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BELFAST, Maine — Most summers are a blur for Abigale Avey and Michael Casby, who typically work six to seven days a week at their Belfast catering company Trillium.
But 2020 is anything but typical.
So Avey and Casby, who have owned the company since 2013 and built a new building for it three years ago, have had to pivot. Instead of serving fancy multi-course dinners to as many as 800, they are leaning into a new division of their business they’re calling “Trilly.” They’re preparing pre-cooked meals and sides for pick-up or delivery to certain communities in Waldo and Knox counties.
“It’s a really big change,” Avey said. “Lifestyle-wise, it’s actually really nice. It’s a much slower pace. A lot less stress — and so much less money. We’re usually so busy with what we have to do for Trillium, but it’s like we were forced into this.”
Their situation likely is familiar to many business operators right now. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, adaptation is key to survival for businesses and communities.
More Belfast restaurants in 2020 have integrated outdoor dining options and delivery into their business strategies — Alexia’s Pizza and Front Street Pub have even constructed takeout windows to help with social-distancing guidelines.
And more small shops have embraced online retail in 2020.
“From the beginning, I think people have recognized there are things we can control and things that are far out of control,” said Zach Schmesser, the director of Our Town Belfast, a nonprofit that supports downtown businesses. “The virus itself is out of our control. People took it to heart, and did pivot when they needed to. They recognized what they needed to do to survive.”
It wasn’t long after the start of the pandemic that Avey and Casby realized they needed to adapt. Normally, they hire nearly 100 staffers to work at seasonal catering events through October. But as several clients who live outside of Maine rescheduled their weddings to 2021, they quickly recalibrated.
Trilly is a nickname borrowed from the company’s catering staff, and some recent menu offerings include chicken tinga tacos and a full range of accoutrements for $28, Baharat salmon and sides for $48 and mac and cheese for $12. A curated selection of wines and cocktails include ginger peach julep, strawberry fennel daiquiri and rose sangria, cucumber and nectarine.
The meals come with heating and plating instructions, and customers also can order items such as hummus, smoked trout pate, pimento cheese, salsa verde, green harissa and spicy chili crisp.
“It’s sort of the idea behind a meal kit, but a lot of the work has been done for you, and it’s much fancier,” Avey said. The tagline of Trilly even encourages people to “Be fancy to yourself.”
So far, the new concept seems to be catching on.
“The feedback has been really, really great,” Avey said. “The flip side is that our whole business is based on hospitality. It’s been interesting to try and find creative ways to work hospitality into this new model.”
Pivots and pirouettes
For Helen Sahadi, who owns Heavenly Yarns in downtown Belfast, the past five months have been among the most hectic in her professional life — especially the month and a half when her storefront was closed. She was still selling yarn online and for pickup, but found that talking to customers for hours on the phone as she helped them work through their projects from a distance was too time consuming.
One unforgettable customer called her from Louisiana — “I don’t know how she found me,” Sahadi said — and the two began a texting odyssey that lasted days. The customer wanted sock yarn, and Sahadi trotted back and forth to take photos of various yarns to send her. Eventually the woman made her choice, buying $29 worth of yarn. She also left a nice review, but the process of selling this way was clearly unsustainable.
“It was never ending, this texting,” Sahadi said. “I appreciate the support. I made enough money to pay my overhead — but I don’t want to go there again.”
So she and an employee revamped the website and catalogued the store’s offerings there. She also bought a new cloud-based cash register that integrates with the site.
“I don’t want [the website] to take the place of customers coming into the shop. I enjoy interacting with them and seeing their creativity,” she said. “But for some people who can’t come into the shop, it’s a good thing.”
Another Belfast businessperson, Meg Reilly, ultimately decided to dramatically scale back her operations.
In 2015, Reilly turned her successful Etsy store into a downtown business called The Sail Locker, selling ropework trivets, keychains, bracelets and other nautical-inspired gifts. But after five years, she understands that in order to keep the store open during the slow winter months, she must have a good summer. She couldn’t imagine that happening this year.
So Reilly shuttered her shop and returned to her previous Etsy and wholesale model.
“I call it a pirouette,” she said. “I feel like I went back to where I started from.”
She might have been able to make it work, but decided not to take that chance.
“For me, my anxiety level was just really high, figuring out how I was going to pay the mortgage and make rent,” she said. “I wrestle with whether or not I made the right decision, but maybe for my mental health, this is one thing I can control.”
The silver lining she found is that running the shop helped her meet people, make contacts and grow her confidence. All of that will help her make her Etsy store, and the website she’s setting up for herself right now, into a viable business.
“I think everybody just has to try and make a decision that works for them,” Reilly said.