How Northfield’s businesses have adapted to COVID-19

Northfield has a thriving business community. A range of stores, coffee shops, cafes and restaurants find success in a relatively small town, driven in large part by a combined population of around 5,000 St. Olaf and Carleton students.

Oles and Carls are central to the vibrancy of Northfield’s small businesses. Think Goodbye Blue Monday, Content Bookstore, Rare Pair, Hogan Brothers — all locally owned downtown businesses that rely both on the patronage of college students and tourists who frequent these establishments.

“We are known for our downtown, for our ‘boutique-iness’,” said Lisa Peterson, the president of Northfield’s Chamber of Commerce. “And part of that is the experience of going in the shops, looking at things, touching things, asking questions.”

However, fears of COVID-19 and restrictions put in place to mitigate the virus’s spread have dampened the usually lively downtown business scene by limiting the in-person aspects of Northfield shopping. 

“If you’re talking about small business, small businesses are struggling,” Peterson said. “Our small restaurants, our small retailers, they are still fighting to stay afloat. Even though business has picked up in the last month and a half, it is still touch-and-go.”

To keep up with changing pandemic-driven demands, restaurants and retailers have tried altering their business models to include expanded delivery, new products, special offers and e-commerce options. These alterations have seen various levels of effect.

Hogan Brothers Acoustic Cafe, a Division Street staple, experimented with an expansive delivery system April through June after Minnesota heightened its restrictions late March. The system didn’t stick around for too long once business picked up again. 

“They realized that once more people kept coming in, it was just not profitable to have a delivery driver all the time,” Elijah Leer ’22, a current Hogan Brothers employee, said. “It’s so sporadic now because people are more comfortable coming into the store that there’s not really a point anymore.”

James Gang Coffeehouse, not located downtown but further away just off Dahomey Avenue, saw its existing delivery options expand significantly once St. Olaf students returned to campus.

“A St. Olaf student just accessed that — I mean it’s never not been an option for St. Olaf students, it’s never not been an option for anybody in the city limits,” said Tanya Mollenhauer, owner of James Gang, in reference to the coffeehouse’s delivery service. “It spread across campus like wildfire, especially because everybody was quarantined.”

This sudden increase in delivery to St. Olaf contrasts James Gang’s delivery patterns pre-pandemic.

“What’s really interesting is that we used to deliver a lot more to Carleton than St. Olaf, and now we’re at St. Olaf more than Carleton,” Mollenhauer said.

For James Gang, unlike Hogan Brothers, the delivery model has been and will continue to be a part of their business. 

Loon Liquors, a local distillery, took advantage of the newfound demand for hand sanitizers to begin producing its own, in-house. Loon has been able to provide hand sanitizers to not only local customers but to businesses across the state and country, according to Peterson.

The distillery first produced the hand sanitizer using government guidance and a formula from the World Health Organization on March 21, according to a post on Loon Liquors’s Facebook account. Dozens of community members expressed their gratitude in the comments section of the post.

Content Bookstore, a downtown shop about a block away from Hogan Brothers, received the first order for their new Bespoke Boredom Busting Bundle on March 22. Since the initial order, Content has put together more than 350 bundles, from $30 to $200, according to Jaye Lawrence, a bookseller at Content. 

“The primary idea behind the bundles was to provide personalized service to customers who were suddenly no longer able to visit us in person — and in the process, we sincerely hoped to inspire the same kind of surprise and delight that customers experience browsing our physical store,” Lawrence wrote in an email to The Messenger. 

For Content’s customers, the bundle makes ordering “quick and easy,” Lawrence wrote. Customers choose a price, fill out a short questionnaire about their interests and preferences and Content’s booksellers select books and other items to fill the bundle.

The bundle is then delivered or shipped anywhere in Northfield or throughout the United States. This growth in delivery and shipping alongside the new bundle is the biggest change to Content’s usual business, for which Lawrence is thankful.

“The pandemic has reminded all of us that small local businesses are the heart of our communities, and we’ve been heartened by how many people have made an effort in these trying times to purchase from us instead of big impersonal online retailers,” Lawrence wrote. “We are deeply grateful for all the support we’ve received from loyal Content customers, near and far.”

The Chamber of Commerce shares the belief that small, local restaurants and retailers are the heart of Northfield’s economy, and they have sought to assist these businesses, Peterson said.

Working with Northfield’s Economic Development Authority (EDA), the Chamber helped create a grant program for small businesses looking to develop the e-commerce side of their business models.

“[EDA] created a grant program where they had a $1,500 matching grant,” Peterson said. “You put in $1,500, then the EDA put in $1,500 for each retailer to get some e-commerce help, whether that was developing the store or buying a module, or whatever that happened to be.”

The Chamber also developed its own e-commerce store where businesses that hadn’t yet developed their own store could sell gift cards. 

“Through our own e-commerce efforts, we sold in eight weeks $12,200 worth of gift cards in the community and over $13,000 in Chamber bucks,” Peterson said. “So over $25,000 was spent by community members to keep money local — that was huge.”

Establishments throughout the city have, in one way or another, been forced to adapt. Whether that is through expanded delivery services, new book bundles or the development of e-commerce websites, many Northfield businesses have undergone significant changes.

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