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Running our business in the pandemic

This story starts with a character, for the sake of privacy - we will change his name to "Arjun."


Arjun claimed he lived in Hyderabad and was ready to shift to Bangalore to work with us. I was a bit weary, but we did need someone to join us as operations manager and I didn't want to judge too soon.


By the first week of March, I told my father about this and he suggested I call him for an interview. He was ready to come that week, then he mentioned his brother was sick and postponed the interview for the following week.


I asked our head chef to meet him as well and both interviews went decently well. Towards the end, I asked him what happened to his brother and if all was well at home. He casually said, "oh yeah, he got corona virus but now he's out of the ICU."


I said, "WHAT?"


Arjun says, "Yes but there's nothing to worry. I'm feeling fine and I only picked him up at the airport."


At this time, there was only one case in India and that was in Hyderabad. Nobody even wore masks before the first lockdown. I hurriedly got up and asked him to leave, I told our chef and we both ran home to take a bath. We discarded the glass that he had used to drink water. We threw the clothes that we were wearing and sanitized everything repeatedly.


During this frenzy, I started imagining what would happen if one of us got COVID19. At that time, it wasn't as common as it is now. I visualized shutting down my business because we would have no customers. I felt so much anger towards this ignorant individual who travelled all the way from Hyderabad to Bangalore potentially spreading this contagious disease to hundreds of people.


Once we were done with all the sanitization, I messaged him saying he didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Forget about a job, he could have put our families and business in danger.


After a few hours, I received an apologetic mail from Arjun. He claimed he did not know what to say when I suddenly asked about his brother. Since everyone had been talking about this Virus, that's the first thing he could think of. The truth was that nothing was wrong with his brother and he just didn't feel like coming for the interview then.


I didn't know whether to believe him, but in retrospect all of us have been fine. But this incident shook me. I am unable to operate like many normal businesses because I had imagined the absolute worst.


By March of 2020, we were supposed to launch our first store. We had everything planned. A list of bloggers and journalists were invited to a pre-launch event. We had pamphlets to put out in notice-boards in neighbouring apartments. We had even paid a design company an advance to create a surprise station that would be the first of its kind in India.


I told our team again and again and again, "We are going to have a line outside the building on the launch day." My confidence was at its peak and I was incredibly proud. Perhaps I had jinxed myself.


By April during the indefinite lockdown, I did not know what to think. Customers would call and almost beg me to make a cake for their child's birthdays. They had nowhere else they could go. Even though bakeries were part of essential businesses that were allowed to remain open, I could not gather the courage to take an order. I stopped looking at my business phone for days at a stretch. April was supposed to be the best month of my life. It was supposed to be the time when I should have been able to prove to everyone who thought a girl who just sells cupcake couldn't make it. Instead I sat in bed, ignoring calls.



A brownie class that I taught in the lockdown

The reality was not as bad as it was in my head. Our marketing team, headed by Aroma, kept us going. We did a virtual housie and 80 of our customers participated. We did a basic online baking course for 10 days where a few aunties in my apartment would come on video call and learn from me everyday. We made enough money to pay salaries for 3 out of 4 of our team members, who in turn practiced their piping skills at home.


In May we had decided to open our doors again. I was unsure and scared of everything. I didn't know what to touch, what to wear, what to sell and how to deliver. As the weeks passed, we learnt more about how the virus spreads and how to be more careful.


Today, we are operating out of a huge space that is completely empty in front. I haven't invited any of my friends or customers inside to come and see the fruits of our labour. Even though I know we will have good footfall if we open the store now, I'm not sure if I want footfall. People have developed a fatigue towards this virus and everyone is saying we should learn to live with it.


The success of any retail business lies not only in their product, but also in their customer experience. We can no longer provide the traditional experience of inviting people inside and talking to them at length about their order. I can't imagine children touching our display fridge to point out what cupcake they want.


Rather, I can imagine but I choose not to. I'm alright to slow down our growth for the safety of our business in the long run. We are all exposed by coming to work, but our exposure is limited amongst our small team. We are not forced to interact with strangers by choosing not to start our retail operations.


In order to cope with this setback of not launching a retail store, we decided to launch a website. By July, we were all set to announce this to our customers - Bangalore said there would be another 1 week lockdown. This was a frustrating roller coaster. Nobody from my team agreed to come to work during that period, so I baked alone to sustain the business. I'd come in the morning and make 10-15 cakes a day, followed by cleaning the entire kitchen afterwards.


This virus has extended for such a long period, that almost every member of the team has naturally fallen sick sometime or the other. We enforced a rule to stay at home for 2 weeks and get a test done before returning to work, even if anybody experienced the slightest headache. This has put a lot of pressure on the remaining team members when the others are absent. We then decided to hire 2 more people, to decrease the work load if anybody is on a sick leave.


We sanitize every surface twice a day and wash every package with soap, which is a time-consuming task. So we needed to double the time our housekeeping staff works and accordingly increase her pay.


COVID has been an expensive affair. It takes both extra time and money to take as many precautions as we have been taking. I can see that most people are living life like normal, they are meeting each other, celebrating and going out. This is great for the economy and is definitely good for business, but I just don't see myself as one of those people. Perhaps it's thanks to Arjun that I am absolutely paranoid, but I know that my paranoia also protects our team, our families and our customers - and that makes it worth it.

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