No one at the table was really going to argue that producing even the best ice cream sandwiches, Vietnamese-style roasted coffee, or locally grown mushrooms should qualify as a “life-sustaining” essential business. Pennsylvania was grappling with state-mandated shutdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and Gov. Tom Wolf’s list of essential businesses in mid-March that could continue physical operations was limited to a select few.
“We were all deemed nonessential by the governor and that was very valid,” concedes Tess Hart, the cofounder and CEO of Triple Bottom Brewing on Spring Garden Street.
But the six local food and drink entrepreneurs who gathered at her brewery on March 17 still had small businesses and families to sustain. So while they commiserated over the news, they were also determined to collaborate and figure out a productive path forward. That’s why Hart and Lil’ Pop Shop’s Jeanne Chang had gathered the group.
What followed was not simply the creation of a care package including some of Philly’s best artisan-made foodstuffs. Although to be sure, a home delivery of these diverse treats, chosen à la carte from the website for home delivery, could spark happiness in any quarantined recipient. The options range from local craft cheeses wrangled by Third Wheel Cheese Co., to Vietnamese coffee from Càphê Roasters and Mycopolitan mushrooms, along with Triple Bottom’s beers, Lil’ Pop Shop popsicles, and Weckerly’s ice cream.
This group also exemplifies the kind of nimble action savvy small businesses can execute when challenged with survival, and the power they can achieve when they pool their resources and cooperate.
Triple Bottom’s general manager, Sola Onitiri, created an e-commerce site within 24 hours of the Tuesday brainstorming session. Coffee roaster Thu Pham of Càphê photographed some slick promotional art. And by Friday of that same week, the idled Weckerly’s trucks were rolling again, making 150 home deliveries.
"I think the demand took us all by surprise,” says Hart, who concedes the first week was a little rough with logistics and polish as the group had yet to find the ideal boxes or master the timing of deliveries.
By week 10, however, my box arrived meticulously packed in cardboard boxes and coolers that were efficiently deposited on my doorstep with contact-free delivery. And with demand approaching 300 orders of various sizes averaging $80 (the minimum is $40, plus a $10 fee to cover delivery expenses), the Joy Box had become an economic lifeline for its participating businesses. And that additional revenue is in fact, essential.
“It’s definitely kept us alive and I’m so grateful,” says Jeanne Chang of Lil’ Pop Shop, who had previously been planning an event with Hart to celebrate Women’s’ History Month that had to be canceled. Their continued conversations as the shutdown loomed planted the seeds early for Joy Box.
Hart says the project has helped buoy the brewery, which opened in September with a business model built around tap room sales on draft. The shift to delivery has obliged Triple Bottom to finally start canning its beers, an initiative that’s begun to earn back between 15 and 30% of its total lost revenue from week to week. The zwickelbier called Sunny is an easy-drinking lager that, along with Triple Bottom’s already popular hazy IPAs, deserves to become a go-to summer hit.
For Tyler Case of Mycopolitan, who lost 80% of his six-year-old mushroom business when restaurants were shut down in March, the Joy Box (along with his new farm share initiative) has introduced him to an entirely new audience of retail consumers who are willing to pay nearly a third more than wholesale prices at $30 for a 2.5-pound box of his perfect shiitakes, Black Pearl oyster mushrooms and tacky-topped amber chestnut beauties.
I was one of those first-timers when the Joy Box arrived at my house, having only heard of Mycopolitan’s underground farm in Juniata Park from restaurant menus. And these fungi, which I sautéed for omelets and tacos, are very much worth the price, impressive for their densely meaty textures and distinctly vivid flavors.
The wider exposure for such ingredients, multiplied by the collective social media powers and moral support of each different company, is one of the Joy Box’s most successful aspects, even if its sales cannot yet be a replacement for fully operating businesses.
“But it has been very helpful ... emotionally in the sense that it’s allowed us to share in creating a solution with other business owners we admire,” says Satinsky of Weckerly’s.
The project has grown enough that the group has begun to feature a different guest producer each week, from gluten-free Okie Dokie Donuts to Soom Tahini (try their Silan date syrup) to bakeries like Essen Bakery and soon-to-come Stargazy meat pies.
With the future uncertain as to when these businesses will get back to normal, if ever, Hart says this extra revenue stream from collaboration may be a model to maintain even after businesses are allowed to reopen.
“We have talked about continuing,” she says. “We don’t expect the brewery to open for a long time, and when we do, there will be capacity changes and lingering fear. So this is a wonderful way to keep in touch with our communities. There will be logistics to figure out as the world changes again and again, but our hearts are all in this for sure.”