The Brooklyn community has always been at the heart of Foster Sundry. When founder Aaron Foster first launched the store back in 2015, his aim was to bring high-quality products to the pantries of the district. Ever since, they’ve become a local success story, evolving alongside the needs of their customers. So, when lockdown came, it’s little wonder why they made the decision to stay open to serve their community during difficult times.
Now a butcher, artisanal cheese shop, specialty grocers and cafe, there aren’t many services that Foster Sundry aren’t bringing to their Brooklyn customers. To learn more, we spoke to owner Aaron Foster to talk about how his business grew under lockdown, the importance of community and what advice to give to new businesses launching after lockdown.
Tell us about how COVID-19 initially impacted your brand.
When we first found that the virus was coming to New York City, things were very uncertain. We were doing a lot of reading to figure out what we should do. Then suddenly, on the second Thursday of March, everyone in the city decided that a lockdown was about to happen. We had the busiest day we’d ever had – we basically sold everything that wasn’t nailed down. On that day, there were lines around the block of every grocery store in New York City.
Once everyone had filled their freezers, they did what they were told to do: stay inside. From there, we had a number of staff who didn’t want to come to work anymore. Over the course of a week, we went from 20 employees to 10 – that’s when we knew we had to adjust. We changed our schedule, reduced our hours and instituted safety protocols. We never truly closed. For us, it was important that we never went one more day without being open.
When your Brooklyn community returned to your store after lockdown, did you notice any new needs? How did you meet them?
I find this really interesting, people are now buying a lot more protein and staples. They want their items prepared and they want to keep for a long time. I also noticed that customers are also coming to us more and more for their meat. We’re only supplied with locally-pastured animals, but the other local businesses who were buying from the bigger meat suppliers weren’t able to get their meat. That’s not to say we didn’t experience our own problems: we’ve had it where people just weren’t turning up to work, so we’ve had to pick up our own stuff from the supplier.
Under lockdown, how were you still maintaining your important relationship with the Brooklyn community?
We were doing a lot of Instagram, to the point where I was definitely personally oversharing! It was important to us that we shared the challenges and decisions we were facing day-to-day. We wanted to let our customers know what we were doing to protect them and ourselves.
What advice would you give to other businesses also facing the shifting government regulations?
My general advice is read as much as you can and learn what actually helps people. Know that the things that the government suggests aren’t necessarily what’s best for your business. Don’t make a decision on every little thing that they say and focus on what genuinely helps people. Besides this, I find that it’s always best to go above and beyond – we try to encourage customers to make more precautions rather than fewer.
We’ve talked about the challenges small businesses are facing, what about the new opportunities that are available right now?
I’m of the mind that restriction is something that allows for creativity – it’s true for art and it’s true for business. There’s an opportunity for new businesses to open in a new environment instead of having to pivot. They can adapt from day one around the current reality. There are also a huge amount of pop-up businesses that are enjoying enormous success in the middle of the pandemic. The risk is low, commercial real estate is inexpensive and landlords are looking to do anything that they can with their space that brings them a little bit of cash.
What’s in the future for Foster Sundry?
Right now, we just want to adapt and improve. We feel like the pandemic has really pushed people to online ordering, so that’s something we want to make work for us. As the pandemic develops, we’re going to work with other local businesses to team up as a group to solve problems. Instead of independently solving the same problem, why not solve it together as a community?