Some businesses thrive despite pandemic

A person wearing a mask shows beer to another person wearing a mask.
Manager Nick Thomas shows a selection of beers to customer Bob Steward on May 18, 2020, at Thomas Liquors in St. Paul. The family-owned liquor and wine store has been offering curbside and call ahead ordering during the pandemic.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for small businesses. Even many of those that have been able to keep their doors open have had to struggle with meager customer traffic. But some through skill or luck — or a combination of both — have thrived or positioned themselves to be even stronger once the coronavirus threat fades.

Omnia Fishing is one of those businesses. As the economy went south, the company was fortunate to be in a business heading the opposite direction. Fishing certainly fits well with the need to maintain social distancing to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, while providing folks with outdoor recreation. 

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has reported a 27 percent spike in fishing license sales, with 440,000 people buying licenses in time for the fishing season opener.  Meanwhile, more people have been looking online for fishing gear and e-commerce is Omnia’s forte.

“I think we're pretty fortunate. People are ready to get outside and try to enjoy the outdoors. And we’re benefiting,” said Matt Johnson, Omnia’s co-founder.

He said fishing tackle retailers have been slow to adapt to e-commerce and use the web to sell gear and educate less-experienced anglers. Johnson said his store enables customers to shop for fishing tackle by lake, getting recommendations for lures, baits, hooks and other tackle they should buy for about 150,000 different bodies of water in the lower 48 states.

“We're not really selling a lot of unique products, but we're selling them in a unique way,” he said. “We've created a unique shopping experience for every water body. So if the water's clear or dirty or if there's a different species there or it’s deep or a different time of the year, you're going to see different products.”

Omnia Fishing expects sales will exceed $1 million this year — up from about $200,000 last year.

Business has been surprisingly robust, too, for Duluth’s Best Bread, the French-style bakery run by Michael and Robert Lillegard. In early March, Michael Lillegard was worried that COVID-19 could knock out his business in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in west Duluth.

“I was absolutely concerned that we would have to cease operations,” he said.

A man holds a pan of unbaked croissants.
Michael Lillegard co-owns Duluth's Best Bread in Duluth with his brother Robert Lillegard.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Sales of pretzels and other products to taprooms plunged. Sales through grocery stores rose and then fell back to normal. But Michael Lillegard and his brother found a big window of opportunity for walk-up and curbside sales — a 4-foot-wide sliding window, to be precise.

“Now we're just selling directly out of the window on this nice walk-up space,” he said. “You don't have to come inside or open any doors or anything. And we have a contactless payment system as you pay with a card. Nobody has to touch anything.”

He said more people in the neighborhood are working from home and like to take a break and drop by to buy bread and pastries.

Two people wear face masks as they prepare baked goods.
Michael Lillegard (left) and Tonetta Backlin (right) prepare items at Duluth’s Best Bread on May 19, 2020, in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

“And so, our retail sales more than doubled, direct-to-customer,” he said. “That covered more than the amount of wholesale that we had lost.”

The Lillegards said the bakery’s sales have never been better.

Liquor stores were not ordered to close their doors to customers. But Mike Thomas, owner of Thomas Liquors on Grand Avenue in St. Paul figured most people would want to stay out of stores.

A sign reading "Walk up orders: pick up here" sits beside a bell.
A sign and bell sit on a table at the loading dock in the back of Thomas Liquors in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

So, he decided to just offer pickup orders.

His store was well designed for that, with a loading dock that fronts on the parking lot.

Employees wearing masks and gloves hand off orders to customers.

“We have decked it out with a table and displays and we put some wine and some music,” he said. “People just drive up and walk up and call ahead. When we started it, I thought, 'Oh, God, how bad is business going to get doing it this way?’ And it's been nothing but improved."

Even when he starts to open his store to customers some time this summer, Thomas plans to continue curbside delivery.

“I think a lot of people are going to take us up on it. It's been working out good. But it's been crazy," Thomas said.

A man wearing a face mask and gloves opens a cooler to get wine.
Wine buyer and manager Peter Vars puts together an order for a customer at Thomas Liquors in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News