On Tuesday morning, Brendan Tuckey was putting the finishing touches on a germination incubator he built at his farm in Sugar Camp.
The chamber, about the size of a large locker, is heated to help vegetable seeds begin to sprout in the spring. It will get its first use in the coming weeks.
Tuckey and his wife Jenny own EverGood Farm, an organic vegetable farm serving the Northwoods.
Most years, they sell much of what they grow at local farmer’s markets. But as the pandemic spread last spring, they pulled the plug on that plan.
“The farmer’s markets, we weren’t confident that we’d have any control over [them],” Tuckey said. “One, they might get shut down anyway. Two, how are we going to really control how people are behaving at a farmer’s market?”
A business pivot seemed obvious: Tuckey, who has an IT background, would help set up an online ordering system. Customers would order the in-season veggies they wanted, and each week, he would drop the orders at one of several pickup locations across the Northwoods.
The farm loved it: no more guessing on customer demand.
Families loved it: they could select exactly what they needed each week.
“What any business is really trying to do is you’re trying to match what you want with what the customer wants. Why struggle, why try and force customers into a system they don’t really want? What you’re trying to do is have it good for both sides. That’s exactly what online sales was for us,” Tuckey said.
Besides, skipping farmer’s markets meant less time traveling, setting up shop, tearing it down, and returning home with what didn’t sell.
That left more time on the farm, more time planting, harvesting, and battling those persistent weeds.
“It just gained us more time, more control,” Tuckey said. “If that isn’t the two problems of farming vegetables in the Northwoods, I don’t know what is.”
EverGood Farm is far from the only Northwoods business to invest in a swing toward online sales. Others have seen a boon, too, after making pandemic-induced changes.
Among EverGood Farm’s customers is the Black Forest, a German-themed pub and restaurant in Three Lakes.
It had to shut down indoor dining last March, of course, and limit its offerings to takeout orders.
“It killed our culinary team to see our food going out in Styrofoam containers. It’s horrible. Our food’s not meant to be plated that way,” said Heather Biró, who, with husband Marcel, owns the restaurant.
Despite the limitations, orders were coming in faster than the Black Forest could handle.
“We opened up our phone lines, but we only had one line. We’re a small business. We have one line,” Biró said. “ We threw out there on our Facebook, we threw out there on our website my personal cell phone to help take orders.”
It still wasn’t enough.
The phones were still too busy.
Plus, trying to explain a menu over the phone was no good.
“We knew immediately, immediately, it was a no-brainer. We had to shift to an online ordering system,” said Biró.
The system could hardly have worked better.
Biró found online customers would see menu pictures and add more items, increasing average orders by five to eight dollars.
Even without its lucrative bar offerings, income during a pandemic year at the Black Forest nearly kept pace with the year before.
“We were only about 11 percent less in revenue overall compared to 2019,” she said. “I think that’s incredible.”
Online ordering will stick around, but Biró is staffing up for what she hopes will be a summer with relaxed restrictions and eager customers.
“I think people are going to come back, and when they do come back, they’re going to come back with a vengeance, because they are going to be so tired of staying inside. They are going to want to reconnect with people,” Biró said. “I think we’re in for a wild ride.”
Months ago at EverGood Farm, Brendan Tuckey and his wife made a decision.
The year 2021 might bring a reversion to pre-COVID times for some, but the farm’s business model has changed for good.
No more farmer’s markets. Online ordering is here to stay.
“It was easy. Basically, by the end of last year, as we were winding down, we were just like, we’re definitely doing this again next year,” Tuckey said. “It was really a no-brainer.”
If the weather cooperates, they can begin working the fields in April.
Not long after, the earliest vegetables will be available for online shoppers.