Small business owners have seen their companies change overnight due to the coronavirus. In our #openforbusiness series, we're highlighting Northwestern Mutual clients who have been forced to get creative in order to adapt to these unprecedented times and keep their businesses running. We hope you'll get inspiration from their stories and help support them whenever possible.

Business: Markham & Fitz

Owner: Lauren Blanco

Location: Bentonville, Arkansas

Phone: 479-321-4926

Website: markhamandfitz.com

In 2014, some friends and I joined together to start making craft chocolate. Our side hobby-turned-business venture evolved into what is now Markham & Fitz, which is both a chocolate manufacturing company and a dessert bar/cafe.

We were inspired by our first taste of homemade chocolate, which our friend made from scratch in his kitchen. It was unlike anything I had ever tried before. Cocoa beans have a wide variety of flavor compounds, which allows makers like us to draw out and develop unique flavors in our chocolate bars. If you ever taste a craft chocolate bar along with one that was mass-produced, it will taste wildly different.

I previously worked at a nonprofit organization helping facilitate small business development internationally, which exposed me to business as a force of good. My cofounder, Preston Stewart, had a background in chemistry, so he brought his food-science knowledge to the table. We decided to buy high-quality beans from small-scale cacao farmers from Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Colombia to start making a variety of chocolate products (bars, truffles, beverages, cakes, cookies) and exemplify those flavors.

At our dessert bar and café, we serve a variety of chocolate cocktails, hot chocolates, cookies and cake; we have another production facility nearby where we finish the majority of our packaged products.

When everything shut down last March, we immediately halted dine-in service and had to let go of more than half our staff. Our wholesale sales also dropped significantly, so we set up a delivery and curbside pickup service and that kept us afloat.

WE TRIED DELIVERY, THEN PIVOTED TO E-COMMERCE

We updated our website to focus on local delivery and curbside pickup. We tried out new product collections that included pairing cakes with bottles of wine and some chocolate bars for date nights. Our local customers really came out strong to support us! They also found us on social media, where we put updates out on our Instagram and Facebook pages.

We had to buy a lot of to-go packaging and switch our point-of-sale system, which was a big endeavor from a nuts-and-bolts perspective — it required reimagining our in-store customer service for online sales. Though we launched the new website pretty quickly, there was definitely a big learning curve in getting the technical details ironed out.

While delivery was reliable during the crisis months, it wasn’t operationally sustainable for the long term. We were at a make-or-break point financially, so we decided to pivot our last-ditch efforts toward e-commerce. We secured segments on “The View” and “The Today Show.” These national placements alongside strategic marketing and ads allowed us to grow our e-commerce business 1,200 percent in 2020. It also allowed us to position the company nationally and have a broader foundation to continue to build our business with more streamlined operations.

WE RECEIVED FINANCIAL AID

My personal financial advisor, Race Hobson, reached out to me to make sure I was aware of the available loan options and to offer his guidance on any questions that might come up. We consulted with our banker at the start of the pandemic, and we have received two Paycheck Protection Program loans.

WE SOUGHT SUPPORT FROM OTHER BUSINESS OWNERS

While practicing social distancing, we did do some commiserating with our neighbors in the area. I also have built a substantial online community that I rely on for support. One of my business groups, part of Tory Burch Fellows Program, started meeting on Zoom every week. We hadn’t really done any virtual calls before the pandemic, and it has proved to be a lifeline during these difficult months. That group has certainly been a silver lining for me!

WE REOPENED SAFELY

We reopened the café in late July. We closed off our indoor seating and expanded our outdoor patio seating, where all of our tables are spaced six feet apart. It’s been working out well and we have been able to hire back some of our staff. We’re all continuing to wear masks and make it work. Earlier this year, we reopened our indoor seating with tables still distanced and staff still donning masks, hopeful for a brighter 2021.

Lauren Blanco is a client of Northwestern Mutual. She works with Financial Advisor Race Hobson.

The testimonials presented may not be representative of the experience of other clients and are not a guarantee of future performance or success.

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