Local Businesses Adapt, and Serve

Apr 15, 2020

The sign at Farm Choice near downtown Harrisonburg
Credit Farm Choice

COVID-19 has wildly changed the landscape of operations for small businesses. In the second part of her report, WMRA’s Bridget Manley takes a look at how businesses in Harrisonburg have adapted to help customers and those in need.

Local business Farm Choice is a Harrisonburg staple that has been serving Valley farmers and animal owners for 33 years. Owner Phil Liskey built the business from the ground up.  When it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to fundamentally change the way businesses operated, Liskey knew he had to innovate quickly.

Farm Choice is considered an essential business under Governor Northam’s state of emergency.  They provide food and nutrition to a range of animals and livestock. They knew they needed to stay open, but wanted to protect their customers and team members from getting sick.

Farm Choice owner Phil Liskey (seated at left) with his family.
Credit Courtesy of Megan Liskey

PHIL LISKEY: We basically started with our road signage that ‘we offer curb service’ [so] that was an option. So the people that had concerns could call the store, and give us their credit card over the phone and still order, and we’d have it on the porch when they arrive. We load it for them.

Liskey says his group of eight employees are thankful to be able to continue working, as the national unemployment rate skyrockets to historic levels in the wake of the coronavirus.

Liskey is one of the many Valley small business owners who have had to drastically overhaul how they do business in the face of the pandemic.

Andrea Dono is the Executive Director at Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, or HDR. She says businesses have had to embrace no-touch customer service and new ways of reaching customers to stay in business.

ANDREA DONO: Everyone is still trying to figure out how they can engage with customers in some way. You know, knowing that some people are looking for mostly a low or no-touch interaction, but a lot of folks in the area really do want to support small businesses. They just have different levels of comfort regarding what that could look like. Some businesses are doing a lot more online, others that never did delivery before are doing it now.

Other small business owners decided not only to stay in business, but to pay it forward and help others going through difficult times.

The Sysco truck delivers food to Pale Fire Helps.
Credit From the Pale Fire Helps Facebook page

Tim Brady, one of the owners of Pale Fire Brewing, realized early during the stay-at-home order that the taproom had a lot of refrigerator and open air space for a possible food pantry. He partnered with Sysco of Virginia, a food services company, Digital Manerva, a website design and marketing firm, and HDR. to start Pale Fire Helps, a pop up food bank for those affected in the local foodservice industry.

Full Disclosure: Pale Fire Brewing sponsors programming on WMRA, and is one of our Books & Brews partners.

TIM BRADY: We ask that anybody in the restaurant industry or the foodservice industry just bring a paystub or some way of showing that they are in the industry. Ideally, they bring a reusable bag, but if they don’t have one we’ve got bags on premise that they can use. Basically, they can come in, there is a wide variety of goods and we just ask that they limit it to one bag of food per day. They can return, but the idea is not to hoard, so if you grab a bag of food one day, come back the next day, grab another bag of food. You know, we just hope it makes a difference.

Brady said the partnership and program are so successful, other breweries across Virginia have started their own “Helps” pantries in their communities, using Pale Fire Helps as the template.

Other local business owners have also pivoted to help others in the community. Magpie Diner started Magpie and Friends Market, a drive through pantry for those seeking food assistance. And Jeff Guinn at The Mark-It is producing 3-D face shields for Sentara hospital workers, and enlisting a team of makers around the country to help.

Brian Shull is the Economic Development Director for the City of Harrisonburg. He says that small businesses need to continue to reach out to the Business Support Taskforce that has been created to help local businesses.

BRIAN SHULL: Please try to hang in there. Know that we are here to try to help in any way we can. It’s going to take a concerted effort by all of us, so please try not to be overwhelmed and reach out to different groups in the Taskforce, we are all here trying to put together and help how we can.

DONO: I think the underlying message is that despite all the things we are going through in our own lives, and watching what’s happening in our community, there’s a lot of people who are like, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to find a way to bring us out of this.’ And whether its working fifteen hour days or writing a review for their favorite businesses, contributing to a GoFundMe, designing and building or sewing masks, everyone’s finding their niche to get through this. And that’s the coolest thing, right?