Coronavirus: Businesses dash to reinvent themselves in bid to survive

As social distancing bites and the shutters come down, innovation becomes essential

Staff prepare to bottle hand sanitiser at Listoke Distillery and Gin School. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty

Staff prepare to bottle hand sanitiser at Listoke Distillery and Gin School. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty

 

When the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in Ireland on February 29th, it confirmed the inevitable: that Ireland would not escape unscathed from the growing global crisis.

In the past week schools have closed and childcare facilities have been shuttered. Companies, where possible, have sent employees home to work. Thousands of staff in the pub trade have found themselves out of a job almost overnight. The uncertainty for others is unsettling.

The human cost of the coronavirus is uppermost in people’s minds. But the economic toll of the shutdown will leave some smaller businesses unable to recover, and that has its own human cost.

Still, there are bright spots amid the gloom. Small businesses are showing remarkable adaptability, turning to new ways of doing business amid the fallout from the Covid-19 outbreak.

Listoke Distillery, the craft distillery and gin school in Co Louth, has paused gin production to produce alcohol-based hand sanitiser that it is supplying free to charities such as the Peter McVerry Trust, and to front-line services such as Dublin Fire Brigade.

It is also selling limited quantities to the public at cost price.

There are food suppliers selling goods originally intended for now-shuttered businesses to the general public in a bid to avoid food waste, offering a store-to-car service that ensures minimal human contact.

Keeping contact to a minimum – or even ministering to patients when they are self-isolating – is the key advantage of new software that was turned around in just four days to help GPs take care of their sick patients remotely during the crisis.

Social distancing is a hammer blow to the entertainment industry, which is full of self-employed people and freelancers 

The new online portal – a collaboration between the HSE and Wellola, an Enterprise Ireland-backed company – went live this week and allows GPs and primary care providers to offer patients a range of services, including online bookings, a video consultation service, secure messaging and even form completion to assist in triaging.

The platform is free to patients and, as all data is hosted in the cloud, any clinicians who might need to self-isolate at home will still be able to care for patients.

Fighting for survival

There are some businesses fighting for their survival too. Small and medium-sized companies are facing a bleak couple of months – unless they can find new ways to reach their customers.

Social distancing is something of a hammer blow to the entertainment industry, which is full of self-employed people and freelancers who fear they may not have an income for some time. Those who can, however, are turning to new sources of income to keep things ticking over until the restrictions lift.

Ruth Medjber is a photographer. Her main source of income in photographing music and live events; she has been the photographer for Hozier’s European tour, among others, and also has a portrait studio in Dublin.

With the shutdown came the large scale cancelling of live events, but it was 10 days after the initial case was confirmed in Ireland that Medjber began to see the impact. “I’d say the second week in March was when I first started to feel it hit home – and in my bank account. I’ve had daily cancellations in my inbox since about March 9th,” she said.

Photographer Ruth Medjber
Photographer Ruth Medjber

“The uncertainty is the worst, not knowing how long it will last and when we can get back out there.”

Glastonbury was the latest major event to go, a festival that would have provided Medjber with an income and contacts for further work for some time. To try to stem some of the losses, she has started running online tutorials and portfolio reviews over Skype, as well as opening her own online store to sell prints of past gigs and landscape images – something that was previously just a hobby.

Medjber had previously resisted the idea of an online store – “It’s so time consuming” – but it was at the suggestion of her social media followers that she finally made the leap. “I have plenty of time now, so why not utilise it?”

More exciting is a collaboration with illustrator Holly Pereira on a new line of merchandise. “It’s a collaboration I’ve wanted to do for a while, and now seemed like the perfect time. Our first products are out this week, and feature my favourite Irish saying, ‘Mind Yourself’, in Holly’s wonderful signature style,” she says. “The message is simple: look after yourself during this difficult time, both in mind and body – a phrase we find ourselves saying a lot these days.”

It may not be enough to keep her going, but Medjber says she won’t give up. “I’ll keep working out new ways of adapting my business to work around the social-distancing restrictions”

The duo are also helping to support other Irish businesses, choosing an Irish screen-printer to help and ensuring the products are ethically sourced and printed in Ireland. “We really need to support as many small Irish businesses as possible in everything we do,” she says.

It may not be enough to keep her going, but Medjber says she won’t give up. “I’ll keep working out new ways of adapting my business to work around the social-distancing restrictions.”

Artisan business

Another business facing uncertainty is the Half Light Collective, based in Youghal, Co Cork, a creative hub that showcases the best art and craft in the area. It was set up last March and was originally intended to be a temporary pop-up shop for the Ironman series that June, but it was enough of a success that Midleton Half Light Gallery proprietor Aoife Brockie shut down her previous enterprise to focus on it.

It now showcases more than 30 Irish artisan brands, and planned to move to new premises – almost double its current size – to develop its exhibition space, studio space and workshop area under the same roof. That was due to happen in April.

“Those plans are not so robust any more due to the uncertainty we are all facing,” said Brockie. “We closed down our creative hub to help flatten the curve, but in doing so we also closed down the selling space of the local, self-employed artists.

“I wondered how they would get through this, what could I do to help, and I realised that social media can be a very powerful tool when used effectively.”

With that in mind, they started a social media campaign on St Patrick’s Day and “launched a Facebook shop that would not only allow the artists to hopefully have an income, but to also help our customers celebrate Mother’s Day – all without venturing out!”

Virtual fitness

When your business depends on face-to-face interaction, it is inevitable that there will be a negative effect from the restrictions being imposed on daily life. Gyms are feeling the pinch from the Covid-19 measures, though more enterprising coaches are taking taking their classes online or carrying out Skype sessions with clients.

Ilija Salerno is the chief instructor of Bushido Martial Arts Academy in Clondalkin, Dublin, a full-time kickboxing school. When the first few cases of coronavirus came to light in Ireland, the school put in place strict hygiene protocols to protect its members and intended to continue to teach.

When the situation deteriorated further and the Government recommended that people practise social distancing, he realised staying open would no longer be an option for the safety of staff and students.

“We were in the position to maintain class structures with strict protocols in place but the fear factor also came into play from our members, and we weren’t dismissing that,” he said. “It was the right decision to close for the health and safety of all members who still wanted to attend – and for mine, too.”

Building the club has been a long-term task for the former champion kickboxer, with the studio set to celebrate its 20th anniversary later this year. The academy survived the 2008 crash and came out stronger than ever, Salerno says, expanding in 2010 to larger premises. He opened a second club in Naas in 2018.

A good few of my members understand the position that if I close permanently there will not be a place for them or their children to return to when this is over

Like other businesses, he knew he had a fight on his hands but decided to start offering his members video-based classes to keep the classes going. He runs several sessions a day for both children and adults, using Zoom. A couple of days into it, the teething problems have been worked out and it seems to be working.

However, since the crisis started, he has lost a considerable number of members. “I expected it,” he said. “At present we have lost a third of our members and counting. If it continues with the trend, I won’t be able to reopen at all.

“A good few of my members understand the position that if I close permanently there will not be a place for them or their children to return to when this is over. But I also understand that if they are out of a job, they need to cut down on expenses and extracurricular activities.”

The virtual training option may become a permanent part of the business, after the coronavirus restrictions are lifted, as an option for students who would like to train but cannot attend in person, or for those unsure about attending and would rather try a class at home remotely. “There’s lots to think about positively ... but first we need to get out of this horrible situation, for all of us.”

Car-boot sales

The hospitality sector is expected to be among the worst hit in the crisis. While pubs were asked to close earlier this week by the Government, restaurants can remain open, as long as they can implement social distancing.

For Michael’s in Mount Merrion, Co Dublin, it became obvious early on that it wasn’t going to work.

“We were seeing it all unfold from Thursday onwards, and saw how seriously the social distancing was being taken on Saturday,” says Gareth Smith, head chef at Michael’s, who is better known as Gaz. “Even if our staff were engaged in effective practices, you can’t completely control the customers. We were straying into risky territory, and it just wasn’t worth it.” The restaurant decided to close its doors on Saturday night.

There’s no physical interaction whatsoever. People park their cars outside, we drop the food in their boot, and wipe the boot handle.”
Gareth Smith, head chef at Michael’s restaurant in Mount Merrion, Co Dublin
Gareth Smith, head chef at Michael’s restaurant in Mount Merrion, Co Dublin

But after a few days at home, another idea surfaced: a call-and-collect service. The goal was to try to keep paying the wages of at least some of its 24 staff. “It was fight or flight; we decided to fight.”

The popular restaurant operates a “drive-thru” service, cooking food to order and delivering it to the customer’s car with minimal contact. “People can call to collect on foot, and we leave it on a table. There’s no physical interaction whatsoever. People park their cars outside, we drop the food in their boot, and wipe the boot handle.”

Six staff are providing the service; that will increase to eight this weekend. Strict protocols are in place to keep staff and customers safe. Like many places, the restaurant is a cash-free zone, taking only cards for the service.

Key to running the service was not damaging the brand, which was three years in the making, says Smith. So far the experiment has been well received by customers.

Another popular restaurant, Forest Avenue off Leeson Street, has opened up as a “neighbourhood greengrocer” and bread shop

It won’t turn a profit for the restaurant, but Smith says isn’t about that – it’s about keeping staff employed for as long as they can. What he would like to see is more clarity from the Government about Covid-19 payments and if they can be topped up by employers. There is a lot of conflicting information about whether it is allowed; it could mean Michael’s could share the shifts among more staff, keeping them on the pay roll too.

That may present new challenges for the Government, though, ensuring unscrupulous employers didn’t take advantage of the situation.

Another popular restaurant, Forest Avenue off Leeson Street, has opened up as a “neighbourhood greengrocer” and bread shop.

Instead of smart tables and chairs at John and Sandy Wyer’s restaurant, there are baskets and boxes packed with vegetables and fruit, counters stocked with bread, pastries, soup and a small selection of cooked dishes, dressings and condiments, as well as frozen chicken stock and handmade fresh pasta. Big sacks of potatoes lie against a wall.

“We had a very good first day, considering it is our first go at being greengrocers. We will be open this week 11am-5pm, Monday-Saturday,” says Sandy Wyer, who usually runs front of house at the restaurant.

The new networking

Laura O’Connell became self-employed two years ago. The career coach specialises in transition and coaching psychology, and also teaches “start your own business” courses. The latter has dried up in the past couple of weeks. “By always having a few hats, it has allowed me to rely on my coaching business for now, which has taken me to strictly online and working from home.”

O’Connell also runs the Cork Entrepreneurs Network, which has cancelled all its upcoming events. But she says the cancellations are a temporary situation. “Networking is key. Who you know is the most valuable tool right now for everyone, along with resilience, a can-do attitude and loving a challenge.”

The event Startup Grind Dublin is going virtual too. The enterprise hosts monthly start-up events to connect entrepreneurs. It held its last in-person event on March 1st, with Sisu and Trustev founder Pat Phelan, and has none planned for the foreseeable future. But in an email to its subscribers, the organisation said it would be going virtual for now. Startup Grind in San Francisco is currently coming up with a platform to allow the Dublin chapter to hold virtual events.

There is an opportunity for the event to open up its speaker pool to people all over the world, bringing a new dimension to the virtual – for now – meet-ups.