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Last March, when restaurants were ordered to shut their physical doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Robert Amar, owner of Small World Seafood, a fish wholesaler in Philadelphia, suddenly had a truck full of seafood on his hands. He reached out to friends and neighbors asking if anyone wanted to buy some scallops, mussels and salmon. Ten people were interested, and Robert arranged to have them pick it up on his street corner.
One of the buyers was his friend Andy Farrell, who happened to be walking by with his dog and bought a bag of mussels on the spot. He was convinced Robert was onto something. Surely there were lots of other people interested in buying fresh seafood directly from a supplier — especially now that they couldn’t go out to restaurants to eat anymore. Having recently lost his job as operations director for a restaurant chain, Andy had time on his hands and wanted to see if he could help Robert get more customers.
They floated the new business idea past friends and word of mouth quickly spread. In April, Robert started his digital marketing strategy by creating an email newsletter to announce what seafood would be available that week, and people would mark their choices in a basic online form.
The effort gains momentum
Even as many businesses shut down because of the pandemic, the number of online micro-businesses like Robert’s grew, according to data from Venture Forward. So did traffic and the number of orders placed on websites, with 60% saying their digital presence helped to get going or expand their operations. And communities with more micro-businesses per 100 people recover more strongly from economic recessions, Venture Forward found.
Indeed, each new everyday entrepreneur like Robert adds two new jobs in a community on top of their own, the data shows, as they do things like rent trucks and build websites.
For Robert, business kept growing. Ten orders turned into 30 the following week, then to 80, and pretty soon, hundreds.
By June, they upgraded to a larger truck, added multiple new stops to their route, and rented a sorting facility to help better manage the growing volume of orders.
“It was happening very quickly,” says Robert. “We really were just trying to help neighbors and friends temporarily.”
A digital marketing strategy generates growth and community
Today Small World Seafood sells to between 800 and 1,000 customers a week across Philadelphia who pick up their orders at one of six locations.
The newsletter now goes out to a list of 5,000 subscribers with weekly updates on what’s available, along with recipes and a link for ordering.
Customers place their orders on Wednesdays or Thursdays, depending on their location, and pick them up the following day. Every week Small World Seafood offers 15 to 18 fresh seafood items including 10 staples like shrimp, crab meat and salmon, in addition to a handful of special items available in limited quantities.
“There’s a built-in urgency to the list and each week’s offerings,” says Andy.
The newsletter and website not only serve to reach and educate customers but also have helped to create a sense of community.
Stuck at home because of the pandemic, many have embraced the opportunity to buy and prepare more elaborate dishes themselves, and tap Andy and Robert as something of a sounding board.
“Everybody’s community has gotten closer through this,” Robert says. “We wanted to be closer and more connected with customers.”
As restaurants begin to reopen, some among Small World Seafood’s loyal fan base are starting to worry about the future of a service they’ve come to rely on and love.
“People keep asking: Are you going to keep doing this when restaurants open back up?” Andy says. “We say, ‘If you keep showing up, we will keep showing up.’”