A few months ago, 2020 was looking pretty good for Steven Smith, the owner of Fort Lauderdale-based retailer Vegan Fine Foods. Just two years after opening his all-vegan grocery store and café, Smith already had several franchise deals in the works—five locations in Atlanta and another in the D.C. metro area—and a growing feeling that the vegan lifestyle was finally catching on.
This was particularly thanks to the success of Vegan Fine Café, the arm of the business that originally made up around 50% of its revenue, but which grew quickly to become its main driver, accounting for about 70-75% of sales. Part of this was because of the store’s location in the heart of Fort Lauderdale’s downtown entertainment district where—pre-coronavirus—it got a boost from a vibrant nightlife and plenty of foot traffic.
The other explanation, says Smith, is the increasing popularity of plant-based eating that’s driving a steady new customer base of “flexitarian” eaters to his establishment. In fact, he estimates that around 70% of customers that frequent the café align with flexitarian values and growing concerns about the ethical, environmental and health implications of eating animal products.
But after the global pandemic hit, everything changed. Although Florida was later than some states to limit all-but-essential activities, which it did on April 4, the city of Fort Lauderdale shuttered all restaurants in mid-March. This fact, compounded by an emptied-out downtown, quickly made Smith question whether staying open would be worth risking the health and wellness of his employees.
“It made me very uncomfortable, because it’s just so dangerous," he says. "Someone working at Whole Foods here in Fort Lauderdale tested positive (for coronavirus) and I just decided that I didn’t want to jeopardize our guys. That’s when I decided to stop letting people into the store.”
Smith decided to focus on the food service side of the business. Customers could add any available groceries to their order, but the store was not being actively restocked. Ironically, they had been working on creating an online grocery ordering platform for nearly a year—a system that was just weeks away from launching when the crisis began.
“We were also developing an app for ordering,” says Smith. “For now,” he adds, “people can order food through third parties like Uber Eats or Door Dash, or by calling or texting their orders to us directly on a new, dedicated phone number.”
Despite continuing support from some regular customers, Smith still debated whether or not it made sense to keep the café service open. Closing the store had already obliged him to furlough most of the staff, leaving only three or four essential employees. They came up with a solution.
“They said, ‘Listen, we want to work. Just pay us a commission on what we sell.’ And so that’s what we’ve been doing. Customers can order from a reduced menu and pick up the food at an already-existing outside takeout window—or get it delivered by a third party.”
Today, almost two months later, Smith reports that, while this is still the store’s operational model, he is also preparing for the future.
“We are still open, mainly doing takeout and delivery. We are still selling groceries, but we have been using this time to reorganize our shelves and do some remodeling. Things are starting to loosen up a bit in Florida, so we want to be ready when the economy reopens,” he says.
And as for how soon the once-bustling café and grocery store will fully reopen, franchise opportunities move forward and this Florida city’s downtown will come back to life, only time will tell.