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Small businesses scramble to get online as coronavirus spreads

Bonnie Morales knew this day would come, but she didn’t expect it to come so soon.

Morales is the owner of Kachka, a Russian restaurant in Portland, Oregon, and before this week, Kachka didn’t have an option for online ordering, or curbside delivery.

This week, it does.

In an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a massive wave of local mandates have outright banned gatherings of more than 25 people and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery only, resulting in the shuttering of hundreds of businesses and layoffs for thousands of workers. All the while, some small businesses across the country are racing to get online, without any prior infrastructure, to catch any customer dollars they can during this crisis.“We knew it was ultimately going to happen a week ago,” said Morales. “But it actually going from the back of my mind to ‘Oh crap, we have to do this right now!’ happened pretty quickly.”
For a small business, having a place on the internet where customers could pre-order food and merchandise was not a priority before coronavirus. Kachka is a local staple known nationally for serving comfort food from dumplings to borscht. Prior to Portland’s mandate, the restaurant and deli only took to-go orders if you were in the building. That all changed Sunday.

“By Sunday, it became clear we had to close our dining room, an internal decision was made by Monday where we laid off 48 of our staff,” said Morales, “That day we had to turn our website into an online store.”

The backend of Kachka’s website was built that night and went live the next morning, on Tuesday. And even though the time from restaurant closure to website launch was short, Morales still feels she’s lost out on customers who came to the site looking for delivery options before the site was available.

“I feel like you have one chance, and then you will get lost in the fray,” she said. “We are flying by the seat of our pants.”

Books with Pictures owner Katie Pryde is in a similar position. Although her Portland comic book store is still open, operating within limited hours and according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, this week she decided to use Google Forms as a way to let her customers feel like they could still get the same personal shopping attention as they normally would if they were in the store. Once a customer fills out the Google Form and sends payment via Shopify, Pryde curates comic book packages and hands them off curbside or drops them off on porches.

“I just had a long text chat with an 11-year-old to find what magical creature they wanted to read about,” said Pryde. “But it’s hard for me philosophically, because you can’t replace being here with an online experience.” Sara Villari, owner of Philadelphia-based gift boutique Occasionette, share’s Pryde’s sentiment. One thing Villari enjoys about her small business is that it is an in-person experience, and going online was something she “actively resisted for years.”
Go on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter and chances are your feed will be filled with friends, families, and companies asking consumers to purchase gift cards and merchandise while storefronts are closed due to the global pandemic.

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