During Big Gig’s first ever virtual pitch-off last week, competition was close for three local entrepreneurs fully embracing the new COVID business buzzword, pivot. Each business – Mossy Ledge Spirits, Coffee Hound, and The Good Crust – presented to a panel of expert "Big Wig" judges during a live stream how they adapted their existing business model to stay relevant and sustainable during the global pandemic.
The event was streamed over both Zoom and Facebook Live. Judges Dr. Edison Liu (President and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory), Mike Ballesteros (Director of Diagnostic and Medical Products Manufacturing for Puritan Medical Products) and Julene Gervais (Host of Greenlight Maine), along with virtual Zoom attendees voted for the winners.
The first place winner, and recipient of $2500 from event sponsor Machias Savings Bank, was Jennifer Litteral of Coffee Hound. Litteral first launched her business in 2013 as a coffee shop in Bar Harbor and has since done more than $3 million in sales. During the past year, pre-COVID, she had already taken significant steps to diversify and scale her cafe-based business by licensing the cafe-brand to Sunday River Ski Resort and opening an industrial coffee roasting facility in Brewer.
But she never imagined a pandemic might derail her plans. In May she made the difficult decision to close the Bar Harbor location for the season to protect the health of her employees and community. The cafe had historically brought in 70% of the business income. So as she leaned away from the service-based business, she leaned in – all the way in – to her new manufacturing facility.
Citing data on the rise of people working from home and their desire for a luxury coffee experience that rivals their favorite coffee shops, it is clear Litteral has tapped new veins of caffeinated-consumption. Her online sales have increased 500% since April and, thanks to new wholesale partnerships, the Coffee Hound brand is now in 45 stores, as well as seven Hannaford locations statewide and cold brew on-tap at Geaghan Bros. Individuals can now brew Coffee Hound in their Keurig coffee makers at home and other brands have access to private label manufacturing. Leveraging its position as woman-owned business, Coffee Hound is even competing for government wholesale contracts.
While Coffee Hound took home the grand prize, both Mossy Ledge Spirits and The Good Crust were awarded $1500 and $1000 respectively for their successful business adaptations in this time of COVID. When Mossy Ledge Spirits' revenue stream from their Etna tasting-room took a significant hit due to the mandatory closure, owner Jesse Lupo secured partnerships to begin making hand sanitizer to assist with the state's supply shortage. And with the closure of many restaurants due to COVID resulting in an uptick in at-home baking, Heather Kerner of The Good Crust rapidly added retail sales of her frozen whole wheat pizza crusts to reach fans in their home kitchens.
Following her win, Litteral reflected on what she and her fellow entrepreneurs have been facing during this difficult period. "I think by definition entrepreneurs are flexible and pivoting is something we do normally on a very small scale. Not to diminish the scale of pivoting we have all been doing through COVID - it has not been easy by any means and there have been so many losses and likely more to come in its wake."
Planning paired with a willingness to adapt that plan is a key trait of any successful business leader according to Renee Kelley, assistant vice president for innovation and economic development for the University of Maine, and UpStart Maine board member.
UpStart Maine is a coalition of programs, including Big Gig, and organizations striving to build the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Greater Bangor Region. Upstart Maine works to build a community that fuels entrepreneurship from within by filling the gaps in the entrepreneurial landscape, forging connections with the larger community, and connecting startups with the people, services, and resources they need. To involve your business in any of the UpStart programs or to align your established business with UpStart to support Maine's entrepreneurial landscape, visit UpstartMaine.org for more information.
This article is made possible in part by a generous grant from the Maine Technology Institute, supporting UpStart Maine’s effort to increase awareness of its programs and facilities available to start-up entrepreneurs in the Bangor Region.