Bakeries and specialty eateries adapt to pandemic climate

As nonessential businesses throughout Connecticut and elsewhere have been shuttered, many small businesses are struggling. This is the third article in a series looking at how small food-related businesses are coping and turning to new business models and technology to stay connected with customers.

Business as usual is anything but, for now. Fortunately for small businesses in the food industry, being deemed essential by the state means they get to keep their doors open but that doesn’t mean they are having an easy time. Setting up contactless ordering, delivery and pickup methods as well as streamlining or juggling staff schedules are a given these days.

Pam Nicholas, owner of Izzi B’s, a gluten free, top 8 allergen-free, vegan and kosher bakery in Norwalk, has been counting her blessings. As hers is not a traditional walk-in bakery, business has almost been running as usual. Customers generally order in advance and pick up by appointment but now Nicholas has instituted curbside pickup. Nationwide shipping is also available. “The few changes that we’ve made mostly impact our customers that pick up but it seems like a bonus not a negative,” she said. “Preorder, prepay, pull up to our porch, give us a call and your bag of treats is brought out — we have our masks and gloves on. The downside to this is the lack of connection with our customers that usually come in to pick up.”

This is usually the bakery’s second busiest season and instead of being kept busy with big party orders (cakes are still coming but smaller), she is seeing customers going back to basics and ordering more bread, pizza dough and bagels. “Our customers have been so grateful since it’s not easy to fill their dietary needs,” she said.

Nicholas is offering several promotions to stay connected to her customers, including launching a special “spring clean out our freezer” discount sale as well as “decorate your own” cookie and cupcake kits. They are also participating in the Westport Farmers’ Markets and other sites offering delivery or pickup options.

After deciding to close March 27 out of “an abundance of caution,” Ross Bread in Ridgefield is back in business. The bakers announced on Facebook they were reopening April 23. “The health and safety of our customers and staff are our top priority during this challenging time,” they wrote, noting the bakery has been professionally cleaned and sanitized and outfitted with plexiglass dividers at the register and the curbside pickup station. People can call ahead to order items and prepay and practice social distancing by using the curbside pickup.

Cookie bakers like The Connecticut Cookie Company in Fairfield and The Painted Cookie in Wilton have been busy catering to people’s sweet tooths. Parents are also eager to find fun and creative activities to keep their children busy and decorating cookies at home from kits have been popular.

The Connecticut Cookie Company has a small staff so it immediately streamlined offerings and began doing pickups every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. At press time, founder Andrea Greene said that this may change as customers are now calling daily to place orders. The contactless pickup and the cookie decorating kits are big hits.

“I feel so fortunate that our customers are ordering and are so appreciative of whatever we have to offer,” she said. “We have also taken up a collection and will be donating to the local rescue services along with cookies. We’ve also had people overpay as they said they want us to stick around. I am so honored and humbled.”

The Painted Cookie is 100 percent nut- and sesame-free and can also do gluten-free and vegan cookies. Customers are praising their cookie kits and the no-contact pickup via online ordering, said owner Susan Schmitt. “We are doing our coloring cookie sets and our bake-and-decorate sets. We are trying to come up with more stuff for people to do at home as a family,” she said. Schmitt recently launched birthday packages that parents are dropping off to children’s houses (white iced cookies and food coloring markers) and then holding a birthday party for their child over Zoom. “We are trying to figure out ways to get everybody together without being together ... to make something sweet for the situation we are all in.”

Curvy’s Cupcakes & Confections in Brookfield specializes in cakes, cupcakes and other sweets, including those that are vegan, allergy-friendly and gluten-free. Owner Sara Fitzgerald said a game-changer was setting up no-contact pickups. “People place their orders and when they’re complete, they’re picked up from my outside basket. I also do some delivery. We just sent eight dozen cupcakes over to the hospital,” she said. “I never would have thought in a time like this, my business would grow. The community has really reached out to support those of us that have remained open. I’m glad I made the choice to remain open even though I spend the days teaching high school and then baking, all while being a new mom.”

Fitzgerald is thankful for community support and is planning to debut her rewards program much sooner than originally planned. “I have repeat customers and I want to acknowledge their support. I am also giving discounts to frontline employees and teachers,” she said.

The Fairfield/Greenwich Cheese Company has geared up its phone and online ordering system for curbside pickup for many of its products from artisan cheeses to pasta, olive oil and pantry items. Same-day orders have a one-hour processing time. “We have a lot of delicious, nutrient-dense food in our cases and on our shelves and the small farms and artisan producers we support are counting on us,” the company says on its website.

Restaurant patrons are accustomed to the farm-to-table concept but Copps Island Oysters in East Norwalk goes one better with dock-to-table food. Farming oysters for four generations for wholesale and retail customers nationwide, the company recently announced that live lobsters, oysters and clams are available for curbside pickup or by ordering online for shipping to arrive the next day. It also has its prepared rocks and casino-style oysters available in area restaurants.

With a name that means “a little bit” in Thai, Nit Noi Provisions in SoNo (South Norwalk), makes broths and Thai noodle soups using pasture-raised animals and organic vegetables obtained locally using sustainable methods. Owner North Shutsharawan says after closing down the kitchen for one week to do a deep clean, the business has created a new work schedule to minimize team interaction within the kitchen. Instead of hiring delivery drivers, kitchen team members are also doing deliveries. “We have been running a lean team for three weeks now and will continue to do so until June 1st, if not July 1st,” he said. While not offering curbside pickup, Nit Noi offers deliveries to Norwalk, Westport, Darien, Stamford, New Canaan, Wilton and Greenwich. It also is a weekly vendor at the Westport Farmers’ Market Thursdays. “As a ‘ghost kitchen,’ our goal from the very beginning is to be a wholesale food manufacturer and a prepared food delivery company,” he said. “This epidemic has allowed us to do just that.”