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Indiana businesses adapt to new realities following shutdown

By Marshall V. King

GOSHEN, Indiana — Ben Hart- man was transplanting 600 tomato plants on an afternoon in mid- March at Clay Bottom Farm, the business he operates with his wife Rachel Hershberger.

She was inside listening to Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb as he issued a stay-at-home order for the state in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Rachel came out of their residence near the plots and greenhouse on their farm waving her arms and saying that he needed to stop planting tomatoes because virtually all of them were for local restaurants.

Ben Hartman and Carrissa Mast wash vegetables to put into CSA boxes at Clay Bottom Farm.Ben Hartman and Carrissa Mast wash vegetables to put into CSA boxes at Clay Bottom Farm.

Hartman and Hershberger have built a business feeding others with fresh produce. He has authored two books on how to apply lean manufacturing principles to growing fruit and vegetables.

The past several years, they’ve focused on growing for six restaurant chefs in the Goshen area. With one chef, he’s just drawn up a list of what to grow, including Thai basil and cherry tomatoes, and made a handshake agreement.

That same afternoon, Hartman and Hershberger started planting turnips, radishes, potatoes, green beans and other items. “We had a sense that diversity was going to be the way through this,” he said.

The chef backed out of a handshake deal for Clay Bottom to grow speciality items for them. Another restaurant closed its current location altogether. All the restaurants he sold to closed for at least a few weeks or longer. As they reopened it was on a limited basis.

“Overnight, we lost 70 percent of our business,” said Hartman.

He and others faced questions about how to navigate an unforeseen, unprecedented business climate that had global and local implications. They’ve spent weeks and months making decisions about how to move forward.

Clay Bottom quickly created a Community Supported Agriculture initiative with people paying $300 for an initial 10 weeks of summer vegetables. “It’s going to be
a bit more of a gourmet CSA than it would be in normal circumstances,” he said, explaining that the shishitos (gourmet East Asian peppers) he would have sold to
a now-closed restaurant will go to CSA customers via no-contact home delivery.

They opted to not sell at farmers markets this year because someone on their farm is 60 and has a health issue that keeps them in quarantine. While they often have interns and a larger pool of employees, this year a niece is living with them and working as their only employee. Carissa Mast’s voluntary service term ended due to the pandemic and she landed at Clay Bottom.

“I really think things are changing very quickly here, so we want to be as nimble as we can,” said Hartman.

While Clay Bottom is a small operation, Das Dutchman Essenhaus has a restaurant, bakery, inn, theater and retail shops in Middlebury, Indiana. The restaurant seats up to 1,100 people and can feed thousands on a busy summer day as tourists visit Amish country near Middlebury and Shipshewana.

Within two weeks, all aspects of the Essenhaus business were shut down — except one. Production of dried egg noodles ramped up. In grocery stores in this part of the Midwest, noodles are a staple. They sold quickly as people stocked up for cooking at home. Essenhaus added a second shift and still couldn’t keep up with orders from Walmart, Meijer and other stores. “We’ve never shorted anyone before on noodles,” said Joel Miller, director of operations for the Middlebury group of businesses.

In mid-March, it wasn’t clear that the U.S. government would help businesses pay employees or cover costs. The family-owned corporation had reserves and was confident that it could ride out a period of being closed.

Essenhaus offered carry-out briefly but opted to cede that business to others. “There’re so many restaurants in Middlebury that stayed open and we’re all fighting for what little carry-out Middle- bury can support,” he said.

Company officials sent a letter to their 300 employees promising to pay them for three weeks, assured them it would cover health insurance payments and urged them to apply for unemployment. The company sacrificed the ability to apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but took a tax break on payroll, Miller said.

On Easter weekend in mid-April, Miller went to Plain City, Ohio to help at Der Dutchman, a restaurant part of a sister company that was offering carry-out meals. That experience helped as Essenhaus made plans to reopen in May.

They had personal protective equipment for employees and started calling them back. “We actually can’t physically get people to come back,” he said. The $600 from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program on top of unemployment pay means some Americans are making good money staying at home. “We didn’t expect that challenge turning it back on,” Miller said.

Its first offering of food was a take-home Mother’s Day dinner for pick-up on the Saturday before. That Saturday was the single busiest day at Essenhaus in 2019. Miller thought they would sell food for 1,000 people and ended up presell- ing enough for 2,000, as well as struggling to keep pies in the cooler.

They set up a system using technology to note when someone drove up and delivered the food curbside. Rosalie Bontrager, a 40-year Essenhaus employee, made matching masks and ties for Miller and other company leaders helping on a weekend that was special both because of the holiday and reopening.

Indiana’s limited reopening coincided with the Monday after Mother’s Day and Essenhaus removed tables to cut capacity to around 500 seats. Because of a diligent health department in Elkhart County, Essenhaus worked at sanitation, but has gone farther as it reopens. “One thing just leads to another,” Miller said. Staff wear masks and sanitize surfaces. But even how staff interact with each other and customers, take money and dirty plates off tables has to be altered. Miller expects a lighter tourist season this summer, but business was above their predictions in the opening weeks. Sales were 70 percent of last year’s, higher than they predicted. One day was busier than the same day a year ago, he said.

Zac Stoltzfus manages Davis Mercantile in Shipshewana.Zac Stoltzfus manages Davis Mercantile in Shipshewana.

In nearby Shipshewana, customers quickly found their way to Davis Mercantile, a collection of shops downtown. Customer counts were similar to other years as the town’s large flea market opened and a number of customers came from Michigan, where restrictions on travel and business were tighter. “You wouldn’t believe how many Michigan people we have coming in day today,” said Zac Stoltzfus, who manages the mercantile for a family ownership group.

While much of the mercantile closed for March and April, its floors were refinished, other maintenance and cleaning were done, and Stoltzfus communicated with others in town about how to reopen.

batik face masks MVK photoLolly’s Fabrics in Shipshewana has an array of batik fabrics and masks.

Lolly’s Fabrics stayed open all but a week or two due to demand for fabric. The store has a large stock of batik fabrics and an exterior entrance. By the end of April, Lolly’s was open five days a week.

It sold and donated hundreds of yards of fabric to a business sewing masks.

Someone complained to the Indiana Department of Labor that Lolly’s was open and an excise officer visited. Stoltzfus explained why and the issue was moved up the chain. By the next day, Lolly’s was considered an essential business as a fabric retailer. “That felt good to have backing,” he said.

Lolly’s has masks for sale and the building has hand sanitizer Stoltzfus’s wife Kayla made from aloe vera gel, lemon oil and grain alcohol. “There are some aspects of this new normal that will be positive in the long run and that’s the hygiene factor of a lot of this,” said Stoltzfus.

Employees are given the option, but not required to wear masks as they return to work. He believes the media fed fear about the virus and doesn’t want to contribute to fear. He expects customer numbers to be back to normal by the middle of July.

C coffeeshop MVK photoCustomers visit Davis Mercantile in Shipshewana in mid-May.

Stoltzfus, 27, hasn’t lived through financial hardships, but has seen family members become more cautious during leaner times. His grandfather, Alvin Miller, has helped him gain perspective on how to calculate risk and move forward.

The Shirley’s Gourmet Popcorn on Main Street in Goshen closed for six weeks during the stay-at-home orders. The six other company and franchise locations in Ohio and Virginia also closed. Nearly every day the Goshen location was closed, owner Kate Leaman Steury answered a phone call asking for information or an order. During that time, she built clear barriers for the counters and made decisions about how to operate safely after opening in mid-May, including not offering samples and putting container refills in plastic liners.

“I really think things are changing very quickly here, so we want to be as nimble as we can.” Ben Hartman, Clay Bottom Farm

“I’m excited to be reopened, even if I’m not sure what it looks like,” she said.

Leaman Steury is building her business in Goshen, having just opened in June 2018. She has focused on bringing happiness and positivity. Having to close meant having to deal with the feelings that brought. “We didn’t close because we failed. We closed because the world stopped,” she said.

Kate Leaman Steury (left) serves a customer at her Shirley’s Gourmet Popcorn location in Goshen.Kate Leaman Steury (left) serves a customer at her Shirley’s Gourmet Popcorn location in Goshen.

Now, as she fills orders wearing a mask, she’s still smiling. “You can’t see the smile behind my mask,” she said. “I’m still smiling.” Business owners don’t know how they’ll have to respond or change in the coming weeks or months. They want to keep customers and employees safe. Leaman Steury and others are ready to adapt. “You need to be sharp. You also need to be mentally strong,” she said.

Marshall V. King is a freelance writer and journal- ist based in Goshen, Indiana.