Seasonal, small, and shifting: What does summer uncertainty mean for island and coastal businesses?

Claire Donnelly|Meghan Grabill, Ph.D.
Posted 2020-05-13

The coronavirus, the pandemic, the lock-downs, the general disruption to our lives and those of our neighbors, the severe impact on businesses (especially the small and extremely small): all of these developments are entwined and are wreaking havoc on our communities and our ability to plan for the future. Unlike other economic downturns, the economic fallout from the coronavirus was sudden and steep. Like other economic downturns, the amount of time it will last—and which is the right path out—is unknown.

The coast of Maine is a place of small businesses and self-employed operations. These businesses are the livelihood for so many families and residents along the coast. Around 18% of households along the coast depend on income from self-employed businesses. In some of the island and peninsula communities this number is over 50% (Waypoints: Connect). In Maine, over 75% of businesses have fewer than 10 employees, and this does not include the over 100,000 individual proprietorships in the state. As we look forward and try to identify what is needed, our creative and resilient small businesses may provide a clue.

On the coast of Maine, summer is the busy season with an influx of visitors and summer residents. The year-round population out on North Haven is about 350 residents, but in July and August this number nearly triples. The North Haven Brewing Co. is open year-round, but most of its business during the summer months takes place inside its tasting room. Their wholesale market is based mainly in the Midcoast, a region which includes North Haven, another island that also sees much of its business during the summer.  In a normal year, a business is making decisions about supplies, staffing needs, and other expenses as early as January. As summer approaches with great uncertainty, businesses like North Haven Brewing Co. have had to shift their usual business model, as co-owner Liz Lovell discusses in this recent interview.

Monhegan has a high influx of tourists on daytrips in the summer months, especially in July and August. This allows for their seasonal businesses to thrive, despite a very small year-round and summer population (around 69 year-round residents and 105 summer residents). However, this means the current pandemic is putting these businesses in a vulnerable position for the upcoming summer. 

La Nef Chocolate is located on Monhegan. For the most part, they have been able to rely on visitors to the island as the main source of purchasing power. The few inns and shops on the island stock La Nef’s chocolate, making sure one cannot miss the opportunity to buy the chocolate while on island. Unfortunately, as summer approaches with the likelihood of being nothing like past summers, the businesses on Monhegan have had to reassess. 

Dylan Metrano, who owns La Nef with his wife Mandy, notes that they have shifted their business online now. “Our website is our main portal of connection with the rest of the world, and the way that we will be selling our product as we shift our attention to retail rather than wholesale,” said Metrano. “Without a functioning website and retail portal, we would have almost no sales. Having a simple, easy-to-use website will make it easier for customers to keep coming back to support us.”

Even though many businesses are shifting to more online sales, this is particularly notable on an island 12 miles from the mainland. Reliable internet connections, shipping, and other logistics all add to the additional considerations necessary for a business to make this shift.

Small business owners need to have a diverse set of skills to be able to manage their business as well as the creativity to help it thrive. In small communities, they are often also wearing many different hats as family members, community leaders, and good neighbors. Alison Thibault, owner of WindHorse Arts in downtown Vinalhaven, is a self-employed business owner who is actively trying to master the new challenges this new economic climate is throwing at her. To hear about Alison’s business and her process of navigating and applying for federal stimulus programs, check out this interview from our Commercial Cuurents podcast series.

Also on Vinalhaven is William Drury, who owns and runs Maine Magic Mud, a skincare business. From the business’s inception William has had a goal to create local year-round employment opportunities. The ability to have another year-round employee would help with some of the workload of running a business. However, due to the seasonal nature of his business, he has been unable to keep someone on for the full year.

Like Monhegan and North Haven, Vinalhaven experiences a surge of people in the summer. It has a year-round population of about 1,150 that triples during the warmer months with summer residents and seasonal rentals. This constant flow of visitors to the island causes the ferry traffic to double. These tourists, visitors, and seasonal residents are hugely important for the businesses on Vinalhaven.

Drury notes, “Over the last year, I have hired several part-time people from the community to fulfill specific roles in the company for a specific amount of time. But the nature of our sales fluctuations has made it fiscally irresponsible to employ someone year-round.”

This has meant that William is the person who performs the many different functions of running the business as well as the creation of the product. He adds, “…and with that number of balls in the air, it is easy to let one fall to the ground. Succinctly speaking I think the hurdle is figuring out how to organize the business, and my time, as efficiently as possible.”

Like the other islands, the “Stay Safer at Home” order and the four stages of the “Restarting Maine’s Economy” plan mean that the normal flow of traffic to the Vinalhaven is unlikely to be even close to what it has been in past summers. In the past, William has been able to hire some additional help for the summer months, but with the uncertainty surrounding the summer now he won’t be able to hire anyone this spring. 

Businesses everywhere are being forced to rethink how they operate given current restrictions to protect the safety of all. For some businesses it has not been possible to shift their business model, but for others an effective assessment and quick action has allowed them to continue operations in a different way. Melissa Raftery and Megan Wood of 44 North Coffee in Deer Isle-Stonington were one such business that was able to pivot operations to an online and curbside pick-up platform. By expanding upon their social media presence, they have increased online sales allowing them to continue selling their product and protect the safety of workers and customers alike. To hear more about their business and how 44 North is working to adapt right now, listen to this interview with Melissa and Megan.

Other business owners are pivoting business models right now to adapt the products that they are offering during the pandemic. One example of this is Amanda Amoroso of Honey Bee Hill Art, a potter located in Rockport. She is shifting to incorporate a new product inspired by the change in lifestyle that many of us are experiencing.

Amanda’s normal product offerings are mainly tableware. But, because of the “Stay Safer at Home” orders and the closure of many restaurants, people started requesting specialty items from her during a time where they find themselves baking and cooking from home more regularly. She noted, “Folks are now buying flour in bulk; spending much more quality time baking and making their own food. And their needs are reflecting that.”

Recently, Amanda was commissioned to make a flour storage vessel capable of holding fifty pounds of flour. And after posting the vessel on social media, people began to special order storage/baking items from her. Amanda said that she will now pivot the majority of her production “from small tableware items to the most recently requested large-scale items specific to the Covid kitchen lifestyle.”

The shifting of a business model to respond to a crisis takes creativity, passion, and sometimes a little extra cash flow. Le Nef Chocolate, Honey Bee Hill Art, WindHorse Arts, and Maine Magic Mud have all been recipients of the Business Resilience Grants available through the Small Business program at the Island Institute. This extra boost during times requiring quick action and tough decisions can make a difference in a businesses’ ability to pivot and meet the challenge.

An essential component enabling of all these businesses to adapt to the changing economic environment is internet access. While access to high-speed, reliable internet in remote areas like the islands along the coast of Maine isn’t always a guaranteed luxury, it is the only option the businesses have. Many of the businesses have been able to use their internet access to find new markets to sell their goods, while others have either leveraged their social media following or created an online presence to help increase sales. Some have even used internet access to help pivot their business model and sell in ways that they previously hadn’t utilized before, like curbside pick-up and home delivery options. In many areas of Maine, access to high-speed, reliable internet is still lacking, but if properly available and operating it can make the difference for the business operations of many.

These stories, and other similar stories, provide the foundation for our advocacy work. Sharing what we are seeing across the coast as businesses and communities face this crisis with our Congressional Delegation helps identify issues, challenges, and ultimately informs policy solutions.

To learn more about our advocacy work on behalf of Maine’s island and coastal small businesses, read our recent letter to Maine’s Federal Delegation here. To learn more about the interviews and resources referenced above, please follow the links below.

Additional resources