When we look back on COVID-19, we've been through a lot the past year. Our founder, Josh, is sharing his experience running a small business through the last 10 months of the pandemic showcasing the highs and lows MakerBars went through in 2020. Sit back and grab a cozy cup of hot chocolate. This is going to be an adventure together!
1 Year Ago January 2020 (Pre Global Pandemic) Jump Into Western Accelerator
"There was a lot of momentum in early in 2020. Everything was coming together, we had secured some funding, found some key customers, and readied even looked to get a manufacturing facility of our own. I heard the first case of COVID in London could be on the floor where the accelerator was held. Tensions rose, and we questioned what was next"
- MakerBars had just entered the 2020 Western University accelerator and was kicking off our "Let's GO Ontario Campaign" where we were set to launch GO protein bites into Ontario stores. A
- We witnessed another local energy bar company close it's doors, and took a step back to re-evaluate our game plan. Josh felt it was time to look at getting more mentorship to better understand the behemoth of the food industry!
- We dealt with our first case of bad suppliers. Turns out this is more than common in the food industry, and finding trusted suppliers is tough! We also continued to search for a new co-packer after having some bad "spidy" senses of the original partner we sought out.
- Our little 10ft x 10ft space at the commercial rental kitchen was getting a wee bit tight, so we started looking for a space of our own around London
- Funded with Futurpreneur as well as accelerator to secure our new packaging.
- After wrestling with the decision, Josh had begun job search to work full-time and keep MakerBars going. It was really unclear which type of job would support the balance of attention a food business requires.
"We just cleared the new samples of our packaging, and made the first batches for shelf life testing. Everything seemed to be figuring itself out, and we'd moved into a 1,300 sq ft facility to grow our operations. Then, the headlines started changing and my gut started getting twisted"
- We secured taking over the Boho Bars facility which was a nice 1,300 sq ft at the back of the Booch Kombucha storefront. We setup some nice steel tables after scrubbing the floors squeaky clean!
- Our new home-compostable packaging had just arrived, and josh started doing wild road trips to complete getting shelf-life samples in. Date paste is one of our key ingredients, and we had a whirlwind trying to source it.
- Tuned into Country Music and a 7hr road trip, the date paste was back in stock 🚗
- Declared Pandemic and March 17 lockdown
- Shelf life studies - failed to ship to the lab due to COVID, and Josh hand delivered a small batch of samples the day before lockdown
- As fast as we moved in, we swiftly prepared to move out
- Flushed inventory with a BOGO (Free) sale, and determined what is next
- Josh still searching to start working found an opening within Western Entrepreneurship
Bye Bye, Accelerator
"As fast as we setup our shiny stainless tables, we took them apart. The floors scrubbed clean, there was barely an ounce of history left behind as we scurried to cut costs and figure out a pivot. I saw the need to get healthy snacks to the frontlines and our food banks"
- We did use the facility for the 60 days we were there, and then converted back to our rental kitchen. Meanwhile it was a lot of moving, and our backs were screeching for a break.
- In an effort to support the front line workers and our deprived local food bank, we created a charity campaign where our customers and the community could provide healthy snacks to these groups. We are thankful for the over 1,500 healthy GO Packs were sent to our front lines and those in need. It really gave us a sense-of-purpose in the uncertain times!
- Josh had a heck of a time making all these energy balls. Those in the food industry can relate...making over 5,000 energy bites in a week by hand may lead to carpel tunnel syndrome....cool 😎 (still many months later trying to fix this).
- We decided to hunker down to quarantine, and figure out the next steps for the business
- Ended accelerator, anticlimactically. Josh hustled over the grab everything at midnight after hearing the school would completely lockdown.
- Taking to social media, Josh launched some entertaining content on Instagram and started doing some weekly stories.
- In the spare time we updated website with redesign!
"I was pretty swift to find some tools inside Shopify to help me launch a Charity Campaign and spend hours on developing the content...Done, but not perfect. That's the motto that get's you through entrepreneurship. The goal was to just keep making snacks and have a sense of purpose in a time when nobody knew much of what was going on"
- Continued charity campaign! It was really exciting to see the support pour in for our front lines and food bank.
- A friend of Josh's created a super cool new "how to video" that is now up on our website to help with our online sales. Thanks again Monty! You're too talented 🙏
- Josh secured a job and was pumped up to start full-time job and thus work two jobs the remainder of the year! Workaholics UNITE! 🖥️
- In an effort to grow our online presence again, we tried lots of giveaways and social media collaborations, including our local $150 giveaway. Probably spending 2-3 hours a day on socials, and Josh started to realize social media was a very draining activity. Unlike being in person to do sales, and visit stores.
- Our game plan (pre-pandemic) was to launch into markets, popups, and showcase the great taste of our product! Unfortunately, food sampling programs were completely cut, and we had just taken in a bunch of products for our markets. The almonds, chocolate bars, coffee, tea, and hot chocolate mixes were all uploaded onto the website.
- We donated almost all of our almond snack size pouches for the health workers as a healthy alternative to keep them fueled!
- Josh's wrists still hurt from making some 5,000 energy bites by hand...
- We found an app to implement a subscription platform to our website, and gave this a soft launch.
"After the Charity Campaign ended, we had at this time moved back to the commercial rental kitchen and dialed things back. Lockdown was loosening up, and restrictions allowed Canadians to want to eat outdoors to get a sense of normalcy back. There wasn't any on-the-go culture, and I thought...the irony in the name of my GO Bites"
- Our charity campaign ended and as people started to be more comfortable with this whole "covid-thing", they were returning to outdoor dining/activities. Which often left us out of the picture...we all had so much time to make our own snacks and goodies!
- The world divided on civil rights after the tragic end of May 2020. This was incredible to see the stance taken by advocates, and how some food brands needed to erase 100 years of branding.
- The summer seasonal kit was launched! Our blueberry lemon crunch was a change from our traditional chocolate flavours, and was refreshing 🌞
- Flashbacks to last summer when we were able to help sponsor SunFest with free healthy snacks for their volunteers. We missed those events this year!
- Our sales lowered sales online and in our independent stores. Simply there was less foot traffic, and we were just trying to navigate a new game plan. Along with this, Josh was starting a double job lifestyle
- Bought the new machine >> Seally Diglet 400 for sealing out energy bar kits, which changed the entire internal packaging. (See below)
"Things remained slow, and we relied mainly on our online store through the summer. Retailers didn't want to risk the product expiring and they just didn't have the foot traffic to support our product. I personally took a break to do some weekend hikes and breathe a little more"
- People became more comfortable with COVID, and going outside. However still had a lot of time of their hands, and our stores were still hesitant on introducing the product again due to less foot traffic. This still lowered sales online and in independent stores
- In this downtime, Josh took a break for the summer. He also had to move in a month, which means moving the WFH office around. Always a few too many things on the plate 😆
- There were some new Vendor Partners that came on board!
- Created a bunch of fun content in the downtime, and got this ready to upload. The content marketing was our main strategy for marketing, and we looked into trying a few new things (like digital ads, and mail)
- Personally took a break - finding the double job life balance hard, and spending weekends with family while we could anticipating a COVID Wave 2.0. I hope you also had a chance to take a break in the summer and enjoy the sunshine a bit 🤗
"I think COVID cases dropped to below 100/day in Ontario, and momentum to return to normalcy elevated! I thought...if there's any chance, it's now. We wrapped up a couple deals that fell through in the summer, and break time was over. I am at this point working two jobs, and wondering if I can handle this through the fall of 2020"
- At this point, we really thought we'd bested this thing. We were set to re-launch in a bunch of our stores, and in over a dozen locations on the UWO campus. We had momentum again, and sales started to rebound. If you remember, COVID cases were quite low in Ontario (I think near 100/day)
- Our online sales kept going, and we started to reach out to retailers in anticipation of the back-to-school lifestyle.
- All of our major deals were still on pause with larger grocery as they still didn't want to introduce more single-serve products anticipating Wave 2.0
- We had worked on one major deal in the summer (which unfortunately in the end fell through), but it's these little things that are great learning experiences!
- Ramp up and get ready for Fall 2020, hoping things might stay under control and be normal
- We started to dream up a seasonal flavour for the Fall! 🍂
"Here's a huge shoutout to our retail partners who for the most part all came back on board to support us! 10,000 claps! I felt like there might be a chance things will be sorta normal again. We've bested this thing, and I could tell the general population had this same hope. But the end of the month, my stomach started to feel upset again"
- Relaunched into a bunch of our independent retailers! Thank you for their courage to start this up again with us!
- Unfortunately, we heard practically all holiday markets would be post-poned or weren't running. Markets are about 30% of our strategy for revenue to grow the brand locally...this one really sucked.
- Hopeful for the Fall 2020 season to be good, and anticipating wave 2.0, but didn't know what to expect
- Mid September cases started to rise again
- Double job life picked up with the return of students to Western University - my work was really cool on both roles!
- Shelf life testing started showing promising results! We had acheived a 6mo shelf life with home compostable packaging, so Josh bought a home composter and started composting the wrappers to capture pictures of them breaking down. More news to come on that 😊
- Setup the new WFH office, and buckled up for whatever was in-store for the Fall season
- This month flew by! (anyone else feel that way too?)
October 2020 🍁
"They told us the peak of cases rising was to be mid-October...and here we are that it is still rising. I kept wondering why haven't we locked down again. I went ahead with things as per usual, and tried to grow our sales further. The Maple Pumpkin Spice kit was a good launch, however I started losing focus. I couldn't manage time between my work priorities, and being torn between eCommerce and supporting my retailers"
- Covid cases were supposed to peak at mid-October...so they said. We had a bad gut-feeling again about the future, and turned to my mentors for advice on what was next. It was cloudy.
- In an effort to support in-store sales, we bought shelf wobblers to promote local product in stores with a tagline "Buy Local" on them.
- We tried some new marketing tactics, including a fall 2020 discount code sent to 60,000 homes through a "restart Ontario" mailer campaign. This was okay, it was the first rodeo trying something like this.
- Other marketing efforts included more influencers online, and Instagram. Josh started getting really fed up with Instagram. He's happy to chat about why it's bad for society anytime. Even though we are on there a lot, it's a huge energy drainer for Josh.
- Online sales picking up with the launch of our Maple Pumpkin Spice energy bar kit! However, it was a lot of work to put together this flavour, on the little time Josh had working two jobs.
- Josh uncertain what to do with the business as a whole and what to focus on with little budget to put into marketing for eCommerce. There was a constant strain between supporting eCommerce or supporting retail sales.
- Onboarded Well.ca (finally)! This took longer than expected due to the stress of COVID, and we'd been discussing since April. (To give you an idea, that's a normal sales cycle for major food clients)
- This month also flew by!
"The ultimate roller coaster of a month. Opportunities came my way that show promise, but there isn't a clear path to growth. Nothing is consistent. I know that running a food business that hasn't scaled yet is a risky business to be in. If we had made it into the major retails stores, they still had foot traffic to support products. I noticed bars, bites, everything in our category was on sale 100% of the time. Others in the industry who were larger put out cries for help. There's no on-the-go culture anymore. My split between eCommerce and supporting retailers grew."
- Depended on online sales and some large orders from suppliers/partners to keep going. Thank-you to them!
- Foot traffic is down in all independent stores, and we even tried to re-start giving out full-size samples (this is very costly!)...One example of a store, it only had 6 people at a given time allowed...and another was only letting 1 person in a time. There's no rulebook for this.
- Support Local - was a theme that kept us going, and we'd seen businesses supporting each other in whatever method possible.
- Uncertainty what to do next by split time of solo founder - you make the product, support the retailers, support the online store, and work full time - Josh you need to make some decisions here to dial things back and keep your sanity! (to deal with the stress, we made a lot of pies!)
- Anticipated things to lockdown and no retail sales through early 2021
- Start planning and building online subscription membership program, and talking with other entrepreneurs who do this. Watch, watch, watch...then do it! Taking inspiration to GoodFood, TruLocal Meats, and many more!
- Kept things going in the kitchen, and the day-to-day. Although, it didn't feel like there was steady certainty of the future.
- This month was a blink of an eye! (London cases started rising)
Mile High Pies in times of uncertainty
"Then there was December. In London we went from Yellow zone to lockdown in about 3 weeks. At that point, I put my computer away for two weeks to just do a complete recharge. There are some big items on my plate and I am thankful to have the opportunity to take a break. Although I was afraid week 1 of 2021 was going to be HECTIC"
- Our restrictions jumped from yellow to lockdown in about three weeks. That was a really hectic time to navigate what it meant for small businesses.
- Wrapped up Maple Pumpkin Spice flavour and paused seasonal flavours to keep everything simpler in our supply chains/time management. We decided for the remainder of the pandemic we will sell what we do best, our core delicious flavours 😊
- Planned to setup and launch Maker Members program online which took longer than anticipated to figure out the back-end of this solution.
- Tried to figure out corporate holiday gift baskets again, but this project was too large and uncertain with COVID restrictions changing.
- Shelf Life tests returned saying they were good for 9mo now, which we feel is an incredible achievement for home compostable packaging. Maybe the big players should take now ("ahem...ahem...") 😉
- Took it easy, we welcomed a new distributor onboard (Mindful Snacks!).
- About Dec 18, Josh decided to dial back for a couple weeks and reset for 2021. This was a great decision and enjoy the time over the holiday break to spend time with family (Who'd have thought we'd still be on Zoom)!
2020 was....a roller coaster!
Josh is looking forward to coaching more entrepreneurs on their journey to launching a Canadian business!
Jan 2021 - Where We Are Now...
"There are two things I want to launch that I've been putting off while I've been split between supporting retailers and running the online store. We have a Maker Members subscription platform that will launch soon, and my goal is to get 10 subscribers! Start small, and go from there. The other is Corporate Energy Ball Classes, which is a team building activity to encourage social activity between coworkers while we are virtual"
If you found anything resonated with you in this story, I would encourage you to share and tag us @makerbars in your share. This is just scratching the surface of running a small food business, and my heart goes out to all those other small business owners and employees. There's nothing like this, no rule book, and we are all in it #Together.
I'm happy to share insight into our weird thing we call the "food industry", and how much science and in my opinion bad nuances there are in it. I hope to share more educational resources in the future.
I wish you the best in 2021, and to stay safe. ❤️
- Josh Reding, Founder of MakerBars