In 2018, we finalized the purchase of our building and our business numbers were strong. The deli was very busy, we catered regularly, the store was very steady and business was increasing. The financing went through without a hitch. Things were really pretty good.
Despite being a Mom and Pop corner grocery store, a rarity in this age, we were growing thanks to the amazing support of our loyal customers.
And then several things happened that we didn’t foresee.
Fresh Thyme, owned by Meijer, arrived. Our public fight asking the city to “stop the subsidizing of Fresh Thyme ” failed. We had over 1000 of your signatures on a petition. But Fresh Thyme received several hundred thousand taxpayer dollars from TIF districts.
Kroger’s Payless also opened in Muncie, and both companies were well versed in greenwashing. Using labels that carried no third-party certification like “local” and “pasture raised,” are ways to make claims that are not substantiated. This type of marketing is manipulative, but actually very effective. Consumers feel good about getting a nice “compromise” on a product at a lower price, but the reality is that the products are not what they claim to be. It was at this time that we began to see our first decrease in sales.
One positive result of Covid is that we now prioritize increased family and vacation time. However, holiday breaks associated with Ball State are now even slower periods than they were before Covid, and the slow period lasts much longer than the break. Many that have the financial means, now take vacations often. While it’s very good for families, the slow periods create large gaps in revenue for local businesses.
Summers are very difficult to get through. We hoped to maintain regular hours through the end of the year, but fall break and the following weeks were exceptionally quiet, and forced us to implement these changes immediately.
Inflation has caused buying habits to shift
Since we now find ourselves in a situation where expenses have to be drastically lowered immediately, we want you to understand why.
Why close the deli completely? It’s a good question. Sara and I know the deli food is better quality than ever, with more variety than before. We expanded the menu during the pandemic to include fresh cut fries, Gunthorp sausage sandwiches, and Oswalt farm grass fed burgers.
The issue is that the price point is just higher than what people can pay, and we aren’t charging enough as is. Our deli takes a lot of prep, and many employee hours and high quality ingredients. We’re paying more for labor, utilities, ingredients, packaging, and basically everything than we were before.
For the deli to work, we have to be busy, and we have not been consistently busy. We have an occasional busy day, but that doesn’t make it sustainable. More people are packing their own lunch, and in some cases still working from home. There are similar, and cheaper, fast casual places with lower quality ingredients and we feel that inflation is playing into us losing our market share.
The turnover in the cooking job has been a huge challenge the last two years for most restaurants. We made some bad calls and mistakes along the way. We invested in our staff paying higher wages than we could afford. We assumed business was coming back after Covid. Wages are up on average about 50%. Looking back, we should have made this downsizing transition sooner, but again we never really knew what to expect, and I think we all want to be optimistic.
All of these challenges have persuaded us to switch our culinary talents to the Second Story where we can charge appropriately for quality ingredients, and we can staff it with less employee hours. Sara and I can consistently monitor the quality of the food and drinks in this setting. We’ll be able to give the new concept in the Second Story Lounge the attention it deserves. Hopefully moving all grocery purchases to Thursday will combine all of our grocery purchases into one day, and save us money.
We have worked many 80 hour weeks, and we just can’t go on working those long weeks without any personal time off and no work/life balance.
The lesson on local food security from Covid:
When the lock-downs came through and panic buying started, we saw store shelves empty. This was only a glimpse of what could happen in a time of changing climate, petroleum shortages, or any number of catastrophic problems that can occur like a pandemic.
The just-in-time model of food arriving on trucks and trains from thousands of miles away to be sold as “fresh” sets us up to be vulnerable for future events.
The ONLY way to safeguard against these events and protect us and future generations from food shortages is to build local food systems. We believe those food systems should be environmentally-sustainable and even regenerative.
One of our main goals was to help build food systems locally. Our hope is that we can continue this work.
Michael Hicks, a Ball State economist and columnist for the Star Press, said that the subsidy of Fresh Thyme would shut us down. But maybe we can stay around, like a dormant seed in the ground, ready to grow when the time is right.
We started this journey as organic farmers and are adept at rolling with ever changing, unpredictable challenges. Could we have done things differently or had better timing? Sure. But for 16 years we’ve been providing fresh and local organic food to Muncie, fighting an uphill battle against the consolidation and corporatization of the food system. These changes will allow us to continue the work.
We wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for your support! Here are a few ways you help us now, and continue the mission.
Eat at our deli! It’ll be open through 11/19.
After 11/19, shop with us on Thursdays.
As always, thanks for your support!
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