Opening a Business During a PandemicCOVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | The owner of Buy Better Foods, a new organic market in Bed-Stuy, on tackling this daunting challenge.Published: August 04, 2020
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Launching a small business is hard enough in the best of circumstances; this week, I spoke with someone who did it during the height of the pandemic. After working for almost a decade as a pharmacy manager, Myriam Simpierre struck out on her own with Buy Better Foods, a new organic food market and health store in Bed-Stuy. Keep reading for insights into Simpierre’s journey from pharmaceuticals to organic food, what foot traffic looks like in a pandemic, and how the Black Lives Matter movement is galvanizing Black business owners.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What inspired you to open the shop?
Prior to Buy Better Foods, I worked as a store manager for a major retail pharmacy. After a while I got tired of seeing so many people caught up with medication. I recognize people need medication, but at some point it became more of a sell industry than a need industry… The more drugs, the more profits, you know? That's when I decided to learn more about the organic industry. The planning [for Buy Better Foods] was in the works for five years while I was still working as a manager.
Have you always eaten organic?
Pretty much, but more in the past couple years. I made a life change because I was dealing with some medical issues. I didn't want to rely on medication, and I was feeling like it wasn’t working the way it should. So I started working with a holistic coach, and that made my healthy eating much more serious. And once I saw the change, I stuck with it. I'm proud to say that I no longer take medication and I’m focusing on being an advocate of healthy eating.
You launched in April, when New York was in the height of lockdown. Did you always plan to open then?
It was supposed to be launched in January, and then the construction got pushed back, so we moved it to March. And then, of course, the pandemic hit. What was helpful was the fact that I was an essential business. The only way I was going to find out how successful it was going to be was just to do it.
What was it like to open during peak quarantine?
There were various issues, but what really delayed me were the distributors. Because there was such a high demand from bigger companies to fulfill their orders, my orders, coming from a small, independent store, were very delayed. Either I wouldn't get an order, or if I did get it, it was half fulfilled. I had to wait weeks until my shelves were completely full.
How has business been in your first few months?
The first week, it was great. The response from the community was overwhelming. Then it tapered off, I think because people were still locked down. So I had to think quickly and sign on to an online delivery service to make up for what I'm not getting from foot traffic. That worked well for a minute, and then also died down. It got better when we were recently featured on Black-Owned Brooklyn, but this week it's slow again. I'm very grateful that I haven’t had to close my doors, but sales have been up and down.
Do you plan on applying for any COVID-19 relief grants or loans?
Yeah. Unfortunately I have, but I was turned down for a lot of loans because I was not considered an established business. I was only able to get a very small grant.
How many people do you have on staff?
Right now it's me, my wife, and one other employee. Until it gets busier, that's my max, one or two people.
How important has social media been in terms of getting the word out to the community?
Social media has been a major marketing tactic. I try to post something different every day to raise awareness about the business and new products. Thank God for social media.
In addition to organic food, you also sell health and wellness products with an emphasis on local brands. How do you forge those partnerships?
Just through reading and researching. Also, recently people have been reaching out to me to feature their products, particularly Black-owned businesses. It’s cool for them to be shared at a Black-owned supermarket. I think recent events around the Black Lives Matter movement have unified Black-owned vendors and businesses, or at least bought more exposure. They have helped put my store on the map.
In your experience, is the organic food industry lacking in terms of diversity and inclusion?
There's definitely room for growth, particularly in the produce area. One of the things I've recognized is that a lot of distributors don't connect to Black-owned farms, and that's something that needs to change. A lot of distributors are used to getting their stuff from the bigger, well-known farms. There needs to be more awareness of African-American farms and farmers.
Looking ahead, what are your plans to secure a steady flow of customers, especially if New York goes back into lockdown in the fall?
Right now, I'm just signed up with one [delivery] service, but I’m seeking other avenues. Most importantly, I’m trying to work on a virtual tool to make small educational videos to help people stay on top of their health with the natural resources that we provide.
How to help:
- Visit the store (open 9am - 6pm, Monday - Saturday)
- Order groceries for delivery (available throughout Brooklyn and parts of Queens)
- Follow on Instagram and Facebook
Until next time,