“I saw my life flash before my eyes,” says Alan Shepherd as he recalls the panic and uncertainty of the early days of the pandemic. “This is all I’ve got. All my eggs are in the Rocket Market.”
The Rocket Market is one of the area’s many ultra-local neighborhood businesses. These are the kinds of places that build strong, lasting and truly personal relationships with their clientele. Stopping by to shop is almost like dropping in on an old friend.
For business owners like Shepherd, uncertainty is something they continue to wrestle with on a daily basis. Some of that comes down to the phased return of business, which hinges on COVID-19 case counts staying under control. It also depends on employees staying healthy both at work and at home.
“If one of my employees gets sick, it’s over. If I have to close down for two weeks [for sanitization], I lose a lot,” he says. “These are the things that keep us up at night. That’s why we require masks, social distancing and regular hand washing. We’ve been absolutely zero tolerance since the very beginning.”
With so much on the line, Shepherd and other independent business owners have looked for new and creative ways to maintain strict pandemic precautions alongside their close relationships with their customers.
Among other things, the Rocket eliminated its bistro indoor seating and installed a bulk foods section that met the urgent demand for staples like flour, sugar and rice. The market also moved to a more convenient model for customers who preferred remote shopping.
“It started with people directly emailing me their shopping lists,” he says.
By capitalizing on some of its point-of-sale system’s advanced capabilities, the Rocket was able to make its entire inventory available for online shopping. Customers can now shop and pay via the website, then pick up their entire order curbside. It’s been so well received that Shepherd has added a register designated just for online orders.
Weekly wine classes were another activity that forged a bond between the Rocket and its customers. Thanks to videoconferencing software, the market has still been able to hold classes every Friday.
“One thing that we did is to sell a bag that consisted of six bottles of wine, and then we would walk you through them at home over Zoom,” Shepherd says. “Another cool thing we can do now is that we can have the winemaker or the beermaker present at these classes, no matter where they’re at.”
Vino! A Wine Shop, now celebrating its 25th year in business, has taken a similar approach to its popular tasting sessions.
“Almost every Friday since April, we’ve had a tasting virtually on Facebook,” Vino owner John Allen says. “We order three plates from different restaurants around town, we pick three wines, and then we taste them. So we have a virtual experience with our customers, who get in on the chat and give us feedback and ask us questions.”
About three days before each virtual tasting, the store emails its customers with the name of the restaurant and the wines that are going to be featured that week. That way, they can join in the tasting and pairing at the same time. Previously featured restaurants include the Wandering Table, Mizuna and Austin’s Live Fire BBQ.
“Generally, we would have 20 or 30 people in the store at a Friday or Saturday tasting,” Allen says. “And now we’re getting the same number of people who are watching the livestream. It’s been pretty fun, and it still offers us that opportunity for engagement.”
After several months of being curbside-only, Vino has now reopened its store to customers. Allen hopes that all the steps they’re taking will help maintain the current sales volume and sustain interest in Vino’s cornerstone Wine of the Month Club.
“We owe our customers a great deal,” he says. “We appreciate their loyalty and generosity of spirit. We hope that the wines they’re taking home are making them as happy as they make us.” υ
Rocket Market is located at 726 E. 43rd Ave. You can shop online at rocketmarket.com or call 343-2253 for more info. Vino! A Wine Shop is at 222 S. Washington St. Call 838-1229 for details about tastings and curbside pickup or visit their website at vinowine.com.