This past week Smittybread Bakery opened its doors to customers for the first time since last Spring, when we began utilizing a walk-up window in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Many customers have told us how happy they are to come inside, smell the fresh bread and view the arrays of delectable pastries. And employees have embraced the fresh new look and customer-friendly atmosphere with enthusiasm.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled. A few customers have said they preferred the walk-up window, mainly out of concern with being too close to anyone who might be carrying the virus.
That’s understandable. With the national casualty rate approaching 300,000 deaths and local infections continuing to rise, we are far from out of the woods, even as a vaccine begins to circulate.
But to be frank the walk-up window was not without risk, and the approach of winter was making it untenable. With each blast of cold autumn wind, I pictured the discomfort once temperatures really started to drop.
The change to walk-in service meant eliminating indoor dining, a decision not easily made. Even though our bakery only seats about 15 people, I’d grown accustomed to seeing the room full of customers enjoying their lunch or conversing over pastries and coffee, and I long for those days to return.
But maintaining required social distancing in such a confined space meant we could only seat five or six customers at a time at most. In addition, as breakfast and lunch sales declined over the past few months, we’d taken over the dining area for work space as we ramped up bread and pastry production.
As a seasoned procrastinator, I’d put off the change as long as I could. What tipped the balance was a book I happened to be reading — “Out of Africa” — in which the writer bemoaned the failure of her coffee plantation. She blamed the failure on poor location, ill timing, investor impatience, bad luck, weather, grasshoppers, and so on. In short, she’d thrown in the towel.
I felt that with with winter approaching and farmers markets closed for the season, we were going to see a January-April sales decline like never before unless changes were made. Indoor service was the answer.
First we needed to move the dining tables and chairs and other unnecessary items into storage. Next, I built a sturdy wooden base for an an 8-foot-long butcher block work tabletop that had been in storage and which I thought would make a perfect sales counter.
A week ago we moved all the production equipment out of the dining area and maneuvered the butcher block counter into place. I suspended clear acrylic panels over the counter to provide a sneeze barrier between staff and patrons. We also moved our farmers market display crates from storage into the bakery to create an attractive showcase for our handcrafted breads.
Lastly, we posted a sign to let people know that masks are required before entry, that entry is limited to two customers at a time, and that social distancing must be observed.
One idea that didn’t make the cut was a traffic signal of red and green LED lights to let customers know when it was safe to enter. The remote control was not 100% reliable, and in practice most customers figured out when it’s OK to enter.
It’s only been one week since the change, but already I feel better about our prospects of surviving the long, cold winter and emerging out of Covid isolation into a less anxious, more prosperous new year. Time will tell. If you get a chance, check out the new look of Smittybread Bakery, and support your local businesses so they can support you.