Local business owners look for opportunities, make changes in wake of COVID-19
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Routt County businessmen Jay Hirschfeld and John Weibel may not own restaurants, but they have felt the financial impacts brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak as many of their customers in the culinary world were forced to close their doors last month.
“Basically we lost all of our revenue and all of our customers within 48 hours,” said Hirschfeld, chief executive officer of 41North in Hayden. “Our model was exclusive to the restaurant industry. We didn’t really do any shares, and people were always wanting to buy our produce, but it wasn’t a process that we wanted to handle.”
He said serving the restaurants resulted in a stable business model that allowed 41North to work with local chefs who wanted to use homegrown, fresh produce for their recipes.
It was a business strategy Hirschfeld and co-founder Todd Chapman had relied on since opening the Yampa Valley’s first-ever aquaponics facility in September 2018.
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41North was able to build a strong following among chefs and diners, and the produce that was grown in the company’s 3,680-square-foot facility made onto the menu of at least seven local restaurants, plus two to four more that would purchase 41North produce as needed.
“We would be like the butterhead salad at Table79 or the bok choy at The Laundry,” Hirschfeld said. “It was all pretty cool until it wasn’t.”
In the days following Gov. Jared Polis’ March 17 announcement ordering the closure of dine-in services, Hirschfeld’s phone began to ring.
“Then the cancellations started, and I was just like, ‘OK, we are going to have to shift everything.’ By the following Monday, I think everybody had canceled their orders,” Hirschfeld said. “We literally, within a weekend, had completely redone the website to launch a new product.”
Instead of catering to chefs and restaurants, 41North turned its attention to members.
“Overnight, we changed our model to do farm shares,” Hirschfeld said.
In the first week, 41North had 35 members who had purchased shares, and by the end of the next week, that number has doubled as people jumped at the chance to purchase locally grown produce that was delivered to their doors. Hirschfeld said the business is still evolving, but he believes the climate-controlled greenhouse, which was designed to capture and store heat energy, can support up to 115 shares, and possibly more. The company’s goal is to add three to five farm shares each week.
Customers can purchase a weekly half-share that includes at least $29 worth of produce by value, including a dozen Hayden Fresh Farm eggs and approximately $23 worth of greens, or a full-share that includes at least $49 worth of produce by value. Customers can also add Big Iron Coffee, NaturalPath CBD and Hayden Fresh Farm eggs, beef and pork to the delivery.
Hirschfeld said the farm share program will continue to develop through spring and summer and 41North will tailor its selection of crops to introduce more diverse residential produce including baby greens, salad mixes and mature herbs.
“Basically, we didn’t know if this was going to work. It was just a ‘Hail Mary’ pass … we put it out there in an email blast, and it took off,” Hirschfeld said. “I would say we’re at a comfortable capacity, but we are willing to push depending on the demand.”
Feeding the world
A few miles north of Steamboat Springs, Moon Hill Dairy owner John Weibel is using a Kickstarter program to support his cheese production after many of the restaurants in Denver, Aspen and Vail that purchased his cheese shut their doors.
Weibel is offering memberships to the “Cheese of the Month” program to those who donate more than $200. He is also selling Moon Hill Dairy’s products, including memberships, through Community Agricultural Alliance.
Weibel is hoping his efforts will pay off as he prepares to weather the economic turbulence caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“I was driving a taxi to raise money for the upcoming summer production season, so that I didn’t have to borrow money and go into debt,” Weibel said. “Then the world shut down.”
It has forced him to be creative as he looks to crank up his production this summer.
“I was hoping to raise about $15,000, but I figured that I can get going with about $7,500,” Weibel said. “We started that (the Kickstarter fund) just over a week ago, and we’re 70% funded.”
Members will receive three to five selections, a total of about 3 ½ pounds, once a month for four months. Steamboat customers who pick up their cheese at Community Agriculture Alliance offices at 141 Ninth St. will get an extra month of cheese as part of the package.
Weibel has hoped 2020 would be the year for Moon Hill Dairy. He was approached by Whole Foods last year and was ready to ramp up production this summer, but that was before COVID-19.
“Right now, I’m more worried about making food for the local valley if there is a need,” Weibel said. “I guess my big fear is that if the economy falters and struggles then people aren’t going to be purchasing high-end cheese.”
He has decided to help fill local needs and has 500 plant starts with plans to produce squash, potatoes and zucchini for customers.
“At one point I was going to feed the world,” Weibel said. “I got into food production because I could heal the planet through drawing down atmospheric carbon. I could heal people by producing nutrient-dense food in an employee-owned business. That’s my perfect world.”
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