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“We’re Going to Survive:” An inside look into the changing marketing strategies of small, local restaurants due to COVID-19 by Fairmont State University Assistant Professor, J.B. Davis

Mention the word “caboose” anywhere but Clarksburg, WV and most people think of the last car on an old- style train. However, in Clarksburg, The Caboose has meant good food and good times for over 50 years. A red building at the corner of Pike and Joyce Streets, The Caboose has delivered a great place to meet and eat for several generations of North Central West Virginians. Then comes a World-wide Pandemic and small, local restaurants, like The Caboose, all around the U.S. are in danger of disappearing forever. How did these local businesses stay in business in the wake of a Pandemic? On a sunny and unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in late October I had the pleasure of sitting down with the owners of The Caboose to find out what effects COVID-19 have had on their business and what they feel they have had to do to survive. 

Sherry O’Marra and Nadine Schwartzmiller, owners of The Caboose for the last 5 years, were like everyone else in the U.S. in January and February, looking forward to Spring and conducting business as usual. However, on March 15 the daily death toll from COVID-19 was just beginning to be recorded in the U.S. and in Clarksburg, WV, residents were just beginning to hear about the disease that was spreading world- wide. It didn’t take long for life as we knew it to rapidly change. 

On March 17 The Caboose decided that they would no longer offer dining inside their restaurant and only about a week later, The Caboose would close completely. Although not mandated to temporarily close their doors, O’Marra and Schwartzmiller felt they needed to re-group and do what was right for their customers and their business. It was this conservative approach that would help insure the survival of The Caboose. For 37 days, The Caboose would be idle, disconnected from its engine and absent of any passengers, its loyal customers. However, it was during this temporary closing that O’Marra and Schwartzmiller would carefully plan how to re-open The Caboose in a way that would offer their customers the great food they expected as well as piece-of-mind that The Caboose was a safe place in which to dine. 

As owners, O’Marra and Schwartzmiller faced many obstacles due to the Pandemic. Fortunately, The Caboose was eligible for Federal Assistance and through the help of their local bank, MVB Bank, and their accountants, Secret & Shields, access to this assistance was easy and quick. O’Marra was insistent that “our local partners were so very helpful and without their support, I don’t know if we would have survived”. O’Marra also remarked that, “it proves that doing business with other local businesses helps everyone. Local businesses care about their customers.” Of course, finances weren’t the only obstacles that the owners suddenly faced. Some of the staff decided not to return to work once the restaurant re-opened. This meant that with everything else that needed to be done, all of a sudden replacing staff was required. Shortages of certain mainstay menu items would also pose a problem and the menu, at times, would need to be revised. Also, certain everyday items such as cheese would see a significant increases in price. However, both O’Marra and Schwartzmiller say that their current menu is very close to what it was pre- pandemic. 

Another issue that arose unexpectedly but was common around the country was the defiance by some people to wear masks. Even though wearing masks as you enter a restaurant is a state mandate and not a rule made up by businesses themselves, some customers would direct their anger towards the owners and/or staff. This has been a common phenomenon witnessed around the country and is not unique to North Central West Virginia. Nevertheless, is was just another hurdle that The Caboose would have to overcome. 

As a marketing professor at Fairmont State University, it was my curiosity on how this small business adjusted their marketing strategies that motivated me to request a sit-down with the owners. Luckily, for me, one of my students happened to work at The Caboose as a server and helped me connect with the owners. I feel that in order for students to truly learn they must understand what is really happening in the real world. Textbooks offer valuable information but only a small portion of what students need to know in order to be prepared for the business world. It’s the primary reason that after 27 years in industry I decided to shift career into higher ed. Information from real business owners like O’Marra and Schwartzmiller is priceless. 

The fascinating thing about marketing is that somewhere there is always a “sweet spot”, a combination of tactics delivered at the right time and place that can result in the maximum benefit for the business. Small businesses have been trying to find that “sweet spot” since the onset of COVID. Many of the marketing adjustments that have been made will remain post-pandemic because of the positive results they have delivered and many of the other adjustments will be dropped once a vaccine is in place and COVID is no longer seen as a threat. However, no one really knows when that will be. 

During the 37 days that The Caboose was idle, strategies were developed that would be implemented once a re-opening date was set. Logistics, delivery of the final product to the end user, is critical for all businesses but especially critical for a restaurant. The Caboose immediately implemented curbside delivery of orders once they re-opened on May 1. Although curbside delivery has been a common strategy for most restaurants during the pandemic, it was new territory for The Caboose as well as other small, local restaurants. The parking lot has spaces that have large numbered signs where the customers can park and then call the restaurant to notify them that they are now ready for the delivery of their order. As time progressed and the dining in option opened the need for curbside delivery became needed less and less. 

When you walk into The Caboose you immediately notice that social distancing and cleanliness is a high priority for the establishment. Even though certain PPE items such as certain types of gloves and sanitizers have seen a significant price increase, The Caboose has been and is providing a very safe and clean environment for their customers. In fact, O’Marra and Schwartzmiller both agreed that some of the safety and cleaning protocols that have become part of their new overall strategy will remain after the pandemic passes as part of their daily routine.

Promoting a business is important but maybe even more so during a Pandemic. Schwartzmiller admitted that the social media presence of The Caboose has increased significantly since COVID became an issue. Posting frequently on FaceBook has proven to be effective over the last several months and will be a strategy that will continue into the future long after the pandemic has passed. 

Customer service is perhaps the single most important marketing aspect of any business. The owners expressed their concern about how masks hide their server’s facial expressions from the customer. A few customers have even mistakenly thought that their servers were not as friendly as they should be even though the mask hid the server’s face. Ironically, this is a problem inherent with masks and one that nearly all of us face on a daily basis. Even so, the owners admitted that they thought that masks are going to be our “way of life” for some time and that these incidences will just have to dealt with on a one on one basis. 

Finally, although the volume of customers at The Caboose is not at the level that it was before the pandemic, O’Marra and Schwartzmiller believe that the 50% capacity restrictions will keep volume down in the short term. However, both owners acknowledged that there has been a slow but steady increase in volume over the last several weeks. My overall take from my time with the two owners of The Caboose is that both O’Marra and Schwartzmiller are very positive about the future and never once thought that COVID would spell doom for their operations. This positivity along with strategy adjustments and good old West Virginia resiliency have given a 50 plus year legacy the will and the ability to survive. I suggest you visit The Caboose and see for yourself, you’ll be glad you did. 

Jim Davis is an Assistant Professor in the School of Business at Fairmont State University. Mr. Davis specializes in Marketing and Small Business Management at Fairmont State. He has over 27 years of industry experience with companies such as Xerox, Bristol Myers Squibb, Johnson & Johnson, and JC Penney. Along with his years in industry, Mr. Davis is also a marketing consultant and has also owned several small businesses. 

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