By RACHEL WYMAN
Special to Montclair Local
Two years ago, the first reported cases of coronavirus hit American soil. As a business owner, I began watching and waiting, plotting and planning. What would I do if the virus came to Montclair? A couple months later, I began the fight of my life to keep my bakery open and keep food on the table for my family.
I decided, even if it was just me, baking alone, I would keep the doors open for customers. Thankfully, it wasn’t just me. My staff decided they were going to join me in the fight. We started selling fruits, veggies, milk, flour, eggs. We reinvented ourselves countless times over during the first year of the pandemic — pre-orders only, walk up windows, outdoor seating, pizza in the snow, parties on, parties off. We fought to stay open even as our public schools remained closed.
During this time, I did as much as I could to give back to my community, and my town continued to support me. I taught baking classes to children outside because it was the only in-person instruction available. I offered scholarships to make the classes accessible to everyone. We baked, and continue to bake, countless loaves of bread for Toni’s Kitchen. We organized fundraisers for organizations who needed support, raising thousands of dollars in contributions through pledges and bake sales.
I am so very grateful for my customers who stood by Montclair Bread Company through countless technology changes, long lines to wait for orders, menu developments and price increases. I am grateful for the payroll protection program that helped me continue to pay my team throughout the ups and downs of 2020. Without this program, I’m not sure my bakery would have survived.
But we survived. We survived because we stuck together as a team and we fought, every single day, while reading about the next directive or shift in policy on Facebook and Instagram. That’s right, the only way business owners in our town are able to roll with the punches and avoid the next knockout is to read about it on social media. In fact, the first time an elected official visited my business, in person or otherwise, was to ask for a donation for an event they were hosting.
On Christmas Eve, while my team was being yelled at by angry customers who didn’t think they should have to wear masks, as per the new Montclair resolution, our Township Council members were home for the holidays enjoying time with their families. Not that I do not wholeheartedly support the mask mandate, but posting a PDF to Facebook for business owners to print and put in their windows seems a bit too little, too late.
And then, for the first time in the two-year battle, we started to lose our foothold as one after another, my team members were under quarantine. Everyone picked up the slack with one person down, two people down, five people down. When half of our entire staff was under quarantine orders, I threw in the towel. I no longer had the drive to go it alone and bake as much as I could to just stay open.
In fact, I was just interviewed by a CNN reporter about this very thing. You can read more about other businesses experiencing the same, here.
You know that scene in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail where the knight keeps fighting even though he has no arms and no legs? That’s kinda how I felt going into this holiday season, but now I’m ready to call it quits. Seriously, I’m waving my white flag.
Montclair Bread Company is located in a zone all of its own. We don’t have the Montclair Center BID (with a director who makes six figures) to help us. There’s no structure or leadership to support us. We do it all on our own. I do it all on my own. Thank goodness I have the peer support from other local business owners to call on when I need a bag of sugar (thanks Le French Dad) or when I need to vent about staff shortages (thanks Toast). But where are the township officials? Who is bringing us all together, communicating with us, helping us to keep our doors open? All this talk about supporting small businesses, it’s time to walk the walk! Put feet on the ground and get to work just like we have been doing since March 2020. Just like I have been doing since 2012, when I opened a bakery in Montclair.
Don’t get me wrong — I knew no one would be there to bake with me at 2 a.m. I knew I wouldn’t have help with the payroll, but I did think there would be some sort of leadership to turn to during difficult times. I thought there would be some guidance or communication from a central point.
I’m not asking for money or financial assistance (although it would help). I want people to show up and fight with me. I want my team to see support from our local government while they are working around the clock and doing everything they can to support our community. I don’t want to see another social media post from another local business with headlines that reads “closed until further notice,” “closed until next month,” or “we had to make the difficult decision …” We’ve already lost too many great businesses and we are going to lose more if we don’t do something.
January and February are the hardest months of the year to be in the food business. Normally we can rely on holiday sales in December to get us through. But with all the staff shortages and all the closings because of omicron, our December was the worst on record.
What can you do to help? Contact our elected officials and ask them how they are working to keep small businesses alive and thriving. Help me, help my fellow business owners avoid posting another “closed until …” message. I want to be able to get a latte, cupcakes, gelato, pain aux raisins and go to see a movie in my town (maybe not all at the same time)!
Thank you for your continued support an thank you for reading. I care about this community and I know we can do better for each other.
Rachel Wyman is owner of Montclair Bread Company. The business closed for the first week of January amid staff shortages in the coronavirus surge exposures, but planned to reopen Friday, Jan. 7.
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