tens of thousand of dollars every month but at least the payroll was paid. And outdoor dining was great. Some people are still not comfortable going inside and they may not be a for a long time.”
Canepa’s experience was closer to Griffin-Black’s than Schumacher’s, but still created many harrowing days, particularly at the confusion-laden outset of the pandemic.
Given supply chain insanity, “We were buying eggs from anybody who had eggs, buying anything that looked like an egg,” Canepa joked. “But we live here. It was important to us to have products on the shelves for everyone.”
Canepa said the early days of customers rushing in to stock up on staple products were overwhelming. “There was a lot of tension in the air, everyone was nervous, and we were working 13-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week. That got to be too much.”
Canepa said his family was grateful that through all of the harrowing ebbs and flows of the pandemic, and all of the examples in the media from around the country of customers “giving them a hard time for wearing masks, I didn’t have a single customer give us a hard time about following the rules. We really appreciated the community we are in.”
Here’s the recorded video from the OAC’s “Local Business Heroes” event: