With the province starting to open up as Ontario enters stage two of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth reflecting back on the resourceful businesses that were able to adapt over the last few months and rise to the challenge of supporting their communities in new ways.
Farms and farm markets were no doubt among those innovative businesses, working hard to meet a marked increase in demand for local food — with many farms and markets moving sales online, and offering delivery, curbside pickup, and even drive-thrus.
Murphy’s Farm Market and Bakery in Alliston, Ontario, is one such business that pivoted with great success.
“If you’re willing to dive in, and change when something isn’t working, be adaptable—which farmers are—we can do anything,” shares Hollis English, co-owner of Murphy’s Farm Market and Bakery.
Murphy’s already had an established website with some online sales prior to this year, but very minimally. Then in mid-March, like many others at the time, they looked at their options and decided to dive in and move the whole store online.
That adaptability had Murphy’s open up earlier this year, as they usually don’t open the market store until Mother’s Day weekend. So opening online in mid-March to high demand meant actually starting the year off with an increase in sales.
The team was so encouraged by the immediate positive response that they then opened a drive-thru for pick-up orders right from the gate a few weeks later.
The whole experience has brought on many new opportunities for the farm, with Hollis particularly pointing out a significant increase in relationship building. Engagement on their social media channels and newsletters has seen a sharp increase, thanks to their creativity.
In March, Murphy’s began sharing recipes online and hosting baking classes and tutorials on social media, including lessons on making bread, baking from scratch, and growing food. They found themselves intimately connecting with people in their homes.
“It’s been amazing to see people who’ve never made bread before making it along with us,” says Hollis, adding that people from all across Ontario and into the States have been participating. “It’s been a completely unexpected turn of events.”
The experience also encouraged them to add new products to the store. The market traditionally sold produce, bakery items like pies & tarts, and staples like milk & eggs, but then in March they added new product lines of dry mixes (which often complement the online baking classes), such as bread mixes, tea biscuits, and pizza dough, in addition to expanding pantry staples like yeast, flour and baking powder.
“We’ve been selling an unprecedented amount of bread mixes,” Hollis tells us, which they plan to continue selling due to its popularity.
Hollis says that from the very beginning their customers have expressed gratitude, understanding and patience. “The response has been overwhelmingly gracious and supportive.”
For anyone looking to transition online or accomplish something similar, Hollis says it’s absolutely doable, but prepare for a learning curve, and just dive in — that’s the best way to learn.
Murphy’s opted to use Shopify largely because they don’t charge per till, and their store has several tills (Shopify processes all payments via credit card or PayPal and takes a percentage, depending on your level of service). Since their market was already using Shopify on iPads for point of sale, the initial jump to online was rather quick, but the staff did have to dedicate some time to learn back-end logistics and management, and purchase additional apps for pick-up and scheduling options. Clearly, it was time well spent.
Now as the province opens up, Murphy’s is ready to embrace what’s next not only with new products, but also new practices, lessons and relationships. Their store is now open in addition to the drive-thru, and they’ll be starting pick-your-own strawberries soon, with new safety procedures in place. They’re also about to launch their biggest ‘Made From Scratch Class‘ to date!
“We have learned so much in the last two months,” Hollis shares. “We have felt the anxiety and fears of the unknown and have been unable to employ our usual team of staff. It has felt overwhelmingly hard at times and has forced us to look to what we can do, instead of focusing on what we cannot do.”
Now that’s the can-do attitude of farmers and farm workers.