Main Street Retail in the Time of COVID-19: Interview with Kristin Smith of The Wrigley

By Alison Davis, CEDIK Executive Director

It’s no secret that times are tough for Main Street businesses in this new pandemic reality our country finds ourselves in. CEDIK’s efforts have centered on working with community stakeholders to find ways to support thriving downtown businesses. At this moment, CEDIK faculty and staff are looking for ways we can contribute meaningfully to recovering and stimulating Main Street.

As events designed to protect the health of our communities have unfolded rapidly, we have been watching small businesses cope with this new landscape. We have been inspired to witness innovative ways our local businesses have endeavored to keep the lights on and their employees paid, all while safely continuing to provide their services to the local community.

Earlier this week, we had the chance to correspond with Kristin Smith, Executive Chef of  The Wrigley, located on Main Street in Corbin, Kentucky. Read on to learn more about how this restaurant in Appalachian Kentucky is navigating this new normal, and what advice she has for residents, community leaders, and other retail businesses.

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Executive Chef Kristin Smith of The Wrigley in Corbin, Kentucky.

CEDIK: How can residents support Main Street businesses?

KS: If you have a small, local business providing goods you could get there rather than a big-box store, do it.  Every single item sold counts toward keeping the doors open. If you’re limited by location or you want to keep that social distance, call the business and order a gift card, whether you use them or not. When we all reopen, consider staggering using the gift cards over the next few months to help us even out our cash flow in the beginning. If you’re in a rural area, we’re seeing challenges with internet outages and phone outages due to overload of the network—so please keep trying if you get a busy line or slow server on the online systems. We really do want to take your money—we promise! Also, practice safe social distancing. When you do order takeout or pickup, use curbside and online as much as possible to help us maintain our social distance. Observe the spacing the business establishes—especially in checkout lines where it is easy to scoot closer to the person in front of you—follow what we ask, even if you think its overkill. We are following recommendations to the letter and in some cases going over and above. I stay awake at night worrying if one of my staff or customers gets sick—it hasn’t happened yet, but it’s a constant fear. Every time anyone touches a door handle, a touchscreen, or waits for their order inside or outside, we are sanitizing everything after every interaction. But with a skeleton crew, that is an extra task on top of everything else.

CEDIK: What is the most innovative “thing” you have seen a Main Street business and/or community do during COVID-19?

KS: Our city voted to suspend local, tourism, and alcohol taxes to help us offset our costs. That was a huge help for us to float us through. They’ve also been really innovative at curbside, delivery, and even take-out wine and bottled beer sales. It’s been nice to see how quickly they’ve made some of these changes happen to support us any way they can.  It feels like our local leadership really wants to support us through this. On a fun note, our mayor has started a regular “wave parade” route through local neighborhoods for kids and families to come out and see her to talk with her from a distance. It’s a good way, fun way to break up the day for families who are newly homeschooling!

CEDIK: How can philanthropic organizations support Main Street businesses?

KS: Being willing to donate money and trust the business owner to allot it where it needs. The stimulus package should help with payroll and rent, utilities. But what about our other things that need addressed? If philanthropic organizations will make donations to businesses without stipulations, that would be so helpful. We see so many restrictions on the different grant and loan programs—but—for example—we’re having challenges with plumbing, and we were planning to replace our kitchen floor this month before all of this happened. Those things still need to be repaired, but we no longer have enough cash flow to fund them. If a donor called us and said, “Hey, I want to pay to have your kitchen floor replaced,” that would send me over the moon!

CEDIK: What is your biggest fear of something that will be overlooked or unintended consequences of this stimulus package?

KS: Honestly, we’re so busy in survival mode, we haven’t had time to sit down and really analyze and understand the stimulus package. We are getting so many emails and phone calls from people telling us to apply for this loan or that grant, but we aren’t sure what the best option for us is. What is the time frame for payback? We have fellow restaurant owners who, once the additional $600 a week unemployment was announced, had staff quit because they believed they would be safer staying at home and drawing more money on unemployment than working. Whether that is true about the $600 or isn’t, they believed so and it negatively impacted her business.

Will the bailout be timely enough for restaurants to get enough money to sustain until we can actually reopen? Every day it takes for employees to receive their first unemployment payment is another day that they are giving up and going to work in other industries. Once you lose those well-trained employees, it is hard to retrain a new crew. Everything changes. We are already seeing a surge of “temporary job offers” with “the possibility of permanent employment”. Most likely those businesses will keep the positions temporary—but every day we are closed it is a risk that we won’t be able to reopen at the end of this even if we can stretch our money to last.

CEDIK: Were you prepared to go online? What do other businesses need to know about going online?

KS: Be very patient with businesses trying to be open and transitioning their entire way of business. We scrambled to flip every aspect of our operations over about a 48 hour period. We didn’t have online ordering yet—we were planning to launch it in April. Well, we have it now! We had some big kinks to work out and we’re really appreciative of the customers who were patient with us and told us about their experience. We’re glad now we were able to get it up and running—online sales are around 60% of our sales now and we plan to keep it once we reopen. But there are extra fees with online sales: our Point of Sale System charges an extra 2% for every online order and an extra 1.5% for every credit card we have to type in, rather than swipe. It may not seem like much, but it really adds up at a time that we are counting every penny. I wish that processors would waive some of those fees but we need them to do business, so we are using them. We still don’t have a good way to sell gift cards online because our Point of Sale system won’t integrate with an online platform in that way, which is hurting us because we think people would be buying more gift cards if they could purchase online.

We are new to packaging takeout silverware, ketchup, sauces—all of it. We are really adapting every hour, so give businesses grace if they don’t get every aspect right. It’s a lot of change very fast. We’re even changing our menu to prepare items that can keep well until someone gets home to eat it rather than our usual practice of items that are enjoyed right away, piping hot and fresh. It’s a whirlwind of changes.

CEDIK: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

KS: This is so lonely for us, as an industry built on hospitality and human contact. Part of why we love doing what we do is because we serve our community, we see birthdays and anniversary celebrations.  What I love about The Wrigley is that I have my regulars. I can ask them how their new grand baby is, how their kid is doing their first year at college, or how their dream vacation went. It is so isolating to have to switch to a sterile and distant method of communication. How do you maintain a feeling of community when we have to stay so far apart? We are figuring it out, and we understand the importance—but it doesn’t make those feelings of social isolation any less. We are already planning for when we do reopen—should we remove half of our dining room tables to ensure that we still maintain a distance for a few months to avoid another surge? Will the feeling of community, warmth, and love still be there after all of this?

 

COVID-19 Media Exposure and Mental Health

By Alison Davis, CEDIK Executive Director

For those that know me, I am an extroverted introvert. I can confidently stand in front of a large group of people and talk and talk and talk some more. But, when the presentation is over, I run for solitude. So not surprisingly, the COVID-19 social distancing has not been a terribly difficult time for me to navigate. I sit in my new makeshift office and get to work and jump on Zoom calls for several hours a day (and still get exhausted by these interactions).

What has been interesting to me is witnessing two things:

  • My extroverted CEDIK family who have been deeply impacted by being constrained to their home. They are not able to maintain their daily connections with friends, family, and strangers (although extroverts know no strangers). They look lonely and lost and are desperately trying to figure out how extrovert themselves during this time.
  • My introverted husband, who really only needs interaction with our dogs, has been obsessed with watching the news. If he could, I think he would watch from 7am until 8pm. And I can see him visibly getting agitated when he listens to interviews that don’t conform with his perspective.

I recently came across this data snapshot (that updates daily) highlighting global panic, hype, and media coverage by country. This was quite telling to me but it clearly illustrates why some of my staff and my husband are responding differently to COVID-19 than I am. The fact that there is a source that is measuring the amount of panic, hype, fake news, global sentiment and contagion media in an index suggests that we need to set some real boundaries and proactively plan for how we mentally respond to this pandemic.

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Data Source: https://coronavirus.ravenpack.com/?utm_campaign=covid-dashboard&utm_medium=email&utm_source=mchmp_cl&utm_content=cov-dashboard&utm_term=

I have asked my husband and my staff to consider the following recommendations:

  • Limit your exposure to the news and other media designed to create hype about COVID-19. Pick your trusted source of information, tune in for when a daily update occurs, and then turn it off. In Kentucky, our Governor gives us one update a day at 5pm on Facebook live, where he discusses the number of new state cases and policies. This is when I tune in. I then read a trusted news source after the President speaks to see if there are any new federal policies implemented. That’s it for me each day.
  • Reach out to your coworkers and friends, even if it is just a text, to see how they are doing. Pick up the phone, or Zoom/Skype, and call relatives, particularly those that are older. This is an even scarier time for them.
  • Set a schedule, just as if you were at work. Checking off “to-do” items is just as meaningful (if not more) during this time.
  • Be kind(er). Be patient. Be generous.

These are not overly sophisticated recommendations but I find that these have helped me navigate these challenging times. With the extension of social distancing through the end of April, we need to be deliberate about our intentions moving forward.

Which Kentucky Communities Are Most Able and Which Are Most Vulnerable to Take Advantage of the Shift to Remote Work

By Dr. Alison Davis, CEDIK Executive Director
Written by Roberto Gallardo and Richard Florida (see post) and adapted for Kentucky communities by the author

The authors explore two factors when assessing a county’s readiness for remote work: the availability of digital connectivity and/or the share of workers employed in industries and occupations that are amenable to remote work. “If a particular county has both limited digital connectivity and a higher share of non-remote work workers, it will more than likely struggle to leverage e-learning and remote work. We looked at the geography of remote work across America’s 3,000 plus counties.”

The analysis for Kentucky reveals that 75 of Kentucky’s counties are considered moderately or highly vulnerable to the remote work shift. The map below highlights county-by-county analysis. Kentucky rural communities tend to be more vulnerable for two reasons: access to high-speed broadband and a large share of employment is based in manufacturing, healthcare, and retail trade. For most of those industries it is a challenge to “bring work home.”

Kentucky Counties Vulnerable to Shift to Remote Work (Chart and Map)
Over 62% of Kentucky’s counties are considered moderately or highly vulnerable to the remote work shift.*

chart_KY_county_vulnerability_remote_work

*Access to broadband is measured through the FCC which does not always fully reflect true conditions and overstates access.

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Kentucky Census Tracts* Vulnerable to Shift to Remote Work

KY_map_tracts_vulnerability_remote_work

*11 census tracts were too small to provide a measure.

What does this mean?
Not all counties are equally suited to shift to remote work during the COVID-19 crisis. This analysis also does not account for an employer’s ability to shift to a remote work system (including mindset, information technology, etc.). Not surprisingly, more urban areas are less vulnerable than rural areas, but even within urban and rural areas, the ability to access consistent high-speed broadband is mixed.

If it’s a challenge for employees to remote work due to lack of broadband access, it will also be a challenge for students to access online learning materials. In addition, it is a challenge for individuals to socially connect through FaceTime, Zoom, etc. Many rural communities have relied on accessing public Wi-Fi through libraries, schools, and McDonalds. With those entities closed, access is greatly diminished.

What can we do?

Right now…

  • We don’t assume everyone has access to the same resources we do and we don’t isolate individuals.
  • We are patient with everyone and understand that it may take longer to get responses back or deliverables.
  • We use our cell phones to connect, where service is available.
  • We call people to make sure they are okay and to socially connect.

 

To prepare for next time…

  • Consider portable technologies like MiFi (Wi-Fi hotspots) that households can borrow. Schools, libraries, and other non-profit entities could host the equipment. Click here to learn more.
  • As a community, identify the pockets of the county that do not have access. This gives first responders, non-profits, etc. ideas about where to deploy resources first. Click here to learn more about how to assess connectivity.
  • Employers can assess current capacity for remote work and then create a plan to expand access. Click here to learn more about creating an effective teleworking program.

PDF of this post

Leading Collaborative Community Change

By Daniel Kahl, Ph.D.*

The Dilemma of Leading Change

Many people have a complicated relationship with change. Change is good when we want it (Yes!), and bad when we don’t (No Way!).

The challenge with this “yes or no” response to change is that it makes community development very difficult. Some people will like an idea, and others won’t.  Drivers of community change are then stuck in a dilemma. Do they try to form a winning team to push change through, or do they give up?  If we adopt these contradictory attitudes, leading change becomes competitive and “winning” means that implementing change requires us to push our ideas over the concerns and disagreement of others. This one-sided approach to change can result in the generation of resentment within the community and create a disdain for change.

Authors Rowland and Higgs (2009) detail a study of organizational change initiatives. The authors found that when leadership pushes one rigidly imposed change solution through an organization, the change is typically met with resistance, is poorly adopted and is usually less sustainable over time.  There are exceptions, of course, but overall, top-down change initiatives were less successful. However, systemic changes that allow employees to integrate change in ways that are most appropriate to their work situation encountered less resistance to adoption and were ultimately more sustainable. Surprising? Not really. People tend to appreciate being asked their opinion over being told what to do.  Yet leaders tend to wish for the ideal of quick, simple and clear change and so continue to push, push, push change solutions to the frustration and stress of the employees.

What can community leaders learn from this?

Communities and corporations are not the same, but there are similarities. If community leaders imagine the community as an employee owned partnership, leading change becomes more a process of engaging with partners in shared solution finding and less a process of imposing power and change over employees.  This simple shift in perspective changes everything. Respect and power is shared among partners.  This new relationship requires a change in tactics. Changing tactics alters the outcome.  When leadership shifts from imposing change over the community to working with community members, creating change becomes a collective endeavor.  David Mathews (2014) argues that this type of collaborative initiative supports stronger communities through the creation of an environment of democracy where residents share in the decisions that impact them. Shared participation in community change initiatives and the identification of common goals can increase public trust, responsibility and commitment to goal attainment.

Community Engagement is a Kentucky Priority

A statewide assessment of community issues hosted by the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension System (Statewide Community Needs Assessment, 2019) indicates that a leading concern of Kentucky residents is the need for increased community engagement.  Kentucky residents stressed the need for more involvement in issue identification, problem solving, opportunities for leadership, and action to improve their community. The Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK) has resources to engage community members in establishing their future. Visit the CEDIK website to learn more about strategic planning and community engagement strategies available to your community.

References:
Mathews, David. (2014). The Ecology of Democracy: Finding ways to have a stronger hand in shaping our future. Kettering Foundation Press. Dayton, Ohio.

Rowland, D., & Higgs, M. (2009). Sustaining change: Leadership that works. John Wiley & Sons.

*Daniel Kahl is the Associate Director of CEDIK and an Assistant Professor in Community and Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky.

Improving Access to Healthy Foods in Kentucky

By Daniel Kahl, CEDIK Associate Director and Jayoung Koo, CEDIK Community Design Specialist

You can’t get that here!

At the beginning of a new year many people make resolutions to improve their diet by eating healthier. But eating healthier is not always as easy as making a resolution to do so.  In a recent study,  Survey of SNAP Food Providers in Eight Kentucky Counties: Store Access and Availability of Food Types the barriers of access to healthy foods became evident.

A survey was conducted of stores accepting SNAP electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards in the Kentucky counties of Bourbon, Boyle, Breathitt, Jackson, Knott, Lincoln, Madison, and Owsley.  The survey was a component of research conducted by CEDIK at the University of Kentucky, in conjunction with the Kentucky Grocers and Convenience Store Association to gain a better understanding of local food environments and to learn more about grocery store policies and practices. While survey response numbers were small, this study revealed multiple barriers to healthy food access to consumers in the study area.

Access Impediments

Stores responding to the survey acknowledged that transportation can be an issue for customers. Lack of reliable personal transportation, restricted public transportation, and cost of travel all contribute to challenges of EBT card users when wanting to access stores. In addition, distances of travel in rural areas can often add to the challenge of access to groceries.

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Restricted Hours of Store Operation

Like many businesses, some stores operate on a regular business time schedule. SNAP food service providers who responded to the 2018 Grocer’s Survey in Central and Eastern Kentucky have hours of operation that overlap with a typical work day. This can create an accessibility issue for people working a typical 8am-5pm job. On average, consumers in Eastern Kentucky experience 49% fewer hours of access to food per week than consumers in Central Kentucky counties.

Limited Food Types

The types of foods available to customers in the study differed depending on the store’s main function. In particular, convenience stores were the most frequent respondents to the survey in the eight counties and had the most limited fresh or healthy food options. Availability of foods offered in the store were assessed by the percent of floor space dedicated to food type.  In a graphic comparison between Grocery and Convenience store type between Eastern and Central Kentucky regions, it is easy to see that food access in Eastern Kentucky is distinctly different than in the more populated counties in Central Kentucky.

Key Insights

While the number of businesses participating in this survey make it difficult to generalize broadly, the results did indicate challenges related to healthy food access for EBT Card users. Ultimately, the consumption of fresh, healthy foods is a two-part process that must be embraced by all parties involved to achieve the desired goal. Residents must be willing and purposeful to seek out and consume healthy foods, while food providers need to better supply stores with healthy food options and adjust business operations to accommodate their customers. Healthier eating is a resolution that needs to be supported by the entire community!  Want to learn more? See the full series of reports on Food Access on the CEDIK website.

Daniel Kahl is the Associate Director of CEDIK and an Assistant Professor in Community and Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky.

Jayoung Koo is a CEDIK Community Design Specialist and an Associate Professor in Landscape Architecture at the University of Kentucky.

Improving Business Communication

By Daniel Kahl*, CEDIK Associate Director

Advertising is a necessity for business.  Obviously, for people to purchase a business’ products and services, customers must know about the business.  This is why much of marketing focus is on pushing messages out to the broadest crowd possible to increase awareness and connection to the business.  When CEDIK asked EBT food providers in Kentucky about how they communicate with customers (Namkoong, Fawcett, Kahl, Koo, & Rossi. 2019), nearly 60% indicated they use social media, 29% utilize their local newspaper, and 18% use radio to inform customers about their business.

UK Economic Development Collaborative

While most advertising is about pushing a message out, how do businesses receive feedback from their customers? The most frequent way of getting feedback in this study (indicated by 71% of respondents) is word of mouth.  One important implication of using word of mouth as a communication system is that due to the informality of “word of mouth” communication, it is possible that feedback will be missed. Typically, “word of mouth” is not a formal system of collecting feedback. Customers may share comments to staff or other customers, without the feedback making its way to the owner or manager. Without a formal structure in place, customers do not have a clear avenue to share insights, ideas, or feedback. Not having a mechanism or system in place may also send a message to customers that their concerns are not important.  Waiting on word of mouth comments to filter up to management also means that management may only be hearing a comment once, when it was expressed by a dozen people, or inversely, management may be making decisions based on one person’s feedback.

Improving the communication loop

Customer feedback is more than fielding complaints. If a customer invests their energy to speak up, there is an opportunity to listen and to retain that customer.  Stores wanting to hear customer needs, suggestions, or concerns can develop systems to improve the collection of feedback. Customer comment boxes, on-line or paper surveys, and social media polls are just some of the ways businesses can connect more purposefully with customers to learn about their shopping and service needs.

Business owners can actively use social media polls to better understand their customers shopping preferences, shopping schedules, or purchase needs. For a report on business tactics and more ideas visit Getting the Word Out: Communication Methods on the CEDIK website.

Businesses need customers like communities need businesses

Just as businesses must listen to their customers, communities must also listen to their businesses. If your community would like a process to listen to business owner needs, the Business Retention and Expansion program offered through CEDIK can help your community improve the communication loop.

*Daniel Kahl is the Associate Director of CEDIK and an Assistant Professor in Community and Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky.

Going About Your Business

By Daniel Kahl*, CEDIK Associate Director

Communities are in a relationship with local business

Experience tells us that relationships demand attention. Relationships require the investment of time, energy and attention to maintain effective communication and trust. The risk is, of course, that if we stop investing in relationships, the relationship will suffer and could even end completely.

Communities are in a relationship with local businesses. Without on-going communication, trust building, and concern for the well-being of those businesses, the business/community relationship can begin to break down.  When the relationship ends, the business may just begin to search for a more engaged community.

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Downtown Cynthiana, Kentucky. Photo credit: Sarah Bowker, December 2019.

What do we learn by listening?

The Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK) at the University of Kentucky has been listening to business needs. Across Kentucky, surveys and listening forums are telling us that small businesses need community support. In a recent report published by CEDIK (Kahl, Fawcett, et.al. 2019)  73% of store representatives identified finding and retaining employees as one of their greatest business challenges. Other challenges raised include: taxes, training employees, and keeping up with rules, codes, and policies. While the above study was a small sampling, a statewide assessment of community issues hosted by University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension (Statewide Community Needs Assessment, 2019) noted business support and workforce development as some of the most pressing issues in counties across Kentucky.

What can a community do to improve the local business environment?

While every business will have unique needs, businesses in a community often share common concerns that the community can address. The Business Retention and Expansion (BR&E) program offered through CEDIK is one way to document business needs and keep business and community relationships on track. The BR&E program is designed for local government, economic development offices, or Chambers of Commerce. The program is designed to facilitate a listening process that can bring the interests of local business into clear focus. By listening to the concerns of the local businesses, leadership can mobilize resources and energy to respond to local business priorities.

Businesses frequently support local efforts, and the BR&E program helps communities find ways to reciprocate investment in the relationship. For a community, “going about your business” means strengthening the economic environment and relationships with local businesses. Visit the CEDIK website for more information on services to improve your economic environment, including the BR&E program.


Referenced work:

Kahl, D., Fawcett, K., Koo, J., Namkoong, K., and Rossi, J. (2019). Survey of SNAP Food Providers in Eight Kentucky Counties: Business Needs and Community Connections. Available online at:  http://cedik.ca.uky.edu/files/business_needs_community_connections_pse.pdf

Kentucky Cooperative Extension Community Assessment, Statewide Report (2019). https://extension.ca.uky.edu/files/kentucky_extension_community_assessment_2019.pdf

*Daniel Kahl is the Associate Director of CEDIK and an Assistant Professor in Community and Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky.