REGION — The Greater Franklin Development Council held its first virtual forum on Wednesday, Feb. 3, that focused on business challenges and innovations during the pandemic. The event may be the first in an upcoming series and was open to the public for free by preregistering on the council’s website.

“We do plan to make this a series at this point and that was not our original intention,” Morgan Spencer, the council’s special projects and program coordinator, said in a phone interview.

About 35 attendees logged into Zoom to hear five entrepreneurs located throughout greater Franklin County share stories of creative adaptations.

“I never thought that I would be selling toilet paper out of the farm stand ever in my life,” Joel Gilbert, co-owner with his wife Melissa of Berry Fruit Farm in Livermore Falls, said during the forum.

When toilet paper was scarce during the first months of the pandemic, the Gilberts repackaged their bulk supply toilet paper for retail until supermarkets recovered their stock.

Joel Gilbert said that pivoting was the theme of the year to the point where he feels sea sick from shifting his focus in so many directions to meet the needs of the customers, the employees and the needs of his own family’s well-being over the past 11 months.

The Gilberts continued with their U-pick operations over the summer and fall, launched an online store and now offer curbside pickup.

The Berry Fruit Farm market still offers in-person shopping and Joel Gilbert said that a common occurrence now is the customer’s need for a more intimate social experience.

“I would have people who come to our store, they would come in, elderly people, just crying because they don’t have the social interaction with people,” he said. “So we found ourselves to be in the place of spreading good will, peace and joy and just trying to build community even in the way that we speak with our customers.” 

For Polly and Rob MacMichael of Rolling Fatties bar and restaurant in Kingfield, the limited social interaction with their customers has been what they miss the most when they closed their dining room and moved to window service.

To kick off the summer with good spirit, the MacMichaels launched Free Fatty Fridays in May during which customers could receive a free burrito.

“That was an idea that Rob and I came up with basically to make ourselves feel better,” Polly MacMichael said at the forum. “We miss being around people and we knew other people were feeling the same way and so we started this campaign where we would serve free fatties and hope people who got these free fatties would pay it forward.”

Rolling Fatties focused on streamlining their online ordering system and launched a virtual market to sell local items such as produce, meat and dairy as well as packaged foods to go. Polly MacMichael said there were times when they were slammed inside because of online orders, but it would be impossible to know from the outside.

“We didn’t even put picnic tables out this summer and it was really hard for us and I think it was hard for our regulars and locals too, but I think it was a good idea,” she said. “We feel pretty confident now looking back at it that that was the way to go.” 

Throughout the summer, the owners observed a consistent flow of customers from out of state, sometimes seeing up to 20 different license plates in a single day. For the safety of their staff and customers, they opted to prevent gathering as much as possible.

Renys Vice President Adam Reny also faced difficult decisions for the sake of his employees’ safety and health. The retail stores closed their doors a week before Governor Janet Mills declared a state of civil emergency in March.

Vice President of Renys retail stores Adam Reny. Photo Courtesy of Adam Reny

“There was so much unknown with what was going on at that time and we felt  we couldn’t make any good decisions for our employees to keep them safe other than just close down and figure out what to do next,” Reny said at the forum.

The company continued to pay their 500 employees while Reny found himself filling several roles to keep the business operating. 

“Our philosophy is that we all need to know a little bit about everything, especially as owners. Luckily, I had already worked in the warehouse and knew how to drive a forklift,” Reny said. “Otherwise, we probably would’ve been charged for the merchandise but would not have been able to unload it…I myself was unloading a truckload of canned chicken on the forklift.” 

Since reopening, Reny said that navigating an expensive and slow supply chain has affected operations. Shipping containers cost up to $4,000 now and some companies such as Carhartt have a 60-day delay from the order date.

Another significant challenge has been enforcing facing coverings, especially prior to Mills’ statewide mask mandate.

“The part that upsets me the most is that our employees on the frontline and greeters at the door, they would get berated day in and day out and it would make me so mad because you shouldn’t be yelling at them, you should be yelling at me,” Reny said. “I made that decision and our employees didn’t.” 

After hearing how often store greeters were berated by customers who did not want to wear masks, Reny spent a week as a greeter to support his employees.

Travis Ferland, owner of the Rangeley Inn expressed the same frustration during the forum.

Owner of the Rangeley Inn Travis Ferland. Photo Courtesy of Travis Ferland

“That was really tough to deal with particularly when we all knew how much effort we were putting in and what risks we were taking, then to have people who couldn’t wear a mask for five minutes,” Ferland said. “That was frustrating on both sides, but we’re working through it and I think at this point now, a lot more people are understanding of the circumstances and we haven’t had as many issues with that.” 

To ensure a safe stay at the inn, Ferland developed a contactless check-in process that requires customers to upload a state of Maine COVID-19 compliance agreement. An email is then sent to the patron indicating their room number so that they can go directly to their room upon arrival.

As Ferland adapted his operations from housekeeping to replacing a buffet breakfast service to a delivery service, he had to step in and perform many roles.

“It was pretty exhausting for me because in a lot of cases, I was the one picking up the extra work when we had a lot more business than anticipated,” Ferland said. “But also, my core team of employees were just phenomenal, they understood the circumstances and they were just really flexible and adapted along with everything as well.”

Ferland also emphasized the role that Rangeley Rises played in local businesses reopening over the early spring and summer. The group consists of community members who developed safe strategies to keep the town open for business during the pandemic.

“For the local movement, it was Rangeley Rises that set the standard for how we as a community were going to address the pandemic,” Bill Pierce, executive director of Oquossoc‘s Outdoor Heritage Museum, said at the forum.

Executive Director of Oquossoc’s Outdoor Heritage Museum Bill Pierce. Photo Courtesy of Bill Pierce

Pierce shared unique strategies as to how the museum made up for 43% of lost revenue from ticket admissions this past year. The museum focused on other revenue outlets such as hosting the International Fly Fishing Film Festival at outdoor venues such as the Narrow Gauge Drive-In Theater in Farmington and Bald Mountain Camps Resort in Oquossoc.

The festival typically has over 150 screenings in North America, but last year there were only six with the museum hosting three of them.

Pierce also emphasized the way in which the museum adapted the annual Lupine Day Festival and Oquossoc Day Festival by limiting their usual 35 vendors to ten, and added a Fall Fest. 

“We added an event because we couldn’t tap 35 people on our grounds and meet state guidelines and when you think about all of the people in the craft business, they spend a great amount of time making all of these goods to sell at these fairs and they had no place to go,” Pierce said.

The museum also offered space to up to five craft vendors every Saturday to sell their items.

“It was very important to us very early on to decide that we were going to flex and take calculated risks,” Pierce said.

For future Greater Franklin Development Council events, Spencer said that she hopes to see more resilient and positive stories shared from community members as they traverse another year of so many unknowns.

“I think if and when we continue this series it will be about finding the silver lining no matter what subject we breach,” she said. “That will be something we consciously make a focus of the event, going forward.”  

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