Businesses are beginning to feel a post-pandemic positivity, in part because the changes they made during the shutdown worked and they are now well-positioned for whatever might come next. In April 2021, the Central Eastside Industrial Council (CEIC) partnered with Comcast Business and Northwest architecture firm Mackenzie to provide additional support to retailers, restaurants, and venues as they emerged from the restrictions on gatherings. Pre-pandemic, these three Portland businesses — global marketplace Cargo, vegan goods shop Herbivore, and pantry provisioner Wellspent Market — focused primarily on walk-in customers and in-person events. Now, they are reaching a national customer base thanks to the support they received from this initiative, website improvements, and greater online reach.
The Herbivore Clothing Company
“It’s a huge story of resilience.”
Michelle Schwegmann co-founded Herbivore 15 years ago, and over that time her block became a world-renowned vegan destination, thanks to other vegan-oriented shops nearby. She started as an online store selling vegan clothing, but over time the storefront accounted for the majority of her business. Enter the pandemic. “The neighbors called us the vegan mini mall,” she says. “Our block went from being a very vital, active place, to just, empty.”
She pulled the curtains over the windows and went online. “We really had to make our website and web content like Instagram much richer,” Schwegmann says.
Like most retailers, Herbivore closed thinking it might last for two weeks. When that extended, she suddenly had more time for posting daily cooking videos, promoting a vegan cookbook, and posting drool-worthy Instagrams of her daughter’s vegan lunches (#rubybirdslunch). Now, the challenge is continuing that robust online presence while also managing the return of walk-in traffic. “I can’t be online and in person at the same time,” Schwegmann says. “I used to have seven employees; now I have two. The tough things aren’t going away, they just keep changing.”
Hers is a “huge story of resilience.” “We’re still here,” she says. “And I’m optimistic that people will continue to shop online but will also go into their local stores this holiday season and come in to see some of the gorgeous bags on my Instagram in person. I love that connection with customers who love what we’re doing.”
“Crisis precipitates change.”
When Noah Cable locked the doors to Wellspent Market in March 2020, his website was a space for recipes using their specialty goods like rice, olive oil, and vinegar. That quickly changed. “We uploaded our inventory and became an e-commerce site, in what felt like overnight,” Cable says.
Wellspent Market was among the first Portland food markets to offer meal kits — everything you needed to make a great pasta dinner at home. Fortuitous coverage from the local Eater led to national Eater coverage, and thanks to his e-commerce store, Cable was boxing up tomatoes, pasta, and salt for curbside pickup in Portland and shipping to the East Coast. “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that without the online connectivity,” he says. “That drives everything, and it changed our business.”
Back in 2018, improving the website was a more distant goal. Now, Cable has a whole new segment of his business that wasn’t possible before.
“Crisis precipitates change,” he says. “The website was a goal but not a priority before, but now it’s something I think about and work on every day. It’s an element of my business that is just as important as my store that people can walk into.”
Today, Cable is enjoying figuring out how to make the most of the online world and national audience he’s found, while still inviting local guests to sample specialty items in parking lot events. Recently, a partner business with offices in Portland, Los Angeles, and New York requested a team-building cooking class, so Cable put together a menu from appetizers to desserts and shipped out boxes to everyone. “35 of us on this call ended up sharing a bottle of wine and cooking together, me working the camera and chatting with everybody,” he says. “I got that feeling of being able to be a good host while finding a way for everyone to feel connected, even when we’re all not in the same room together.”
“The switch flipped, and we had to figure out where we were.”
For Cargo partner Bridgid Blackburn, online tools like Zoom became a lifeline for her business, which works with makers to import folk art from around the world. At the start of the pandemic, small brick and mortar retailers like hers didn’t know what the future would hold, and regulations were changing daily. Staying connected with her network of small businesses to share ideas, resources, and support became crucial. “The switch flipped, and we had to figure out where we were,” says Blackburn. “Is our social media strong enough? Is our online presence strong enough? How do you do giveaways and still stay on brand?”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Blackburn’s business network was about three dozen businesses. Now, it’s about 800. “We all participated in the online workshops where people would talk about what they’re trying or doing, what’s working, how they’re handling the mask mandates. We sometimes had bi-weekly meetings just trying to stay in touch.”
Cargo buys goods from small overseas vendors they work closely with one-on-one, and then the goods are sent back via shipping containers. The last container they bought took almost eight months to arrive. “That’s unheard-of slow,” she says.
Some small independent vendors who closed their own doors are now selling at Cargo’s retail space, and benefiting from the renewed foot traffic. Instead of in-person buying trips, Cargo is now using FaceTime and WhatsApp to connect with their vendors. The makers, too, are affected by supply chain issues — packaging may be unavailable, for instance, so they use video to visually compare different bottles or boxes. “I really appreciate having the technology,” Blackburn says, “but I also can’t wait to be able to sit around together instead of on a screen. I’m of both minds now.”
A recent Zoom call focused on welcoming holiday shoppers and planning for a spring fashion show that would be a partnership with a small clothing vendor Cargo works with. “The businesses that made it through have done so through cooperation and collaboration,” Blackburn says. “If I throw out an idea and somebody else adds to it, it just gets better. And if we do that again and again, it makes the community stronger.”
Comcast Business and CEIC have pledged to continue the Central Eastside Business Recovery Initiative in 2022. The partnership is committed to helping businesses not only recover, but thrive. The initiative provides free CEIC memberships to all retailers, restaurants, and venues in Portland’s Central Eastside. ceic.cc
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