Bakeries and the 8 Lessons of COVID-19: How to Keep Your Business Running Safely

The pandemic has been a struggle for many small businesses, especially those that operate on a shoestring like bakeries.

But like others in the hospitality industry, bakeries have found new ways to reach their customers and adapt. Here are some of the powerful lessons we’ve learned over the last year and how bakery owners can hold onto and apply these lessons as we move forward.

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Running a bakery is all about joy! Baked goods mark milestones. They’re part of celebrations. During holidays everyone loves bakery. Who doesn’t think of hot ham and “dollar rolls” when they think of Sunday dinners with the family?

Those in the bakery industry know that they’re bringing people the ultimate in comfort food. Beautiful confections and satisfying breads are the perfect answer to any of life’s woes. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit us last year, many bakeries found their business stretched thin. Most had to shut down temporarily, which proved to be too much for some.

But bakery owners are an innovative lot. They understand how to adapt and change the ingredients and the process to meet the moment. During the pandemic, they found new ways to meet the needs of their customers. They spread joy to the community where they could, whether that meant offering online ordering and touchless pickup or sharing baking tips and recipes online.

Now going forward, like restaurant owners, bakery owners will keep some of the great lessons of the pandemic. These lessons will help us all stay prepared to face the unknown. Here are 8 of the most crucial lessons bakeries learned during COVID-19.

1. Partner with Other Businesses

This small business bakery owner has learned valuable lessons about selling her delicious treats during a pandemic.Bakeries have always been good partners. Whether it’s catering a wedding alongside another business, serving up pastries for a summer festival, or providing bread to local restaurants, bakery owners know that partnerships result in profits.

Some bakeries found overhead too strenuous to keep their own storefronts afloat but partnering with local businesses has allowed them to keep reaching customers with their delicious treats. Milwaukee’s Holey Moley Donuts, owned by Hospitality Democracy, partnered with the Third Ward restaurant Onesto to serve donuts in their Piccino café. The café features a walk-up to-go window where people can enjoy coffee and a donut from a safe distance.

2. Get Good at Promotion

Cupcake bakeries like Aggie’s Bakery, Cupkate, and Jen’s Sweet treats were featured in the Shepherd Express Best of Milwaukee 2020. Local businesses know the importance of promoting themselves by participating in contests and taking part in community journalism.

By getting a mention in the much-anticipated “Best of List,” businesses get a little free advertising. They also entice customers to show their support and camaraderie by voting along and helping them win. Clientele feels good about playing a small role in nominating and promoting winners, especially when business has been slow.

3. Hold Pop-Up Events

Launching a bakery business during the COVID-19 pandemic might sound crazy, but Sugar Cube donuts did just that during the Milwaukee Third Ward Fall Crawl. The unique and decadent square donuts feature an array of tantalizing flavors and distinctive toppings. Realizing that a full-time storefront wasn’t in the cards, they pared with businesses like On the Bus and have hosted pop-ups all around town from Bayshore to Downtown.

Although pop-up events can be difficult if you don’t have a dedicated kitchen, they allow bakers to partner with commercial restaurants to share kitchen access during off-hours. This unique business model also allows a lot of flexibility to follow sales and find a location, should you ever decide to put down roots. Much like food truck restaurants, pop-up bakeries have the novelty and excitement of a special event.

4. Adjust Selling Hours

Keep your bakery's doors open with these smart business tips in a post-pandemic world.There’s no rule that says bakeries must be open at 6 am six days a week. Now, of course, your hours should follow your traffic, but many bakeries saw massive changes in the way traffic hit their neighborhood during the pandemic. Downtown offices were empty; small town bakeries couldn’t rely on Saturday foot traffic.

During COVID-19, bakeries may have adjusted their hours to meet the needs of their customers. Now, as we shift back to a new normal, hours may need additional changes. Some bakeries may find that a morning shift is busy but may want to close up shop during the afternoon slump and reopen in the evenings. It all depends on your traffic.

5. Get Involved in the Community in New Ways

Because baking is associated with celebration, it’s common for bakeries to be involved in community events and support community causes. The last year has given us many opportunities to support our neighborhoods from afar and find new ways to connect.

Bakeries like the Friendship Circle Bakery in Mequon help the community by providing jobs to adults with special needs. During COVID-19, the bakery had to forgo events and their typical fundraising model. But they got creative, hosting a distanced “Bike4Friendship” fundraiser and by providing baked goods for outdoor holiday events like Hannukah celebrations.

Fat Tuesday is a big celebration in Wisconsin, and everyone loves paczkis! Wisconsin Baker’s Association took their taste test “paczki preview party” online. Since celebrations were on hold this year, National Bakery went virtual, allowing paczki lovers to order online and have curbside pickup. There’s no reason to skip out on baked goods just because things look a little different right now.

6. Cultivate an Online Following

During the early days of the pandemic, folks were quarantined at home and getting culinarily innovative. Many people started sharing their sourdough bread, cake decorating attempts, and confections online via Instagram. Some of these influencers even cultivated a regular following for their fun shares.

Professional bakers got in on the game by sharing their ideas, tips, and advice to help home bakers get better. Milwaukee’s Classy Girl Cupcakes started sharing cheeky Quarantine Cakes online. Encouraging people to “eat their feelings,” the cakes were available for purchase and gave many people a smile with of-the-moment designs like toilet paper rolls, Amazon boxes, and Clorox wipes.

Similarly, National Bakery and Deli created “injectable” jelly donuts to celebrate the COVID-19 vaccine. They’ve promoted their donuts to supporters online, creating quite a buzz and getting featured in local news spots.

7. Reach Out for Support

Bakery owners like this lady are happy and grateful for the support of their community during the trying times of the pandemic.The pandemic has shown how reliant we all are on each other for help. When bakeries were down on their luck, many reached out to professional groups and their local communities. PPP loans were granted to small businesses, and legislators continue to work on securing additional funding for small businesses, especially those in the hospitality industry who are struggling.

Groups like the Wisconsin Bakers Association helped members navigate through these challenging times. As business owners move forward, it’s essential to keep these ties strong. Whether the next crisis is a natural disaster or something else, life often throws surprises our way. With the right support, we can keep surviving.

8. Adjust Business Models

Finally, as any great baker knows, there are times when you have to make adjustments. Adapting a recipe is commonplace in the world of making, and similarly, it’s become a necessity in running a small business during the last year.

When Ruggeri’s Lake Country Bakery closed due to the pandemic, they decided the best thing to do was adjust their business model to attract more customers. They reopened as Ruggeri’s Italian Market, serving homemade pasta, sauces, and breads to Pewaukee. While traffic is still uncertain, they’re confident that this new change will draw in different customers and help them build back.

As we move forward, bakeries will continue to hold onto these important lessons. Hopefully, we’re looking towards a summer of safe celebrations, where people can once again come together to enjoy wedding cake, unique pastries, and their favorite breads and summer festivals. In times of stress, there’s nothing quite as comforting as baked goods, and bakeries will be able to keep meeting the emotional cravings of their customers.